On August 1, 1981 at 12:01 am, just a little more than a few thousand people in Northern New Jersey tuned in to a local TV cable network and heard the words, “Ladies and gentlemen, Rock n’ Roll.” An electric guitar theme song followed, complete with a new-era radio wave beeping sound that would grow to be recognized as the universal sound for expletive editing (‘bleeeeeep’ yeah!).
On the screen, the people watched as a re-edited montage of the Apollo 11 moon landing unfolded, only this time, the familiar stars and stripes in the moon’s surface had been replaced by a bright pink flag with the graffiti spray-painted letters “MTV.” The point was not missed on its audience; the most famous television moment in history was being parodied by a new youth movement claiming territorial rights to the television medium. TV was no longer for the political, the intellectual, or the historic, it was as the new bubblegum.
The first official music video ever aired on MTV was (it should come as no surprise) The Buggles “Video Killed the Radio Star“. The reason I placed the word “official” in italics is because the beginning of MTV was not the beginning of the music video. The first official music video (that is, a piece of film produced and edited to a song entirely of its own, for promotional purposes, that was not an excerpt from a live performance or other piece of cinema) was D.A. Pennebaker’s clip of Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues”. It is a video that has been charicaturized over and over again, and is commonly identified by music and film buffs alike. You know the one: an uninterested Bob Dylan standing firm in place with a sequence of title cards that he flips to the ground as the lyrics of the song ramble out.
Pennebaker’s video created new grounds for music-mediums and became the benchmark for record company promotional filmmaking. Band managers and large corporate labels eventually bought into the idea that music does not have to be limited to vinyl and radio. “The more we can get our stars on the screen, the more records and films we will sell” gradually became the mantra of music corporate giants. Just look at the number of films Elvis Presley and the Beatles did in the 1960s. Remember, these are the days before home entertainment, so the small song clips like “Subterranean Homesick Blues” were an agent to sell concert tickets and albums, not advertising space or merchandise.
When the home entertainment industry began to take off in the late seventies and early eighties, large record companies were now able to sell new material of their top artists. The formula was a no-brainer: the more VHS videos put together of concert footage, interviews, and song clips made available for sale, the more kids will buy albums and pay for concerts. Borrowing from the golden triad philosophy of real estate, music marketing began banking on “exposure, exposure, exposure.”
By 1981, “iso-topical” television networks were a novel idea. CNN airing 24-hour news coverage was only one year old, and ESPN with its 24-hour sports was two. A 24-hour music station seemed the next logical step. Like all major successes in industry, it started small. A couple of awkward and nervous VJs would spend hours of airtime introducing any musical clip the small network was able to get their hands on. What is most interesting is that it was usually not a “made for TV/video” segment.
Yet MTV fought on, promoting any new pop music they could through a mosaic of live footage, interviews, or promo clips they were able to acquire. It was not long before record companies recognized the potential for MTV to provide large capital gains to their corporations, so they began investing in both the station financially and into young filmmakers artistically who were summoned to shoot and produce ‘MTV-specific’ promotional videos.
To be continued… (Next week BTR will take a look at how MTV grew as a pop-culture phenomenon, came to be the definitive metaphor for an entire generation, and how reality television has risen to overshadow and ultimately ruin the music-video genre).
Link to this article:
– Kory French