June 3 – The Turntable Talk, Round 3 – So Did We Need Our MTV…Or Just Want It?

Today we wrap up 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 start 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? 

Thanks to the five guests who gave us different takes on the “Video Revolution” of the ’80s…it was great to get different points of view. I have a few closing comments.

First, no one can doubt how much music videos shaped our listening, and viewing habits in the ’80s and ’90s, and with the biggest market, MTV was the main driver of that. Of course, as people like Christian and Deke pointed out, not everyone had MTV. In fact, I don’t think it was available anywhere outside of the U.S., at least in its heyday. But its success and the power of the music companies ensured similar stations would spring up in Canada, Australia and any number of other lands.

Lisa pointed out that the idea behind “videos” wasn’t new to MTV or the ’80s. The Big Bopper made one in the ’50s and there were video jukeboxes to play them in the mid-’60s. But they really hit the mainstream when MTV signed on. Oddly, Nielsen didn’t measure cable TV viewership in the early years of the station, so we don’t know how many people were actually tuning in at any given time because they found themselves saying “I Want My MTV…”, but it was well into the millions … mostly people in their teens or twenties, aka the main music-buying market. So it’s little wonder that what was popular on MTV was usually quickly popular in record stores and, because of that and Billboard‘s sales reports, on radio coast to coast as well. This likely contributed to the homogenization of radio in North America that Max pointed out (and which most of us, I think dislike) – the end of the free-wheelin’ local station playing new acts unknown in other cities and actually paying attention to listener requests. Instead we now have syndicated DJs in L.A. playing the same Lynyrd Skynyrd or Eagles track in 200 cities simultaneously and no room for innovation or offbeat music by and large. Hard to see that as an improvement, but also I think, part of an inevitable trend created by fewer and fewer large corporations buying up independent radio stations by the score and looking to maximize profit by reducing costs (such as program managers or round-the-clock disc jockeys.) How much MTV accelerated the trend is anybody’s guess.

As to how it shaped the sound of the ’80s, again it’s a debatable point since we have no control group of society without any videos, obviously! There’s no real dispute that music videos greatly helped some existing artists take their career to the next level (Peter Gabriel, Dire Straits, Michael Jackson…) and perhaps was the springboard needed to launch some big careers (Madonna, Duran Duran, A-ha…) but again, we have no way of knowing if they would have taken off on their own or not without the MTV bump. What is clear to me is that ironically, short-term gain resulted in long-term pain for some of those “video stars”. Duran Duran, Cyndi Lauper, Culture Club, even yes, A Flock of Seagulls, put out some very good records back then. And they were multi-million sellers, helped along by the oh-so-popular videos… “Hungry Like A Wolf”, “Girls on Film,” “Karma Chameleon,” “I Ran”, “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” and so on. It made them household names quickly. But, it seems to me because they got noticed for their visual gimmick – the hair, the outfits, the makeup – people failed to take them seriously and in the long run, this may well have hurt their careers. I will boldly say songs like “Save A Prayer,” “Time (Clock of the Heart)”, “”She Bop,” “Wishing” , and others by those bands were songs which hold up very well and added a breath of fresh air to the old, slightly-fusty acts that had for so long dominated the airwaves. It even helped some of those like Queen and Styx go out on limbs and try something a little bit new. But many people still look down their noses and write off those acts automatically because they think “stupid-looking hair” or “just pretty boys in scenic locales” when they hear their names. That’s a bit of a shame. At their worst, they were unimaginative, offensively sexist or ridiculously over-the-top and drawn out. But, at their best they were creative, ground-breaking works of art on their own – think of how extraordinary “Sledgehammer” or “Take On Me” seemed when we first saw them. It’s not a huge stretch to understand why Godley & Creme went from making impeccable, boundary-pushing music with 10CC in the ’70s to primarily creating music videos for others in the ’80s – a lot of artists think visually as well as aurally.

In short, I think it was a fun part of the decade, and one that fit it well. Maybe it’s my age – in the ’80s I went from finishing high school to being a young, single guy out on his own. A fun time of change in life. And the ’80s really were a time of fun, experimental music, of breaking new ground. Not all of it was great, by any means, but at its best it meant some of the best music around. And videos were fun as well. I’m not disputing what some others have said – for instance, it robbed us of our own imagination when it came to what a song should “look” like (probably more of a problem when dealing with a Springsteen or Dylan song than Madonna’s “Borderline” or ZZ Top’s “Legs”) , it boosted some careers into the stratosphere that didn’t deserve it and it added to the problem of the unification of music being played continent wide. But now that we don’t have round the clock music videos on TV, we still have artists putting out flat out bad records who are stars, and we hear the same songs on every Oldies station from St. John’s, Newfoundland to San Jose, California. Honestly, I think the biggest surprise I have is how little music videos have really changed the world of music in the past 40 years.

I enjoyed watching Canada’s equivalent Much Music a lot in that decade, though I still spent more time listening to still-great radio stations and playing CDs and records. I saw some great , creative videos, saw some interesting interviews with musicians I loved and found out about some superb acts that seemed to even get passed over by radio. I heard “Pretty Persuasion” by REM once or twice on radio, but didn’t really become aware of them until Much Music decided the video for “Fall on Me” should be seen every hour on the hour for awhile. Others had the same experience later when “Losing My Religion” became MTV’s go-to in the early-’90s. How long would it have taken me to notice them if I had to rely on hearing their stuff that often on local radio stations?

Rubik’s Cubes, collarless neon-colored shirts, impossible hairdos, narrow leather ties, something new to hear every week…and music videos. The ’80s weren’t bad at all.


14 thoughts on “June 3 – The Turntable Talk, Round 3 – So Did We Need Our MTV…Or Just Want It?

    1. thank you! You know, I think back to what I wore in the 80s….and some yikes! But some I wish I still had…pastel green ‘Miami Vice blazer, patchwork purple shirt, collarless turquoise shirt that looked like it was straight out of a Psychedelic Furs video…wish I still had them. When I think of 2010s/20s fashion…nothing. blah. track pants? comic book t-shirts? Mass-produced jeans or skirts? No one will remember this age for its fashion or pizzazz.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Badfinger (Max)

    Great closing argument Dave… MTV had it’s place…do I think it could have been better? Yes but it is what it is. It seems that MuchMusic didn’t dumb things down like MTV did.
    MTV had it’s place…didn’t it start to die after Nirvana?

    Liked by 3 people

    1. yeah, funny isn’t it- ‘Smells like Teen Spirit” was the supposed game-changer made big by MTV but that’s around when they began stopping to bother with music really. I have to say I do have fond memories of watching Much Music in the 80s , and moreover watching older shows like ‘Kenny Everett’ on late night TV that showed those early Bowie, Roxy Music, Sweet videos etc. But it’s hard to put in proper context… although I could have done things better in the 80s, I enjoyed that time and watching videos was a big part of it so, I guess I’m somewhat fond of the idea and history.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Badfinger (Max)

        I thought so! I wasn’t sure that was when it happened.
        Deke mentioned the guy who interviewed Harrison and I was really impressed. Poking around youtube for others…it was quality.

        I enjoyed it also Dave…like I said…I would be blearied eyed…I was disappointed about one thing.
        Why didn’t they play more classic music? I wanted to see videos they had…like the Beatles on the roof. At that time…radio stations were playing Beatles – Def Leppard – Gabriel – Old Who… I guess I expected that…but they were probably selling for the record companies…only new ones.

        Liked by 3 people

      2. Good question – since I was in Canada, I can’t answer that or know precisely what they did shoe (as an aside, I did reach out to Martha Quinn who I guess was a popular personality on MTV for a comment but haven’t heard back) …Much Music largely played new videos only but did have a few segments which were oriented more towards older ones, and had a daily ‘spotlight’ which was sadly only a half hour .It looked at one artist a day and would play four or five videos by them and usually add in interview clips; there you’d sometimes see videos from the pre-MTV era.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Badfinger (Max)

        Martha Quinn was a cutey….she still is! Yea the pre-MTV is what I wanted most to hear but I get that the record companies were trying to sell new records.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Great stuff and thanks for putting this together Dave. MM was real good but funny enough when I went to the States I basically wanted to watch MTV all the time as they showed way more Metal but MM I always thought had the better interviews so it was a 50/50 split…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. thank YOU for adding to it, Deke. I must admit at the time back then, I was pissed off we didn’t have MTV, just because I figured it must be better and because I hated government restrictions. But now, I do look back fondly on Much Music days.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I can’t even begin to tell you how much I am enjoying being a part of this series, Dave. Thank you for hosting it. Sometimes I read other contributors and wonder how I can begin to measure up to the wonderful presentations they write. I have tried to do book reviews and movie reviews on my site, but they always end up being just my personal observations of recommendations. I guess that is what I love about your topics, because even on the difficult topics, I can find my own personal way to relate to it or write about it. Kudos to the rest of the contributors as well, because they really have written some fantastic stuff!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. thank you again for taking part! We’ll try another round in 3 weeks or so. You write well too by the way. With my daily columns I try to be semi-neutral and just relay facts of the releases and give an overview of professional critics response, though in some of the special segments I do give more of my personal tastes and opinions (and I note, while I try to offer up a variety of musical sounds here, I usually opt for records and artists I at least tolerate…. only rarely do I highlight ones I think are utterly terrible.)

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Great installment of your fun “Turntable Talk” feature, Dave. And thanks again for having invited me to participate.

    It was an interesting and thought-provoking topic. While overall I think it’s fair to say MTV was a mixed blessing, there’s no doubt the MTV era had some artistically pretty remarkable music videos.

    It’s unfortunate MTV and especially VH1, which used to be “my” music channel, no longer have much to do with music. I really did like VH1’s “Behind the Music” documentaries. Now it seems they’re pretty much only showing silly reality TV shows!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. thank you again for adding to it! Yes, I think by about 2000 give or take for some reason MTV (and Much Music in Canada) got away from music and went hard into reality TV and old re-runs of shows only vaguely associated with music. The Canadian one has dropped the “music” from their name entirely.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s