June 1 – The Turntable Talk, Round 3 – Growing Up MTV-less

Today we continue our third instalment of Turntable Talk, where we’re happy to have some fellow music fans and writers weigh in on music subjects. Hopefully you were able to take a look at our first couple of topics, Why we’re still talking about the Beatles, and then the Pros and Cons of Live Albums. Today, we are asking “Did Video Kill the Radio Star?” The Beatles began making music videos as early as about 1966, and Britain had a few TV shows featuring videos weekly in the ’70s but in the ’80s, the form took flight with the appearance of MTV and all-day videos in the U.S. Love ’em or hate ’em, they undeniably altered the music world as we knew it. So what are the thoughts on the music video? Today we welcome Christian, from Christian’s Music Musings, who grew up apart from MTV. He tells us:

Did Video Kill the Radio Star?

Thanks for inviting me back to “Turntable Talk”, Dave. I enjoy your series, and I’m happy to share more of my thoughts!

At first, I wasn’t quite sure how to approach the topic of ‘80s music videos and MTV. While the name MTV had been hammered into my brain since 1985 when Dire Straits’ Money For Nothing was all over German radio, my first exposure to music videos didn’t happen until early 1993 when I came to the U.S. At my parents’ house back in Germany, we didn’t have cable until the early ‘90s, so essentially missed the ‘80s MTV era.

When I finally had the opportunity to watch music videos on TV in the U.S., I ended up embracing VH1, not MTV. And for the most part, it wasn’t for music videos but for their Behind the Music documentary series, which I loved.

When to comes to music, to me, it’s always been first and foremost about melody, sound and musicianship. Lyrics tend to be secondary. Videos rank a distant third. I’m speaking in broad strokes now.

There’s no doubt in my mind that MTV and music videos have had a huge impact on the music industry. And as you’d expect, it’s a mixed bag. Initial criticism of the channel for largely ignoring artists of color was justified, though fortunately by the mid-’80s things started to change.

MTV kickstarted the breakthroughs of artists like Cindy Lauper and Whitney Houston; and of course, The Buggles whose Video Killed the Radio Star was the very first video played on the channel. MTV also boosted the careers of already-established artists like Madonna, Michael Jackson and Prince.

Moreover, the channel had a role in popularizing genres beyond pop. For example, their heavy rotation of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit brought grunge to a broader audience. It also isn’t surprising that the compelling combination of audio and video helped music become part of Hollywood. It boosted the popularity of big ‘80s soundtracks like Flashdance (1983), Footloose (1984) and Top Gun (1986). I leave it up to you to decide whether that’s a net positive or negative.

During my reading that inspired some of the content of this post, I came across a series of interviews the PBS program Frontline conducted for a May 2004 documentary titled The Way the Music Died. I haven’t watched it (though it sounds interesting) but read some of the interviews. The following excerpts offer some additional perspectives I thought were worthwhile sharing:

Music journalist Touré Neblett: “I mean, Duran Duran — were they a great group? I don’t think so. I mean they had some great songs. I love “Rio,” I love “Girls On Film,” but this is not a great group. But they were one of the first big video groups that really thrived in the MTV era because they looked good.”

HITS Magazine co-founder and editor-in-chief Leonard J. Beer: “MTV is the most powerful force that’s probably ever happened in the music business. You can make a star overnight if they make the right video, and if the right magic happens. It also burns them out quicker. You know, you saw somebody like Pearl Jam who had the biggest videos on MTV for years and then all of a sudden they decided they didn’t want to be on MTV anymore because they felt it was hurting their long-term career.”

Entertainment Attorney Michael Guido: “I think MTV was the beginning of the end for the recorded music business, in that it solidified a mindset that exalted marketing over substance… It became only about a three-minute single and a visual image, and if you didn’t have the three minutes you were over…Once that corner was turned, we started on the path that has led us to this moment here, where kids are treating music as disposable.”

Music industry executive Danny Goldberg: “I think that the emergence of the music video has just expanded the palette of tools available to artists to connect with an audience. I know when I worked with Nirvana, Kurt Cobain cared as much about the videos as he did about the records. He wrote the scripts for them, he was in the editing room, and they were part of his art. And I think they stand up as part of his art, and I think that’s true of the great artists today. Not every artist is a great artist and not every video is a good video, but in general having it available as a tool, to me, adds to the business.”

Finally, I’d like to provide some thoughts about my favorite ‘80s music video. As I was thinking about it, the first videos that came to mind were Michael Jackson’s Thriller for its over-the-top mini horror movie production, Genesis’ Land of Confusion because of the amazing puppets of band members and various politicians; and a-ha’s Take On Me with its artistically compelling integration of cartoons and animations.

But, as I said before, when it comes to music, to me, it’s first and foremost about melody, sound and musicianship. With that priority keeping in mind as well, my favorite ‘80s music video is Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer, a song I dig to this day. Yes, it’s definitely a pretty busy clip that at times can even make you dizzy. Still, I love the way how it’s done.

According to this article from April 2016, the filming required Gabriel to lay under a glass sheet for over 16 hours! But he’s convinced it was all worth it, and that without the video the song wouldn’t have become a hit. Numbers don’t lie. “Sledgehammer” reached no. 1 in the U.S. on the Billboard Hot 100, knocking “Invisible Touch” by his former bandmates from Genesis off the top spot. The single also topped the Canadian charts. Elsewhere, among others, it climbed to no. 3 in Australia, Ireland and New Zealand, and no. 4 in the UK. Oh, and it also became MTV’s most played video of all time!


46 thoughts on “June 1 – The Turntable Talk, Round 3 – Growing Up MTV-less

  1. thanks Christian, you did a lot of research on this one! I hope to get to the articles and interviews you presented, they do look interesting. I completely agree with you on ‘sledgehammer’ being the best video made (his follow-up ‘Big Time’ isn’t far behind either) … it’s a great song which deserved to be a worldwide hit, but it might not have been without the video and its high rotation play on MTV, MuchMusic and probably other video stations around the world. You touched on something interesting too in the 80s movies… they were well aware in the 70s what a big soundtrack could do for a movie (‘Grease’ anybody?) but with video they were able to basically do huge-scale, free advertising for their films via the music channels… so I’m sure producers quickly learned to make a soundtrack and big theme song an absolute necessity . Even if the film didn’t necessarily warrant it.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks! I had forgotten about the video for “Big Time”. Like “Sledgehammer”, it’s pretty cool artistically.

      Since I didn’t have access to the MTV videos at the time “So” came out, I can definitely say I loved that album and still do because of the music, not the videos.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. yes, it was a really good album, and I think it would have done better than anything else he’d done before (especially in the US) but I doubt it would have been as big without those videos, because it really introduced a lot of people to him.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. You’re probably right. Plus, I think it’s also fair to say “So” had a more mainstream/ commercial sound than Gabriel’s earlier albums. So I guess it was a combination of the two, video rotation on MTV and songs that were more accessible to a broader audience.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Badfinger (Max)

    The Peter Gabriel song in reality shouldn’t have needed a great video to hit…but at that time it helped. Now when a great artist does it with a great song… I don’t have a problem with it… it’s when the video is THE tool that sells a song and not the song itself is when it got out of hand.

    I look through youtube for lesser videos and no wonder why many songs are not remembered today from this time.

    Liked by 3 people

      1. Badfinger (Max)

        …and I grew up with it! It was exciting Christian when it came on…I would stay up all night just watching music videos… but as time went on it got old…and like you…I liked VH1 more.

        Liked by 2 people

    1. True enough. It’s hard to measure how much impact the video had for ‘Sledgehammer.’ He was already known in the States, but not ‘big’… ‘Shock the Monkey’ was a minor hit and I think by then Classic Rock stations had picked up on ‘solsbury hill’ retroactively. And to me, ‘So’ (Sledgehammer especially) was as good as anything he’d done and more commercial. So it probably would have been a hit, maybe top 10 or so, but I doubt it would have been massive or the album got so much attention if not for the video, particularly here. In Britain, Europe, Canada, he was a bit better known anyway.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Badfinger (Max)

        That was a case where a video was used right…it didn’t have to sell the song as much as many of them did. The song sold itself but the video tipped it over.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Ah! Now I know what your favorite PG video is. Your post made me think back to the MTV years, and it was my kids much more than me that watched it. I should ask them whether it was music videos that got them interested in particular bands or if they heard them in other ways and became interested. Like I said in my post, I like all PG videos. Radiohead is another band that has extremely creative ones. I’m enjoying this series very much and like learning more about how the writers feel about music in general.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Excellent piece, Christian. I totally agree with your sentiments about music / rhythm / melody before lyrics before image. 100%
    Also agree with Michael Guido in that video was the start of the demise of the recording industry. I agree entirely on the same point he makes.

    But then … you have ‘Thriller.’ One of the best dance routines ever!

    But then again – I could have lived without THAT. Could I have lived without the music / rhythm / melody? 😉

    Liked by 4 people

      1. I’ve gotten tired of ‘Take on Me’ because I’ve heard it so much, but the video is quite good and ground-breaking for its time. I like “the Sun Always Shines on TV’ better by them.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Diversity of opinions! honestly, I guess I’m the rare dissenting voice in thinking ‘Thriller’ was a pretty bad (no pun intended) video… for one thing, a 4(?) minute song doesn’t need a 20-ish minute video, and I just found it silly and boring due to its length. But it was good in that it sure made MJ a lot of new fans. Christian made an interesting observation about the lyrics and so on, in general I would agree with him (melody is really big to me, and the actual playing is important too) but of course, it depends somewhat on the genre and musician… folk and kind of acoustic countryish songs for instance really rely on good lyrics. “Ode to Billy Joe” shines because of the lyrics – it would have been forgettable if she was singing about “boogie boogie, I love me some boogeying…” :p


  5. Mmmmm, I agree in general with the music/melody/rhythm coming in first, but followed close behind by the lyrics- some lyrics are pure poetry (Texas Flood pt 2, Rodney Crowell) some are purest crap- (Super Trooper, ABBA) and then someone else’s vision of a song YOU love comes a distant third. At their best vids serve the song, at their worst they do it a gross disservice.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I think you’re making a fair point you can’t equate all lyrics. Some are definitely beautiful. Part of my occasional negligence when it comes to lyrics is that I started listening to English language music at a time when I didn’t understand a word of English. So it was all the melody and the sound of songs that drew my initial attention.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. My dad grew up in German as a kid so I was proud he learned English so well & became a prolific reader (of English books). But once in awhile he’d stumble & not know an English equivalent to some German word or phrase.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I like reading but honestly, A) I read more than the people around me, but B) I’m almost embarrassed how little I do read. If I hit 20 books a year in entirety, that’s something for me now…largely non-fiction but some novels too. One sort of resolution I made for this year, but haven’t kept entirely, was to try to read at least half an hour a day no matter what. Doesn’t help that I’m at the age where I can’t read any book or magazine looking through my glasses, but can only read a normal book if I hold it within a foot of my face.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Ob, I’m with you about the lyrics. Some songs don’t need lyrics and it is pure joy in the melodies, instrumental skill, resonance of group players, etc., but for the most part of the song doesn’t have exceptional lyrics, it’s never going to elevated for me. That said, a couple of my favorite George Harrison tunes are Wah Wah and Savoy Truffle lol.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Wow I commented on this yesterday but it never got here. WP is aggravating at times. I went out and watched that video. The music is good and I’m sure the guys find the visuals meaningful 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m not a robot, am I HAL? ( Vague Kubrick 2001 reference.) Hotlegs became 10cc, and there is a very basic hypnotic beat and basic(er) lyrics to this, but, call me crazy, I like it. It is certainly no layered and textured ”Im Not In Love!’

        Liked by 1 person

    1. it would be my pick for #1 all-time video. Now I really have no idea what my #1 all-time song is though… it changes from time to time and there are probably at least half a dozen in a virtual dead heat.


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