How music video thrilled in ways that radio never could

As MTV celebrates its 30th birthday, Hardeep Phull looks back on the scandals and successes of a pioneer in pop television
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The Independent Culture

The first hour

1 August 1981

At 12.01am on Saturday 1 August, 1981, MTV introduced itself to the world by hijacking images of the Apollo 11 moon mission and using the now immortal phrase, "Ladies and gentlemen, rock'n'roll" before airing its first video, "Video Killed the Radio Star" by the British pop group The Buggles (Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes). In its first four minutes on air, MTV had managed to be brash, cheeky and exciting – bywords that it still tries to live by.

Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video premieres

2 December 1983

The addition of "Billie Jean" to the mainly white MTV playlist broke down a huge cultural barrier, but the 15-minute, John Landis-directed "Thriller" clip broke down creative ones. The epic promo simultaneously paved the way for Jacko's superstardom as well as ensuring MTV's graduation from rinky-dink cable channel to a brand that could make or break an artist's career.

MTV launches VH1

1 January 1985

The sound of parents tutting disapprovingly was music to the ears of MTV's earliest producers. But the network rapidly realised that creating a sister channel to cater for older tastes would keep their younger viewers watching once they had grown up. And thus, the MoR heaven that is VH1 was born.

Live Aid

13 July 1985

Although the ABC network televised an edited version of the Live Aid concerts in London and Philadelphia to American homes, MTV's broadcast was virtually constant and helped to communicate the event's philanthropic message to younger music fans.

Run DMC and Aerosmith bring rap to MTV


Hip-hop was given a wide berth by MTV until the Queens outfit Run DMC and Steven Tyler's then-past-it 1970s rockers Aerosmith united for the groundbreaking rap-rock hybrid "Walk This Way". Not only was it the first rap video to get played on the channel, it was also the first rap single to go Top 10 in the US.

120 Minutes premieres

10 March 1986

Indie-rock fans naturally felt left out of the MTV party, until 120 Minutes began catering for leftfield tastes in 1986. In doing so, the channel helped to seed the alternative rock explosion of the early 1990s.

Headbangers Ball premieres

18 April 1987

As the hair-metal groups of the 1980s descended into self-parody, Headbangers Ball gave exposure to the newer and more abrasive strands of the genre such as thrash and death metal. Without the show highlighting these nuances to the world, the onslaught of daft bandanas and ridiculous bouffants may never have stopped.

Yo! MTV Raps premieres

6 August 1988

With hip-hop still struggling to get exposure among the rock and pop videos that monopolised daytime programming, MTV finally created the specialist Yo! MTV Raps for fans of the genre, airing every weekday night and hosted by the graffiti artist Fab Five Freddy. The result helped communicate hip-hop culture across the world and within 10 years, it would be the dominant musical genre of the network.

Bon Jovi go acoustic

6 September 1989

The New Jersey titans stripped down their usual rock-pomp pitch to a more simplistic acoustic set-up for a medley of "Livin' on a Prayer" and "Wanted: Dead or Alive" at the 1989 Video Music Awards (VMAs). Unwittingly, they provided the channel's executives with the inspiration for MTV Unplugged, which would go on to be a staple of the network's programming.

Madonna's "Justify My Love" video is banned


The sight of Madonna dancing in front of burning crosses and lusting after a black Jesus in the 1989 "Like a Prayer" video stoked the flames of controversy. Madge went a step further the following year with the video for "Justify My Love".MTV promptly banned it but the furore sent the singer's profile even further into the stratosphere.

Bill Clinton on Choose or Lose

16 June 1992

MTV launched their Choose or Lose campaign in 1992, aiming to propel young people to the voting booth – something which Bill Clinton, then the Governor of Arkansas, saw as being an untapped source of support for his White House run. That same year, he appeared on the network in a town-hall style debate. Clinton's savvy attempt to cultivate a hip persona meant that the 1992 election saw a spike in the turnout of young voters, helping to lay the foundations for a two-term presidency.

Beavis and Butt-head premieres 22 September 1992

After a decade on the air, MTV had created its own subculture of TV watchers: mostly white, middle class, in their mid- to late-teens, and with greatly reduced attention spans resulting from years of sitting through four-minute music videos. The animator Mike Judge chose to adroitly satirise the MTV generation in the shape of Beavis and Butt-head – two greatly exaggerated examples of that demographic – and created a hilarious early-1990s institution in the process.

Jon Stewart launches his TV career


Before he became a politically influential darling of the American liberal media with The Daily Show, Jon Stewart was a jobbing stand-up and comedy writer who got his first real TV gig in the shape of The Jon Stewart Show. The late-night talk show was cancelled but it's fairly safe to say that Stewart can look back and laugh now.

Nirvana perform on Unplugged

18 November 1993

The grunge group's appearance on Unplugged should have been a train wreck. The setlist (including several obscure covers) and Kurt Cobain's drug addiction left MTV's producers fearing the worst. But the Seattle band prevailed to give a beautifully paced performance, which was made all the more poignant by Cobain's death just six months later.

Pedro Zamora on the Real World: San Francisco


Having sought to raise awareness about HIV and AIDS by lecturing across America, the HIV-positive Pedro Zamora reasoned that he could reach more people by being on MTV's hugely successful new franchise The Real World, a pioneering reality show which placed perfect strangers together in a house and filmed the results.

Weezer's "Buddy Holly" is played to death


This incessantly aired clip featured the LA band convincingly spliced with footage of the 1970s TV series Happy Days. It rocketed them to fame. Suddenly, music videos were no longer considered merely as commercials for music, but as stand-alone pieces of visual art.

Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley kiss

8 September 1994

"Just think, nobody thought that this would last," remarked Jackson just before planting a desperately unconvincing and uncomfortable kiss on his then new wife Lisa Marie Presley on stage at the MTV Awards in 1994. Unsurprisingly, it didn't last.

Courtney Love crashes Madonna's interview

7 September 1995

Another classic VMA moment, this time courtesy of an intoxicated Courtney Love, who crashes Kurt Loder's interview with Madonna and begins babbling. Madonna's publicist then intervenes, physically pulling her shocked client away and leaving Courtney to completely unravel before ending the surreal interlude by falling off her chair.

MTV UK & Ireland launches

1 July 1997

The new channel would serve as a launch pad for the careers of Edith Bowman, Zane Lowe, Kelly Brook, Cat Deeley and even Russell Brand, who all presented shows on the network early on.

James Cameron turns down Titanic 2

30 May 1998

The MTV Movie Awards usually feel like a more sedate younger sister to the more rebellious VMAs, but the specially made skits that send up Tinseltown are always a highlight, none more so than this segment featuring Vince Vaughn and Ben Stiller pitching James Cameron an idea for a sequel to Titanic.

Jackass premieres

12 April 2000

A show about a group of guys hurting themselves and relentlessly pranking each other was never going to win critical acclaim. But a spin-off video game and three multi-million-dollar-grossing movies have turned the show's lowest-common-denominator content into staggeringly high profit margins.

MTV Cribs: Redman

6 March 2001

MTV Cribs gave the world the best insight into the lifestyles of the rich and the famous but they were not always as glamorous as you might imagine. This legendary episode featured the rapper Redman, who proudly showed the show around his fleapit bachelor pad in Staten Island, which featured a box of dollar bills on the fridge, his cousin sleeping on the floor and a doorbell that had to be operated by touching two live wires together. Classy.

Mariah Carey has a breakdown on TRL

19 July 2001

Mariah Carey's erratic behaviour was already causing concern during the summer of 2001, when the crazy train arrived at MTV's daily request show TRL. During a live broadcast, Carey arrived unannounced before giving out ice creams to the audience, doing a mini-striptease and babbling about needing therapy, much to the shock of the host, Carson Daly. The singer checked into a clinic just days later.

The Osbournes premieres

5 March 2002

The dysfunctional family has always been the basis of much TV gold, but when said dysfunctional family is real and headed by a world-renowned rock star, you've got TV platinum. The Osbournes earned MTV its highest ratings, a great deal of which was due to Ozzy's comical and doddering appearance, since revealed to be a result of the singer's addiction to alcohol at the time.

Justin Timberlake of Punk'd

17 March 2003

Before Ashton Kutcher became the world's most well-known cradle snatchee, he was the world's most well-known celebrity wind-up merchant thanks to MTV's Punk'd. Of all the elaborate set-pieces that the show constructed, the very first episode, in which Justin Timberlake has his house, belongings and even his dogs repossessed to pay off an unsettled tax debt, was one of the most entertaining.

Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show

1 February 2004

Although not broadcast on MTV, the 2004 Super Bowl half-time show was produced by the network in an attempt to give the event a more contemporary edge. A racy routine featuring Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake culminated in Timberlake ripping off Jackson's outfit and momentarily revealing her nipple. Parents in America's heartland fumed at having to explain anatomy to their impressionable children, and the Super Bowl half-time show has been kept painfully safe ever since.

MTV Cribs: Richard Branson

8 March 2005

Slightly more ostentatious than Redman's place was the private Necker Island (part of the Virgin Islands) owned by Richard Branson, who, at one point, gamely sent up his multi-billionaire reputation by allowing the crew to film him while sitting on the toilet pretending to relieve himself.

Kanye West vs Taylor Swift

13 September 2009

Kanye West's infamous interruption of Taylor Swift's award-acceptance speech at the 2009 VMAs was such a talking point that even President Obama felt the need to label him a "jackass". If ever there was a case of creating publicity that money can't buy, that was it.

Jersey Shore premieres

3 December 2009

Just when reality TV seemed to be approaching a dead end, MTV revitalised the format by placing a group of oversexed Italian-Americans together on the eponymous summer destination. The show became an instant success and the cast remain celebrities.

Lady Gaga's meat dress

12 September 2010

Even though she wasn't performing at the 2010 VMAs, Lady Gaga stole the headlines by sporting an outfit made almost entirely of meat. PETA naturally slammed the stunt. They needn't have bothered; meat has rarely looked that unappetising.