MTV’s 40 Electric Years
From the first-ever iconic music video performed on MTV, ‘Video Killed the Radio Star,’ to today’s current MTV Rap segment that’s highlighting the biggest stars to date, this network has changed American culture.
Although it’s impossible to definitively list the celebrities, outlets, or even everyday fans who built this empire into what it is, a few names stand out. Iconic hip-hop songs that built a foundation for the genre include Beyonce’s ‘Formation,’ Missy Elliott’s ‘Get Your Freak On,” Rihanna‘s, ‘Shut Up and Drive,’ A Tribe Called Quest feat. Leaders of the New School’s ‘Scenario,’ the Notorious B.I.G.‘s ‘Hypnotize,’ Nicki Minaj‘s ‘Anaconda,’ and most recently, ‘Montero’ by Lil Nas X in his agenda to push the script of today’s music.
MTV’s Opening Days in 1981
The successful and worldwide network didn’t always have the fame it does now. When it launched on August 1, 1981, only 800,000 households streamed its opening hours. And, considering its late hour of launch, many of the viewers and subscribers could have been sleeping. But, as its opening sequence of a launching rocket predicted, the network would take off in ways that were beyond unexpected. The innovation of radio on TV found its home in the hearts of millions of subscribers, family rooms, and stores playing its 24-hour music loop. It changed the entire concept of pop music and the effect it could have beyond the concert stage and in your home.
Many remain clueless to this fact, but MTV was created by a group of creatives who had originated from the world of radio, not television. Although stories differ, the cast of revolutionaries worked together to launch MTV and bring a form of radio to a new form of TV. Robert Pittman, John Lack, and Michael Nesmith all primarily worked to pitch in the conceptual and financial energy and heavy effort needed to fulfill their dream.
The concept had been a popular one in the entertainment world, with people like rockstar Todd Rundgren who wanted to create a 24-hour music video channel complete with DJ hosts. But ultimately, in a twist of fate, Robert Pittman who had originally been opposed to the idea, formed MTV with John Lack.
The idea remained the same: a simple broadcast rotation of music videos during all hours of the day. It seemed difficult to maintain a constant, productive flow of music but with the core philosophy of radio at their disposal, Pittman and his crew knew how to fill time and make sure hit after hit was being played. They found the perfect balance of already popular songs, a few new ones, and an ad base that would keep them in business. If today is any indication, it was a success.
MTV’s Roots in Media
For many viewers, the launch of MTV and its mission to broadcast on television what had never been seen before felt like a dream. For many artists, the ability to pair their words with a music video meant expressing themselves on another dimension and touching audiences in a new and innovative manner.
The lead of Foo Fighters and Nirvana drummer, Dave Grohl wrote about his personal experience with MTV.
“Me and all my friends were dirty little rocker kids in suburban Virginia, so we spent a lot of our time at the record store or staring at album covers. With music videos, there was a deeper dimension to everything.”
Although it took a while for music videos to become the network’s primary feature, there weren’t many options to begin with and the 11 videos that rotated on its first day were exciting enough. It cemented MTV as a cultural institution and forever gave it the title of creating something revolutionary in the technological and media-centric world at that time. While now, iPhones, Youtube, and TikTok seem to overshine MTV’s platform, it’s impossible to forget where their roots came from. Especially when it first launched, media was not on everyone’s phones and hands and pockets, it existed in one place and that place for so long happened to be MTV.
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Why Remember MTV?
MTV forced audiences to think and interpret differently. It was less about just playing a song and making the money, the focus was on making music something you could feel and form a relationship with, not just listen to. The ability to use your imagination to push the visual and auditory boundaries of a song was something MTV not just encouraged but did themselves.
This newfound focus on your “image,” your hair, dancing, clothing, shooting location, etc led to a wave of artists who found themselves overly obsessed with the image they were portraying. It wasn’t a negative development at all though, and It helped stars like the Thompson Twins and their crazy hair reach a level of all-star popularity that hadn’t existed before.
Most importantly, MTV’s rippling effect on American culture didn’t stay centered on the musical industry. MTV changed the way prime-time television was viewed. It pushed exciting stories like ‘Miami Vice,’ and ‘Footloose,’ that continued to think outside of the box. Actors and networks now featured colorful youthful fashion, quick and snippy scripts and commentary, and quick-cut commercials in between broadcasts.
MTV’s New Moon Person
As a part of their well-deserved celebration, the network created a new Moon Person trophy to represent them.; Kehinde Wiley, the same artist who painted Barack Obama’s presidential portrait, created the new iconic statuette. The winners of this year’s MTV Video Music Awards will have the honor to take home her creation, a new symbol of all that MTV stands for. Wiley’s sculpture includes a new perspective of diversity and inclusivity to represent all the people and places that fit into the MTV puzzle, since day 1.
In addition, a focus on the botanical importance and history of the network is included in the design, with vines flowing up and down the figure’s body. It effectively shows the different ethnic histories that created the America we know today and that consequently played a role in shaping MTV. Each vine and leaf has a different historical meaning, like the seeds that are indicative of the unjust struggles that African slaves had to endure.
Wiley has now become the third artist to work on the Moon Person, and her goal has been to work with MTV to remove, “the implication of gender from its name, and signaling a cultural shift in support of equality and representation,” MTV said — after Jeremy Scott’s created his version years ago.
Quite beautifully, the story comes full circle with the Kennedy Space Center’s Rocket Garden displaying the new Moon Person in an ode to Apollo 11 footage MTV used their launch day.
“For the past 40 years, the pioneering spirit of space exploration has inspired MTV to break boundaries in culture and, as such, has encouraged generations to rethink what is possible.”
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Mireille Karadanaian is an entertainment journalist, whose passion for reviewing upcoming TV shows and movies has existed since a young age. She writes reviews and feature entertainment stories for The Hollywood Insider’s inclusive and authentic platform, contributing to the important stories being told in media today. Mireille loves discussing the impact today’s media is making on younger generations who emulate what they see on screen and the Internet, a double-edged sword. Her stories often include the importance of creating content that inspires inclusion, positivity, and productive messages to all audiences and generations. Mireille’s love of covering TV shows, movies, and exciting questions that are being asked in the media world is seen in her writing and her ability to not just report facts but also tell a story.