Too Much Is Never Enough
MTV at 40: Generation X and the video music big bang

Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll!

Forty years ago today, on August 1, 1981, an upstart television network made a rather wobbly launch. Marred by technical glitches, packed to the brim with marginal, almost random content and seasoned with a sense of tonal unsurety from its stable of greenhorn hosts, MTV’s first day of broadcast was, to be charitable, inauspicious. Very few would have placed a bet on it surviving for long at all, much less on the chance that it would go on to serve as a sort of primordial ooze of the 1980s aesthetic — not just in popular music, but also television, fashion, advertising, the visual arts and more. It may be dificult for anyone born afterward to thoroughly grasp the influence MTV had — and continues to have — on mass culture in America and beyond.

But in the beginning, it was just another low-budget wannabe player on the exploding field of cable television, which was becoming more competitive by the day. Despite its initial awkward phase, MTV survived and prospered not just because of the novelty of its “radio with pictures” format — but more importantly due to its facility in injecting new and exciting music into every nook and cranny in the nation.

Young music fans today can just casually tell Siri or Alexa or Google to “play me some new music” and instantly receive a curated playlist; in the early ’80s, on the other hand, there were often significant stumbling blocks in the ongoing quest for new jams. Mostly one listened to the radio, and for those out in the boondocks, that often meant a poor crop of choices. And then there was always the chance that one might hear a truly great song, but never know its name or who did it, a truly frustrating predicament not always easily solved in those days. The idea of an app like Shazam —which can tell you the name and artist of most any song within seconds — would have seemed like something straight out of Star Trek.

Still waiting on the teleporter, but we are actually 3D printing food these days.

The luckiest kids had hip older siblings or friends who would turn them on to cool stuff, and a well-made mixtape of songs you didn’t hear on the radio was a true treasure to be studied in hushed reverence. But where I grew up, a small rural town far from any semblance of culture, was a musical desert. It was catch as catch can, and my friends and I had our ears open at all times, always on the alert for any signals from the outer reaches.

I remember my friend Simon coming over to my grandma’s house one afternoon with a 45 that had been rejected from the local AM radio station where his mother worked. “Check out the title on this,” he chuckled as he walked into my room with the record in his outstretched hand. It was a white label Elektra promo copy of a song called “Johnny, Are You Queer?” by someone named Josie Cotton. Wait, what!? We played it three or four times in a row, admittedly amused at the song’s premise — but more than that, legitimately mystified at this weird artifact. We had no frame of reference for how such a thing might have come to exist at all, let alone fall into our grubby adolescent mitts out here on the Cherokee Strip. It might as well have been the Coke bottle in The Gods Must Be Crazy.

The Gods Must Be Crazy (1980) | MUBI
Actual photo of me examining the seven-inch of “Johnny, Are You Queer?”

And then there was my friend Alan, an electronics whiz kid who rigged up a high-gain antenna outside his bedroom window and picked up a fantastic New Wave radio station from Oklahoma City — nearly 120 miles away! His tape recordings of KJ-103 FM turned me on to weird, exotic new tunes from acts like the B-52s, Depeche Mode and Toto Coelo. After a lifetime spent within the narrow confines of classic country, mainstream FM rock and “AM Gold,” it was like listening through a portal into another dimension.

Around this time we learned of this thing called “Music Television,” which sounded impossibly cool — but our backwater cable company was still offering only the same old 12-channel basic cable lineup. Fortunately, the success of MTV spurred the development of late-night programs like NBC’s Friday Night Videos, the surprisingly hip Night Tracks on WTBS and USA Network’s godhead Night Flight, all of which were available in my hometown. And boy, were we thankful! The whole concept of music video shows was all so fresh and wild and creative, a revolutionary new way to take in music — so novel, in fact, that the producers of Friday Night Videos felt obliged to open their debut episode with this voiceover:

…and stick around for an inside look at Rick Springfield, too, kids!

And then, during the holidays in 1983, my grandma drove my little brother and me to visit family in Oklahoma City — where it turned out their local cable company carried the fabled MTV! We stayed and visited I think three days, and the whole time I was glued to the big Zenith console in their sunken living room, flopped face down in the shag carpet, mesmerized by the nonstop visual radio dishing out one song after another after another. It happened to be the weekend of the premiere of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video and I have a distinct memory of the whole family, three generations from Dust Bowl Okies on down, all huddled around the tube in that room in rapt attention. Everybody loved Michael Jackson and everybody was blown away by what we saw — not just another corny, cheap promo clip, but a full-blown Hollywood cinematic extravaganza, made by a big-time director, and complete with what would become an iconic dance sequence. Even the old-timers were thrilled.

I know I must have watched 100 videos that weekend, but all I remember now is “Thriller” and this oddball right here. But now I had drunk straight from the firehose and would not be satisfied until I had more.

As it turned out, I would not have too long to wait. The cable company in my little town finally got with the times and expanded its lineup of offerings beyond Channel 13 for the first time ever — and one of the new additions was MTV! Of course this mandated the use of a cable extension box that allowed the viewer to select these new channels, so we had to go down to the cable office to pick up one such unit for each of the three TVs in the house. I was so excited, I played sick from school that day — I was a freshman in high school at the time — and practically tripped over myself getting the thing installed on the little thirteen-inch set in my bedroom the minute it was in the house.

When I switched it on for the first time, this jam blared from the screen:

It’s a ripper for sure, but why did so many MTV stars go for such raggedy stagewear?

As a bonus, we were told that if we ran the cable signal to the FM antenna input of a stereo tuner, MTV could be tuned in at a specific frequency, perfectly synced to the video feed, and in full stereo! Before the afternoon was out I had wired up all the TVs and stereos in the house for maximum rock & roll. I also quickly realized this meant I could apply to MTV my longstanding habit of recording songs off the radio; over the next couple years I ended up making numerous mixtapes of MTV jams, which I played endlessly on my K-Mart knockoff Walkman.

Those were heady days, especially during summer breaks, when I had little to do with my time but play Atari, read Douglas Adams books and watch television. I also had a paper route, and in short order began spending a greater and greater percentage of my pay on cassette albums and seven-inch singles — and more and more of them were by acts I had discovered through music videos. I would ride my bike each week to K-Mart (my home away from home) and the local mom & pop Spark’s Music; both these stores had dedicated sections with 40 individual slots, each stocked with the corresponding single from that week’s Billboard Top 40. Just a few of my 45s: “Back on the Chain Gang,” “Major Tom,” “Rock the Casbah,” “She Blinded Me with Science,” “When Your Heart is Weak,” “Salt in My Tears,” “Electric Avenue,” “Goody Two Shoes,” “I Know There’s Something Going On,” “Hungry Like the Wolf,” “When Doves Cry,” “Rock This Town,” “99 Luftbalons,” “Pressure,” “I’m Still Standing,” “Here Comes the Rain Again,” so many more.

Hey, Rik, man, what are you doing with my crucifix, man?”

As a bonus, MTV brought us all 12 episodes of the hilarious, anarchic British sitcom The Young Ones, which I think every one of my friends memorized as thoroughly as I did, recording each airing on VHS tape and rewatching over and over, trying to figure out the jokes hidden in the muddle of UK accents and referents. Everyone had a favorite character, and mine was the eternally put-upon hippie Neil, who more than probably anybody else inspired me to start growing my hair out for the first time. The comedy of The Young Ones was naughty, gritty and frankly dangerous — and we just could not get enough

But the introduction of the half-hour programming block was a harbinger of bad times to come. MTV’s owners sold their scrappy little network, along with Showtime, for $667.5 million in 1985, and the new suits at Viacom wasted little time cleaning house. Their bean counters started doing the math and figured out that playing a new video every four minutes gave viewers too many opportunities to turn the channel when they didn’t like the song that was playing at any given time. Replacing a string of five or six unrelated videos with a single 30-minute segment encouraged viewer “stickiness,” and before long the days of freeform video programming were numbered, slowly supplanted by thematic shows in which one or another genre of music was ghettoized into its own cubbyhole — which had the unfortunate side effect of ensuring viewers were less likely to be cross-pollinated with music from outside their normal listening preference, previously one of MTV’s strengths.

At first there was Heavy Metal Mania, which more or less morphed into the long-running Headbangers Ball, then the alternative music omnibus 120 Minutes, then the dance-oriented Club MTV, then — finally repping Black music after years of criticism of the network’s lily-white programming — the iconic Yo! MTV Raps.

Birthplace of Colin Quinn AND Adam Sandler.

And then came the game shows, and then the reality shows, and by that time, it seems that neither I nor anyone I knew really paid much attention anymore (though I will admit to tuning in for Beavis & Butt-Head, anyway). Our beloved pop music oracle had become a “lifestyle” channel catering to younger folks whose lifestyle had less and less appeal for us, and we were off instead doing acid to Butthole Surfers records or raving to EDM or grooving on backpacker hip-hop or just generally grunging it up.

But for a few short years, in a wacky time called the ’80s, MTV had taken a generation on a neon-colored, hyperkinetic, synth-infused rocket ride through unexpected sights and sounds — and looking back today, I’d have to say I am happy to have been on board.

Here are a few other MTV memories from fellow Gen-Xers. Please feel free to leave yours in the comment section below!


Most memorable video: Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime”

I was visiting a friend’s house and they had recently installed cable TV. The first video I remember seeing that made a big (gigantic) impression was “Once in a Lifetime” by Talking Heads. It changed me forever. I had been primed for musical weirdness by David Bowie’s performance on Saturday Night Live in 1979, which spooked me in a visceral way and kept me thinking — what was it about the performance that gripped me so hard? Music can do that to a person? The “Once In a Lifetime” video brought it all home. I felt like I was suddenly somehow part of the weirdness. It was a thrill.

I went from childhood favorites like Jim Croce, Cat Stevens and Elton John to literally anything that was slightly weird to my Midwestern mind. All the New Wave or New Wave-adjacent stuff I saw on MTV — Devo, Blondie, the Cars — were my new home. 120 Minutes introduced me to many new acts! I tried to watch it whenever I could.

{By 1985] I started going to punk shows in Kansas City and the veil had been lifted. Things like Live Aid seemed commercial and silly.


Most memorable video: Pretenders’ “Brass in Pocket”

The first time I encountered MTV was within a few days of launch, approximately two months before my 17th birthday, shortly before beginning my junior year in high school. I lived with my mom and sister in a small apartment. We had a small black & white TV that spent most of its time in a closet, and no cable. Couldn’t afford it. My best friend lived in Eastborough and his folks were well-to-do. They had the largest color TV of any of my friends, and it even had a remote! One day my buddy asked, “Have you seen MTV yet? You have to come to the house and look at this!” I went over one early afternoon and he switched it on. Looking back I remember him telling me, “It’s TV, but they play music and show videos,” but I didn’t wrap my head around that. I can’t remember exactly what happened, but suddenly I was watching Chrissy Hynde singing “Brass in Pocket.” I was hooked.

I was involved in drama at Southeast High from ’81-83. Many of my friends adopted the Adam Ant/Madonna/Clash-influenced look, wearing multiple message buttons, safety pins, cutoff jean jacket vests, mesh stockings, etc., etc. I was a boring white kid with no fashion sense or interest in how I looked or what anybody thought about it. I think MTV probably, early on, had a positive influence by exposing kids in the hinterlands to acts like the Clash, Pretenders, Blondie, etc. — but it very quickly became just another version of Top 40 heavy rotation crap when it wasn’t showing original programming of wildly divergent quality. It just became another way to shovel money into the same crap acts that the music industry always gravitates towards.


Memorable videos: Guns & Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle,” all things Pat Benatar, Tom Petty and Phil Collins/Genesis.

When MTV launched, we only had basic channels; I could hear it but the picture was scrambled so I couldn’t actually see the videos. It was summer 1982 when I actually could watch it. I was addicted to it from the beginning. I was very into music, I listened to the radio and made mixtapes constantly so seeing videos for the songs I loved was super exciting. I was 11, and very shy at the time.

I was really into the Top 10 countdown. Unfortunately it coincided with dinner almost every night so I got yelled at a lot for not coming to the table while waiting to hear the number one song of the day. I remember they had a contest where you could win tickets to see David Lee Roth , I think it was in Australia. This was right after he left Van Halen. I called that 800 number a million times but of course I didn’t win. I’m sure if I had, DLR and I would still be together today. Oh! And when KISS took off their make up for the first time! That was huge for me because I had loved KISS since I was six. It was a little disappointing — I thought Paul Stanley would be cuter underneath the makeup.

MTV was a huge part of my childhood and adolescence. Music was always so important to me and seeing it as well as hearing it affected my tastes. I loved how the videos were like little movies. I loved watching interviews and hearing what the artists thought about their music and fans. I can’t imagine what my teen years would’ve been like without it.


Memorable videos: Rod Stewart’s “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?,” Iron Maiden, Split Enz

Sometime early in 1982 I went with a friend to a guy’s house who had cable. I was not friends with the guy but went along to see this MTV thing since people in school had talked about it. The first video I think I saw was “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” by Rod Stewart; the videos that followed were much like I saw on Night Flight with bands mostly “playing” on a stage. For a young budding music fan like myself this was a miracle.

Many students in my high school emulated the styles of Madonna or New Wave artists like Adam Ant. Whenever a new music video dropped, literally the next week the more well-off students in my school would be dressing in some strange hybrid of the style in the video and Midwestern bric-a-brac. A girl from my hometown won an MTV contest in 1982 and that was a big thing. I followed the Little Pink Houses contest with earnest.

I enjoyed 120 Minutes and Headbangers Ball until the former became more “grunge” and the latter got taken over by hair metal. By that time I had moved into college radio.


Memorable videos: The Romantics’ “What I Like About You,” Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ “You Got Lucky,” the Replacements’ “Bastards of Young”

I first watched MTV at our house when we first got cable in early ’82. I watched for hours and hours when we first got it. The novelty of music videos held an appeal, but I was totally into ’60s music and had just got into punk, so most of what they played didn’t do much for me. I usually watched it while doing homework and would mostly tune it out until an interesting song or video came on. One night, while doing math homework, I remember seeing the video for “What I Like About You” by the Romantics and hoping they would play it again, but after watching hundreds of hours, I never saw it on MTV again. Most of my friends loved it, but I was more of the “MTV Sucks” crowd because they were too mainstream for my “bohemian” tastes.

I didn’t watch MTV nearly as much when I was in college, but I did love The Young Ones, which MTV introduced me to. They were not only hilarious, but they also had what I considered good bands like the Damned and Motörhead. [Later on] I watched a lot of Beavis & Butt-Head. My favorite part was when they would make fun of the videos, which my friends and I used to do.

MTV inspired me most in its original purpose — music videos. My high school band was inspired to make videos because of MTV. It became a necessity.


Memorable videos: The Police’s “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic,” Art of Noise’s “Close to the Edit,” Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit,” Duran Duran’s Rio trilogy

I must have seen MTV for the first time in the fall of 1981, but didn’t get into it until the summer of 1982. South Orange didn’t actually have cable in the early 1980s, but the neighboring town of Maplewood did, and so I would spend as much time as I could over at my Maplewood friends’ houses to watch as much MTV as possible.

When I was a junior and senior in high school, several friends would record episodes of The Young Ones and 120 Minutes, and we would watch them after school early in the week. Having access to the VCR meant that not only would we get together for MTV viewing of whatever happened to be on, but we’d rewatch those recorded Young Ones and 120 Minutes episodes over and over and over. We obsessively uttered Young Ones quotes. “So have we got a video?!” “Darling fascist bullyboy, give me some more money, you bastard!” We watched videos like the Bolshoi’s “A Way” frame by frame to more fully appreciate the Gothy hotness of lead singer Trevor Tanner. Those two shows in particular seemed like a lifeline to something way cooler across the pond.

By the time I got into college (fall of 1987) I stopped paying as much attention to MTV. Programming like Remote Control held little appeal and the hair metal bands on heavy rotation were a big nope for me, and I think for lots of us who got hooked on MTV in the early 80s for all the New Wave music. I had access to new music via college radio, etc., and so I no longer wanted my MTV except maybe for 120 Minutes.


Most memorable video: Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ “You Got Lucky

My first memory of MTV was in my own house; I don’t recall which video was first, but thought it was cool because my first exposure was under the influence of our summer teenage babysitter from up the street, who if memory serves, was the epitome of any girl from any John Hughes movie.

MTV influenced the culture of most youth I know, especially in less urban/hip/culturally diverse areas such as ours, by exposing them to new ideas, aesthetics, appearances, etc. My friends would frequently call each other to alert each other to a specific video playing. I think skateboarding played a larger part in the development of my aesthetic/fashion sensibilities, with MTV a close second. If MTV hadn’t been a “thing,” pop music/culture might have been more talent-focused, rather than “look”-focused — but probably not.

Like most, I think the decline began when they were airing more non-music-oriented content. MTV still felt relevant for me for pop culture pulses, though, so I watched it until I cancelled my cable subscription circa ’07-’08, and then didn’t miss it at all.

About Michael Carmody

Michael Carmody is a Gen-X musician living and working on the Great Plains.

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