Twenty-five years ago this week, for better or for worse, MTV was born. This is not always your father’s National Review here on NRO, so some of us have fond (some guilty) memories of the early days with Jack and Diane.
And, yes: That was back when they actually played videos, not The Newlyweds road to divorce. It’s been quite the Journey.
Sure, for some (many?), MTV’s arrival was a Poison Arrow — simple as ABC, right? — but others of us know You Can Do Magic with Bette Davis Eyes.
Sorry, sorry. But It Hurts So Good.
I know, I know: Don’t Dream It’s Over, right?
But for just One [25-anniversary] Moment in Time (yeah, yeah, that was Whitney in the 90s, wasn’t it?), we’ve gathered a group who Don’t Fear the Reaper. It’s In the Air Tonight, so we’re just being timely.
In truth, like so much, MTV has been a mixed cocktail. Here we offer some mostly light flashbacks — and a sense that at least in its 25-years-ago form, it wasn’t quite the end of the world as we know it. — Kathryn Jean Lopez
I was an offensive music snob when MTV first went on the air (and remain one today). I devoured Britain’s New Musical Express every week, worked in a record store, and had a shelf-collapsing record collection featuring everything from the Buzzcock’s Spiral Scratch to George Jones’s Greatest Hits to Albert Ayler’s free-form sax explorations. So MTV, with its insipid, moronic videos of no-talents like Pat Benatar and REO Speedwagon, sickened me.
I not only watched MTV 25 years ago, I was actually watching the moment it came on the air and saw the legendary first video, “Video Killed the Radio Star.” I was a student at NYU at the time, and MTV proto-VJ Martha Quinn lived in the same dorm as I did. I was quite sweet on her, and she thought my name was Wayne. Anyway, we were all somehow aware of the impending cultural explosion that was MTV, so I knew when it was debuting and tuned in. Living in New York at the time and being deeply immersed in the music scene, I couldn’t help but notice the dramatic effect videos were already having on the industry. Local dance club (is it still?) the Ritz showed videos on Monday nights, and we all could get in for a dollar. A certain New Wave band had a song called “Girls on Film” that grabbed a lot of attention, though one could hardly call it conservative.
— Warren Bell, an NRO contributor, is show runner for ABC’s According to Jim. In 2005, he wrote for NRO about meeting Kevin Rowland, lead singer of Dexy’s Midnight Runners (and having nothing to say).
It must be said that I began watching MTV at the very beginning of my junior-high-school experience at the age of twelve. I would watch videos some days for eight hours straight, mesmerized by the smooth VJ transition — Mark Goodman to J.J. Jackson (R.I.P.) to Martha Quinn to Alan Hunter to Nina Blackwood. However, at the time I never looked at MTV through an ideological lens. In hindsight, of course, everything was political — starting with MTV newser Kurt Loder (1907 – ). He’s MTV’s Castro, still hanging on by a thread.
But back to the music…
A conservative move on early MTV’s part was not showing the uncensored videos of David Bowie’s “China Girl’ (which showed Bowie and China Girl’s bare backsides as they frolicked on a beach) and Duran Duran’s “Girls on Film” (an all-girl mud wrestling match). Had to go to USA Networks weekend late show Night Flight to see those. And I did. I’m not that conservative. (And, I could be wrong, but I think the “China Girl” is actually the grandmother of a kid in my son’s first-grade class. I could be mistaken.)
Anyway… here are some of my favorite now-that-I-think-about-it, ex-post-facto MTV conservative hits:
“Born in the USA” — Regardless of his politics, I have always loathed The Boss. I hate the sound, the lyrics, the attitude. Hell, he ain’t my “boss,” dammit! But now that I know that “Born in the USA” was crafted as an anti-Reagan anthem, I’m comforted to know that most of the world mistook it as a pro-American anthem. And I’m glad it [ticks] off The Boss off to this day.
“Papa Don’t Preach” — Madonna didn’t have an abortion that time. But for her, that was a positive step. And The Corner wasn’t around back then to reinforce the choice. Sure there have been some setbacks since then: Endorsing Wesley Clark. Carlos Leon. Kaballah. But we need to give her as much positive reinforcement as her father in that video, Danny Aiello, never did.
“Girlfriend in a Coma” — Morrissey tried the traditional lifestyle but like all things in his life it ended tragically.
“Freedom” — I can only imagine why George Michael wanted to open up China to Western influence. Suffice to say they were different than mine.
“Don’t Pay the Ferryman” — I take Chris DeBurgh’s lesson — not to tender payment to ferrymen until they get you to the other side — well beyond its parochial implications. “Ferryman” is clearly a metaphor for something. I just never figured out what that something was. So instead of throwing the message away, I learned to apply it to most anything. For instance, I use the catchy hook to remind me when to do what at the point of sale experience. After they’ve rung something up, bam, I’m there with payment. Simple life lessons. Wisdom set to music. Thank you, MTV!
The thing I remember most fondly about the early days of MTV was that they actually played music videos. That was it. All music all the time. I don’t remember any conservative videos per se. But I remember seeing Depeche Mode for the first time. In the beginning they really had good taste in music. They played bands that got little radio play like Squeeze and Madness. It really was a visual radio station. I personally would like to thank MTV for giving Beavis and Butthead the exposure that they deserved.
— Allen Covert is a writer, actor, and producer at Happy Madison. Covert played Sammy (and wore a red Michael Jackson jacket — just like the one in the “Billie Jean” video) in the comedic ode to the Eighties, The Wedding Singer.
I did watch MTV not long after it first went on the air, but I can’t think of any conservative videos. The closest one would be “They Don’t Know,” by Tracey Ullman, the end of which shows her with a small child and another one on the way, having run off with the boyfriend her parents warned her against. She seems to be making do with a difficult monetary situation — walking down the supermarket aisle in her fuzzy housewife slippers, dreaming she could run off with Paul McCartney — but at least she stayed with the father of her kids.
— Dawn Eden edits “Big Town, Big Heart” for the New York Daily News.
The first video I remember really digging as a kid discovering MTV was Midnight Oil’s “Beds Are Burning.” A political junkie at an early age, I had some idea that the song was about aboriginal land rights, but really enjoyed the bald guy busting the white-guy outback moves in the video. But what really got me transfixed to the MTV was the dawn of Guns ‘N’ Roses — Appetite for Destruction was one of the best rock albums of all time, and there was nothing quite like watching Axl Rose inhabit “Welcome to the Jungle.”
When I was 13, the key age for MTV immersion, it was all about Headbanger’s Ball and Yo! MTV Raps. The Ball taught me that it’s really cool to have long hair, but reminded me it’s also good to comb it. Back then was rap’s heyday, fun and dance-worthy, groundbreaking stuff that’s branded old-school today but walks all over 50 Cent. The most conservative video I remember would be MC Hammer’s “Pray” — what kid was going to bump and grind to a rap about thanking God, accompanied by a gospel choir? And to this day it’s the hip-hop artists who still thank the Lord when picking up their Grammys.
S. T. Karnick
I did watch MTV when it began 25 years ago, and it was quite an eye-opener. The most striking characteristic of the new channel was the frankly cheap and dismal quality of both the videos themselves and the “original” programming surrounding them. The videos were clearly shot on shoestring budgets, with lots of lip-synched footage of bands performing beside swimming pools or on the tops of mountains or tall buildings, and the concepts were equally uninventive. Watching Dexy’s Midnight Runners cavorting through Dublin’s streets was about as adventurous as things usually got. The use of “veejays” to introduce the clips was not exactly a spectacular innovation, and the hosts the channel employed — ditzy blonde woman, relatively stable brunette female, shaggy-haired males, etc. — were distinguished mainly by a stunning lack of charisma. In addition, the American Bandstand format, in which audience members danced onstage while the videos played, had already been old hat for nearly two decades.
Yet despite all these weaknesses, it was fun, and anyone interested in popular music could forgive the visual shortcomings. Pop music at that time was energetic, inventive, and tuneful, and it was good to have a place where one could see talented and entertaining bands such as Squeeze, Van Halen, Talking Heads, and Queen on a regular basis. Visual media presentations had always been a big part of rock music, from Elvis Presley’s appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show on through A Hard Day’s Night and ahead to Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert and other such programs. MTV was the natural next step. The videos became increasingly sophisticated as the record companies realized their potential as sales tools, and the cheesy in-house programming became less of a distraction. Some of the videos were really very entertaining and stood up to multiple viewings. Even non-rock performers such as Herbie Hancock had hit tunes that became successful largely because of their clever videos on MTV and other rock video outlets. All too soon, however, as a result of the music industry’s discovery of the videos’ marketing value, MTV became too much of a slick, big-business enterprise, and the charm was lost. That’s all too often the way of things in popular culture, but it was fun while it lasted.
The most conservative video I remember was the first one ever shown on the network: “Video Killed the Radio Star,” by the Buggles. There it was all laid out for us from the start: Technology would change things, and although we would benefit from the innovations, we would miss much that we had enjoyed previously. That’s a fine, capsule description of the insight behind modern conservatism.
What Lawrence Welk was to Granddad MTV is to grandchild. And like Dick Clark MTV has grown up. Clearasil ads have now been replaced by Rogaine but rock’n’roll lives forever!
— Jack Kingston is a Republican congressman from Georgia.
“Papa Don’t Preach” with Madonna and Danny Aiello was a profound, moving, pro-life and pro-family video for which Madge deserves her props. It was practically an anthem — “I’m keeping my baby!” And no one was dragged across state lines to have an abortion.
— Susan Konig is author of Why Animals Sleep So Close to the Road (And Other Lies I Tell My Children), available in paperback next week.
I remember MTV. I remember being confused by it — I was kind of the nerd in those days (even still, my wife’s efforts to the contrary notwithstanding). I don’t remember any conservative songs really. What I do remember is being actually frightened by several early videos, like “Mr. Roboto” by Styx, the imagery was just weird. And before long this weirdness — 99 Luftbaloons-style — was being imitated by my friends. The weirder the better was the rule.
When one goes to MTV now, you can’t get music videos anymore, but rather shows like Pimp My Ride. You want role models for the young, inspired by rock music and burgeoning talent on television? Then head for the amateurs — shows on other networks like American Idol. For professional production, class, and values, you gotta go to VH1 Country, CMT, or GAC where you get patriotism, faith, family — and, yes, a lot of fun. I think in the end, MTV has been somewhere between a net zero to a net negative, except in what it may have inspired on other networks. But alone, it’s a cultural bomb.
Kathryn Jean Lopez
Yes, indeed, there was “Papa Don’t Preach” — has the Vatican forgotten?
But some MTV standards back in the day were a few crucial steps ahead of the Material Girl. Even when on La Isla Bonita, they were all about avoiding “an awful mess,” staying far away from “trouble deep.” Who can forget abstinence anthems “Let’s Wait Awhile” (Janet Jackson pre-wardrobe malfunction) and “We Don’t Have to Take Our Clothes Off” by the late Jermaine Stewart (cherry-wine sales spiked among the college crowd, I’m sure)?
I’d pretend George Michael’s “Choose Life” t-shirt in the Wham! video for “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” was anti-abortion, but these days I could see him turning Simply Red and singing “If You Don’t Know Me By Now.”
And, please, Alan Hunt (and Dweezil! Remember Dweezil Zappa’s time served as a VJ with sister Moon Unit?), forgive Brian Anderson’s sacrilege. But we, of course, know painfully well by now that Love Is a Battlefield.
You can see why I’m fond of a decade when it was Hip to be Square.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is the editor of National Review Online who once posted a reader’s concert photo of Simon Le Bon on “The Corner” even while insisting on prohibiting Star Trek references.
Joseph C. Phillips
I am perhaps not the ideal writer to address this cultural milestone. When MTV was born I was past my teenage years and my musical tastes tended towards artists like Al Jarreau, Weather Report, Pat Metheny, and George Benson. These were not typical MTV artists. Nor apparently were some of the R&B artists I enjoyed. In the early days of MTV R&B artists were few and far between.
Admittedly I was also a bit of a square. I never really understood the idea of a music video. Far from being interesting they seemed more like nightmares put to music and recorded on film. With few exceptions I found myself watching MTV with my mouth agape thinking, “what the—-?”
The times changed, however, and my appreciation for the video genre and the network grew.
The catalyst for my growth and perhaps my fondest memory of MTV is the day the network began airing the videos from Michael Jackson’s hit album Thriller. Until that time black artists had to beg MTV for airtime. There was, however, no denying Jackson. Jackson had not yet become a walking carnival sideshow attraction (even if the hair at that time did seem a bit greasy) and was the biggest thing in music — the biggest personality in entertainment. His fans, which in those years seemed to be just about everyone, waited with bated breath for the release of each new video. Do you remember where you were when the video for “Thriller” debuted?” Jackson’s work stood heads and shoulders above the rest of the fare offered on the station and ushered in a new era of music-video production. To keep pace other artists were forced to raise production values and increase budgets for their videos. The days of low-budget nightmares were officially over.
Jackson’s success gives credence to the notion that the marketplace has the power to transform our culture. The audience demanded Jackson and was soon demanding other black artists. MTV responded by airing the program Yo MTV Raps. MTV Raps was soon the highest-rated program on the network exposing artists to a much wider buying audience then they had previously known. The face of MTV has continued to change. Artists like Missy Elliot, 50 Cent, Mary J. Blige, and others that in the early days would have been missing in action are now a frequent if not dominating presence on the network.
The videos played on MTV also provided a training ground for young directors. David Fincher, Jonathan Glazer, Sanaa Hamri, Spike Jonze, and Hype Williams all got their start working on music videos. For better or worse their style — the fast cuts and offbeat angles — are now staples in mainstream feature films.
MTV has also had an impact on what we watch on television. The network did not invent reality television, however, they brought panache and flair to the genre that has helped to shape it. Programs like The Real World, Pimp My Ride, MTV Cribs, and Made have spawned knock-offs on other cable stations and the major networks as well.
From the moment Michael Jackson’s video “Billie Jean” appeared on the screen the world of entertainment was changed forever. And I found myself watching MTV all the time. Who can forget Run-DMC in “The King of Rock”? Robert Palmer’s video for “Addicted To Love?” MC Hammer and “U Can’t touch This?” Or Madonna’s “Vogue?” Much to my wife’s dismay I will turn to Made on Saturday mornings and I am a loyal viewer of The Real World.
Oh Yes. My second fondest memory of MTV is the first time I saw En Vogue sashay across the screen in those short, slinky, silver skirts in the video “My Lovin’ (You’re Never Gonna Get It.).” I need oxygen just thinking about it.
Happy 25th MTV!
William H. Pryor Jr.
One of my fondest memories of college life was watching MTV. Our college installed cable in the dorms my sophomore year (1981-82). Many of my friends back then were musicians, but not rockers. Most of us played in the university band and orchestra. I still remember one friend, a chemistry major, who regularly watched MTV with the television sound off (no mute button then) while he listened to orchestral music. You have not experienced MTV like he did until you watch it while listening to the music of Arnold Schoenberg. A conservative favorite of College Republicans back then was “Rock the Casbah” by The Clash, but that was long before 9/11. The guys wanted to invite our favorite VJ, Martha Quinn, on a date, and the gals all liked Alan Hunter from Birmingham, Alabama.
I was five when MTV debuted, so I’m part of the first generation practically raised by MTV. This was back when MTV defined cool, and the likes of Van Halen, Dire Straits, Pat Benatar, Journey, and Huey Lewis ruled the airwaves. True classics all. I still remember where I was when I first saw Robert Palmer’s “Addicted To Love” video.
Not overtly conservative, those videos had the optimistic, ultracompetitive, flashy, work-hard/play-hard ‘80s culture that we all miss. Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” was a perfect libertarian anthem that should become a presidential campaign theme. Conservatism was found in Georgia Satellite’s “Keep Your Hands To Yourself;” Pet Shop Boys “Let’s Make Lots of Money;” and Living Colour’s “Cult of Personality.” Also Wham’s “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” had those “Choose Life” shirts (plus the hilarity of George Michael’s bright pink shirt and flamboyant dancing). Thanks to VH-1 Classic, the ‘80s will, like, never die.
— Brian Riedl is Grover M. Hermann Fellow for Federal Budgetary Affairs for the Heritage Foundation.
Cheryl Felicia Rhoads
I never really watched MTV, even 25 years ago. Even then I thought it was obnoxious, and a clear sign of the impending apocalypse. Although, it is said that Michael Nesmith, former member of The Monkees, actually helped start the ball rolling for MTV by producing a music video called “Elephant Parts .” As a practicing Republican, that title intrigued me. Perhaps that counts as a conservative video. Then, I will admit I was later mesmerized by Christopher Walken’s notable dance performance in the 2001 Fatboy Slim’s “Weapon of Choice” video. Who amongst us could resist Walken tap-dancing around the lobby of the Marriott Hotel in Los Angeles?
— Cheryl Felicia Rhoads is an actress, writer, and Monkees fan.
I cannot remember when I first caught a glimpse of MTV, it would have been some time in the mid-80s, and to any one brought up on Top of Pops (any Brits reading this will understand), it was a revelation, sometimes a delight, and, at its best, it could be very smart. Political and cultural impact? Well, let’s just say it probably didn’t advance the cause of social conservatism. Oh well.
As for what it’s showing now, I’ve no idea. I switched to VH-1 some time after the fall of Beavis and Butthead and before the rise of “Rock the Vote.” Now, of course, I just stick to Lawrence Welk reruns.
— Andrew Stuttaford is an NRO contributor who writes from New York.