“Don’t watch that -- WATCH THIS!”
As a 9 year old just starting to have sleepovers at my friends houses in 1982, there were really only three things on any given Friday night agenda: drink as much soda as possible; play Dungeons and Dragons until dawn; and no matter what happens, keep the television locked on MTV.
Yes, I am of the graying cohort that pines for the days the MTV played music videos and only music videos. The cohort that remembers exactly where they were when they first saw the “Thriller” video. My aging brethren and I have been lamenting this loss for so long, there are now two or three (who’s counting?) generations that have no memory at all of what we’re talking about, who consider Total Request Live, Singled Out, and Road Rules the golden age of the channel.
Biography: I Want My MTV is an engaging walk down memory lane for Gen-Xers like myself, who remember the low-budget videos for “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” and “Rio” and “Whip It” and (my personal favorite) “Hot for Teacher” as formative, essential cultural moments, and who can rattle off the names of the original 5 VJs (that’s video jockeys, kids) without Googling: Mark Goodman, Alan Hunter, JJ Jackson, Nina Blackwood, and Martha Quinn.
It’s also a fascinating historical document, both for the folks who might be interested in this bygone era they have only heard about, and those of us who remember but were too young to appreciate the crazy, unlikely origin story that birthed what’s become a bedrock of youth culture, told by the people who were there and more than a few of the rock stars who saw its potential and rode it to the top, including Sting, Billy Idol, the Eurythmics, Pat Benatar, Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo, and more.
It all started with former Monkee Michael Nesmith, whose hit TV series was a conscious rip-off of the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night. Nesmith, a solo act in the late 70s, made a goofy promo film for his song “Rio,” and got such a great response to it that he hit on an idea: to do a TV show comprised entirely of these shorts. He called it Popclips and shopped it around to TV executives, including John Lack, who saw its potential in part as an untapped demographic, in part because basic cable circa 1980 had little to no original programming, in part because there was nothing for teenagers on TV anywhere.
Nesmith put together a pilot episode of Popclips, Lack ran it as a test on the nascent Nickelodeon network, and suddenly the idea was upgraded from TV series to entire network. Here the documentary gets into some interesting details such as the origin of the now-iconic animated MTV logo; how the new channel’s shoestring budget dictated its aesthetic (the moon landing footage that became central to MTV’s identity was used because it was public domain); how the channel initially played literally any video it could get its hands on, because not many artists were making them; the early struggle to get the channel carried in major markets (employees had to cross the river and watch the channel’s launch in New Jersey, because it wasn’t available in New York); how that early struggle led to enlisting Mick Jagger and Pete Townshend to do “I Want My MTV” spots for free (actually, Mick did it for a dollar); and how the “I Want My MTV” campaign snowballed until reaching its apotheosis by being quoted in Dire Straits’ smash hit “Money For Nothing.”
By then the channel had become a major cultural force, its on-air talent had become stars, its quick-cut visual style had started to show up in big-budget movies, kids were dressing like the rock stars they saw in the videos, and the channel itself was wildly profitable, largely because it didn’t have to pay for the bulk of its programming -- record labels were financing the incereasigly creative/expensive videos in hopes of goosing record sales, and then had to hope that MTV, now deluged with videos, would deign to play them.
The story is bookended by MTV’s acquisition by Viacom, which coincided with a decline in ratings as videos became increasingly formulaic and stale, even as labels were shelling out feature-film budgets to produce them, and by the first season of The Real World, which began a whole new era, a new approach to programming, and the beginning of the end for music videos. (I still miss them.) But this doc provides glimpses of all the classics and a great starting point for a deep YouTube dive, and a highly pleasurable stroll down memory lane.
Biography: I Want My MTV premieres September 7 on A&E.