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MTV at 25

Looking back at how the music net changed pop culture forever


MTV turns 25

There she was --- porcelain skin, cropped platinum hair, a scarlet slash for a mouth, and breasts spilling out of her tight-fitting top --- doing the bunny hop. "Papa Don't Preach," Madonna's tale about a young girl's decision to forgo an abortion in favor of love, was among the singer's first forays into pop with a point. The song, released in 1986 on True Blue, remains one of her most enduring hits. But the real success was that playful pout and pulse image seen every 40 minutes on MTV. Just as Marilyn Monroe and her billowing white skirt had done decades earlier, Madonna shoved her way into our collective consciousness. Despite a rather limited vocal range, she managed in a succession of three-minute music videos to cast herself as one of the most enduring sexual icons of the last century --- a status she might not have achieved were it not for MTV.

On August 1, MTV will turn 25. The anniversary marks the beginning of a media revolution that combined music with cable television, turning the entertainment industry on its head. At its dawning, John Lack, MTV's co-creator, delivered an Ed Sullivan-style intro, "Ladies and gentleman, rock and roll." And The Buggles' "Video Killed the Radio Star" launched the underground music you could see.

MTV began as a joint venture between Time Warner and American Express. Using music videos from the suits in the recording industry as free filler, the initial idea was to pitch product. The constant rotation of music videos was intended to help the fledgling cable company break out at a time when viewers had just discovered television sets with remote controls and oodles of cable choices. The concept worked so well it sold $7 million in ads in its first 12 months, and by 1984 it was selling more than $1 million a week. While it was originally conceived as a vehicle for advertisers, MTV quickly became its own product, selling what it knew best: pop culture.

Before MTV, artists depended on occasional television appearances and radio airplay to launch and build music careers. But MTV created the opportunity for artists to have immediate impact, especially for those who understood how to use the music video format. Instead of shoving musical acts into a variety show format that programmed something for everyone in the household, MTV took artists straight to the young music buyer, cutting out all the waste. Music videos could be the warm-up for a tour or an album release. In either case, MTV figured prominently in how artists were marketed.

Besides Madonna, Prince, Peter Gabriel, The Eurythmics, Duran Duran, and Michael Jackson were among the early MTV regulars that figured out how to shoot film and edit it to their music in ways that propelled a pop persona. By the mid-'80s, budgets for music videos had swelled from $5,000 to $50,000, and big name film directors like Spike Lee and John Landis saw what the power of MTV could do for their own careers as well as their music industry clients. Filmmakers and advertisers both started using music video-style editing techniques --- even giving a boost to movie musicals like Footloose and Flashdance.

But MTV didn't work for everyone, and everyone didn't work for MTV. Many bands from rock's golden age didn't translate well to video. The Rolling Stones, for example, could fill some of the biggest arenas in the United States and Europe, but the energy of their live performances looked limp on video. Jagger looked more like a rock imitator than an originator. Legends like Bob Dylan, The Who and Joni Mitchell were rarities as well. And even though Michael Jackson's 11-minute "Thriller" video was an MTV milestone, black artists complained about being shut out.

But a few rock acts did break through. David Bowie, ever the chameleon, evolved his glitter rock image into British post-modern cool. Fleetwood Mac's videos chronicled the group's break up, and the spinning off of Stevie Nicks into a solo artist. The same was true of Genesis and Phil Collins.

By the late '80s MTV had grown from an endless stream of strung together videos to diverse programming with unimaginable influence on everyday American life. Fashion might have been where MTV had its biggest influence outside of music. In his book TV A-Go-Go, writer Jake Rusten relates the quintessential MTV story through an interview with music video director Russ Foster.

"I didn't have cable in the mid-1980s," Foster recalls, "but I knew when Madonna had a new video out. Every few months the Latin girls in my neighborhood would suddenly get a whole new look, and that meant Madonna was back on MTV."

But MTV's influence wasn't limited to fashion. When MTV pulled editor Kurt Loder away from Rolling Stone to anchor MTV News in 1988, the hollow repetition of cable was left behind for a more muscular network-style format. MTV execs knew they had to broaden the base beyond young white male viewers, and the leap had to be made while pop music was changing. Metal and the insipid carefree '80s were giving way to flannel shirts and introspective coffeehouse rock. R&B had given birth to hip-hop and rap. Segmenting its programming to appeal to different niche audiences was the key to MTV's survival. Shows like Headbanger's Ball, Yo! MTV Raps, Beavis and Butthead, and The Real World captured new audiences (see sidebar). They also changed MTV into the big-box mass media it once rebelled against.

With billions at stake, says Douglas Rushkoff in his PBS Frontline piece "Merchants of Cool," MTV staff began conducting "ethnography studies." Far more intensive than focus groups, the studies involved visiting the homes of teenagers to determine what makes them tick. MTV and its advertisers were trying to learn how trends could be better packaged to the teen market. Or translated, make them feel even more alienated than they already did if they couldn't buy it. From Gap to Toyota, MTV became advertisers' go-to source for product-hungry young people.

But with these new audiences came waves of harsh criticism. What MTV was sending into America's living rooms was making millions of parents nervous. Evangelist and Christian broadcasting mogul Pat Robertson was one of the first to attack MTV directly, says Scott Nance in his book The MTV Story.

"They're bringing in $80 million a week in basic revenue, and yet, they're showing videos depicting one guy killing his father with an ax and others depicting sadomasochism and the occult," Robertson told Nance.

On Capitol Hill, grumbling could be heard about the lack of morality stemming from rap and metal acts showing sexist images with offensive lyrics, so offensive that Vice President Al Gore's wife, Tipper, got involved. MTV executives found themselves in front of Congress defending the First Amendment. Gore eventually convinced music executives to provide warning labels on music packaging, but MTV gave up little in the deal. Instead, programming like Rock the Vote demonstrated MTV could mount political support of its own. According to Billboard, 44 percent of its 18- to 34-year-old viewers in 1988 said they planned to vote. By 1992, the same group had risen to 76 percent.

If anything, MTV continued to blur the line between creating pop culture and exploiting it. At 25, in a highly polarized society, MTV has become a brand, one synonymous with the decline in values for half of America. For the other half, it is a pop culture phenomenon. Probably both sides are right. It didn't invent America's obsession with celebrities, but it was clearly in the business of idol worship. When George Michael was arrested for playing with his pee-pee in a Beverly Hills public restroom, what did he do? He made a music video about it. When Lil' Kim came up to the microphone during the MTV Music Awards with her breast exposed, Diana Ross reached out and touched it. Stepping out of the ether, early '90s MTV staples Tupac and Biggie Smalls might say: we didn't create drugs, violence and urban apartheid. Our music just reflected the America we lived in. And ultimately, for better or worse, that's what MTV continues to do.