Video Star: 30 Years of MTV

It's 30 years since MTV launched and in its three decades, it’s changed the way we think about – as well as watch – music. Gillian Orr charts its greatest hits

Monday 01 August 2011 00:00

By all accounts, 1981 wasn’t shaping up to be a great year for music lovers.

Bucks Fizz had exploded after winning the Eurovision Song Contest, Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” hogged the radio airwaves and the popularity of Adam Ant and the other New Romantics meant men were parading around in their girlfriends’ make-up. Then on 1 August, just after midnight, a new television channel aimed at teens and 20-somethings launched with the words: “Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll.” It was called MTV.

Set up with the intention of playing music videos 24 hours a day, seven days a week, MTV quickly catapulted them into the mainstream. Not only did the channel encourage videos to be viewed as an art form, they also became a marketing tool for record companies. Artists were forced to embrace the medium or risk retirement. Madonna and Duran Duran were just some of the stars that benefited in the early years. Of course, it had its detractors and many thought the channel was devaluing the industry by placing the entire emphasis on the visual aesthetic rather than the music.

MTV’s viewers, a generation desperate to disassociate themselves from their baby-boomer parents, had no unifying identity: the civil-rights movement and Vietnam were their parents’ struggles. These cynical and dissatisfied youths came together, however, by tuning into this eclectic new channel. The MTV Generation was born.

With the rise of the internet, young people were able to watch their favourite videos on demand online. The channel sought a different approach and the schedule soon filled with reality shows during the early to mid-2000s. Early devotees might be disappointed to tune in today to find the likes of Teen Mom and Jersey Shore in place of their beloved videos and VJs.

But even the channel’s television shows set the agenda and some of its biggest successes such as Pimp My Ride, Jackass and The Osbournes all became must-see viewing. MTV’s raucous award shows consistently providewatercooler moments to this day. And the videos are still there, even if they are buried in late-night schedules and on sister channels. MTV has been forced to evolve and move with the times. Viewing figures might not be what they were, but the brand goes from strength to strength.

Today the channel bears little resemblance to the 1981 original but MTV revolutionised the music industry, consistently dictated popular culture and provided a platform for a number of artists who may have otherwise struggled to find an audience. And for that, its 30th birthday should be celebrated.

Thirty Years of MTV

*When MTV was launched in 1981 the first video to be played was, quite fittingly, “Video Killed The Radio Star” by The Buggles – a fact that often pops up in pub quizzes across the land. The second video tobe shown, however, was Pat Benatar's “You Better Run”. Yep, us neither.

*While ABC only chose to broadcast selected highlights of 1985’s Live Aid concerts, MTV broadcast 16 hours of primetime coverage. The channel has always made an effort to promote social, political and environmental activism in young people, including campaigns to encourage voting, raising awareness about poverty and addressing discrimination.

*The early 1990s saw a barrage of experimental, funny and technically accomplished music videos from new maverick directors. In 1992, after some pressure from the Music Video Producers Association, MTV began to list the names of the directors at the bottom of the credits, bringing the likes of Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry and David Fincher to wider attention.

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*First broadcast in 1992, The Real World is credited with launching the modern reality-television genre. Following a group of young strangers living together as they deal with life, careers and love, the 26th season is due to be broadcast later this year. A strong champion of the genre, everything from Big Brother to The Only Way Is Essex can be traced back to MTV.

*Following a renewed interest in folk influenced music in the late 1980s, MTV Unplugged debuted in 1989. Showcasing popular artists performing their tracks acoustically, many of the performances went on to be released as albums. Perhaps the most famous of the recordings is 1993’s Nirvana Unplugged in New York, due to the number of covers and lesser known material the band performed.

*In 1997, MTV UK was launched with the aim of providing audiences with more local artists and relevant content. There are now more than 40 localised networks around the world, including MTV Pakistan, MTV Norway and MTV Korea.

*One of MTV’s defining moments of the Noughties was Madonna, dressed as a groom, kissing her two brides, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, at the 2003 MTV Video Music Awards. Last year it won “Best Kiss of the Decade” in a poll by Selfridges.

*The stars’ antics at awards shows have ensured headlines. In 2008, Russell Brand called George W Bush a “retarded cowboy” and the following year, believing that Beyoncé had a superior video, Kanye West broke into Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech with theimmortal line: “Yo Tay, I’m really happy for you, and Imma let you finish…”

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