Well, hello there, loyal readers! In case you haven’t already noticed, I’ve decided to do something a little different this week. In lieu of the usual artist spotlight, this week’s entry will be about a little something called MTV—more specifically, about how MTV shaped the music industry in the ‘90s.
We will delve deep into a time when MTV actually played music (and why it makes sense that they don’t anymore), with emphasis on the most successful directors, VJs, music series and original programming. So let’s get to it!
A Brief History
Some of you may already be familiar with MTV’s beginnings. Since we’re only looking at one decade of programming, I’ll brief you on the embarrassing early years of MTV in the ‘80s.
The concept of a music-based television channel started with Sight On Sound, a specialized channel available on the interactive QUBE service based out of Columbus, Ohio. That channel only played live band footage, but it was an inspiration nonetheless.
Music videos weren’t a new concept by the ‘80s, either. Back in the ‘70s and even in the late ‘60s, very cheap (and very cheesy) videos were used as promotional material for bands. Even The Beatles had music videos (and boy, were they weird).
MTV premiered on August 1, 1981 with perhaps the most presumptuous (and coolest) broadcast intro in history—a proverbial “lift-off” featuring footage from the first Space Shuttle launch of the Columbia. The words, “Ladies and gentlemen, rock ‘n’ roll” ushered in a new medium of music consumption.
The very first music video ever played on MTV was The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star” (an appropriate choice). The network’s effect on record sales was almost immediate—artists such as Men at Work, Bow Wow Wow and The Human League got exponentially more attention, and MTV’s attention on non-US bands sparked the Second British Invasion.
MTV started broadcasting special events in the mid to late ‘80s, including the Video Music Awards (started in 1984) and Spring Break (started in 1986). Other original programming soon followed, and by the early ‘90s, MTV had become an entity much larger than anyone could have predicted.
The Alternative Explosion
Punk really didn’t break until 1991, but MTV was ahead of the curve in 1986. The network began airing an original show called 120 Minutes, which catered to alternative and “underground” bands of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, such as The Jesus and Mary Chain, New Order and Butthole Surfers.
In 1991, a little ditty called “Smells Like Teen Spirit” premiered on 120 Minutes, but soon became so popular that it was moved to regular daytime rotation. Once Nirvana proved successful, MTV added bands like Soundgarden, Alice In Chains and Nine Inch Nails to their regular rotation. Soon, alternative rock and grunge had become as mainstream as Madonna.
I think we all like to point to Nirvana as the instigator of all this mainstream business, but let’s be honest—MTV was really the mastermind behind it. Nirvana’s success was directly affected by the video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Sure, the song was getting airplay on radio stations, but the band’s image was a huge contributing factor.
And that’s what MTV sells—not necessarily music, but an image. It was more about the music in the ‘80s, but by the ‘90s, everything kind of shifted to the artist as a product. Grunge (which I typically characterize as a fad rather than a music genre) was everywhere in the early ‘90s, and MTV helped cultivate it, package it and sell it to its viewers.
Now, this doesn’t make MTV the enemy (though I’m sure some would disagree with me). There’s nothing wrong with being mainstream, despite what your unfriendly neighborhood music elitist might tell you. MTV just embraced “alternative” culture because, well, it looked cool. In fact, the term “alternative” is kind of ironic considering just how popular the “alternative” style was in the ‘90s. (Side note: There’s a wonderful article by Thomas Frank called “Alternative to What?” that addresses this issue perfectly. Unfortunately, I don’t have a link for it here, so you’ll have to go hunting for it.)
The Music Video as an Art Form
Yes, the primary purpose of any music video is to promote a band, but that doesn’t mean a video can’t be cinematic masterpiece. By the early ‘90s, MTV was playing a plethora of new and interesting music, which required new and interesting videos to promote it.
Enter the music video director. After pressure from the Music Video Production Association, MTV began listing the names of directors at the bottom of videos, beginning in 1992. As a result, MTV’s audience became acutely aware of who exactly was making these short spectacles.
The ‘90s spawned some incredible music video directors, including Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, Anton Corbijn, Samuel Bayer and Mark Romanek, to name a few. Soon, music videos became more like short films than promotional snippets of live footage.
I appreciate music videos more than I think I should. I think it’s because I enjoy film in general, and after all, music videos (well, most of them) are basically just short films. Though I could go on and on about videos of the alternative variety, I have to give props to the rap and hip-hop videos of the ‘90s. Some of the best ones were directed by Hype Williams, including Biggie and P. Diddy’s “Mo Money Mo Problems” and Missy Elliott’s “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly).” Even if you don’t like hip-hop, you have to admit those are incredible videos (especially Missy Elliott).
I’m sure everyone’s uttered this question aloud before. Even those of us who didn’t grow up with classic MTV seem to ponder this.
So what exactly happened to MTV after the ‘90s?
Well, once everyone started pirating music, the record companies lost a shit ton of money, which left almost nothing to spend on music videos. The only videos MTV can actually play are from mainstream artists you probably don’t like (i.e. Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus) because they have the money to pay for the videos. And even those videos are awful because they’re usually made up of 90% product placement (again, because of the whole no money thing).
Sure, we all miss watching music videos on MTV, but can’t you do the same thing with YouTube or Vimeo? You may miss the sometimes brilliant “alternative” programming of the ‘90s, but isn’t that just your nostalgia clouding your judgment?
But if you don’t believe me, give this video a gander. It explains everything (in a delightfully sardonic way).
-- Sam Boyer, reporting from the ‘90s.