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A Look at MTV's Effect on Music in the 1980s

By Edited Nov 10, 2015 3 2
MTV Commercial (rocket blast off)
Credit: YouTube screen shot

MTV Commercial from its early days

Did MTV Videos Truly Kill the Radio Star?

As music television emerged, it seemed everyone was chanting "I want my MTV." The first video played on that fateful summer day in 1981 was "Video Killed the Radio Star" by the Buggles. Reflecting back, one can't help but wonder in hindsight -- was this an omen of what would eventually unfold?

During the early 1980s, there were many teens who wanted their music television, but didn't have it. However, on the plus side, if you didn't have cable just yet, chances are a friend did! Many teens, and music loving adults, happily spent hours upon hours glued to the tube watching the celebrated songs they loved come alive in front of their eyes. How many teens sat and watched the cool lunar moon landing images and rocket ships blast into space as the network hyped viewers up for the audio-visual stimulation they were about to receive? Unlike the extensive music channel lineups we have today, not to mention the options music lovers have online too, back in the day MTV was quite the concept. 

Early Years of MTV

In the early part of the decade, music videos started off rather simplistic, augmenting the songs by simply putting a visual to the music. A number of the early videos primarily featured bands playing on stage, or by dressing in silly outfits playing their songs. Basically, MTV put up whatever they could find that was acceptable viewing. In those days artists were not recording with visual in mind.

It wouldn't be long, however, before the concept of music videos took off in a multitude of ways. Soloists and bands began making videos with the purpose of them being aired on MTV (and later networks that emerged).

This magic of the early 80s video was a special time as everyone watched hip VJs, such as Martha Quinn, "Downtown" Julie Brown, Alan Hunter and Nina Blackwood (to name a few), present debut videos which were typically a highly awaited event. With each debut fans were bursting with anticipation waiting for the new videos to be unveiled, and fans were mesmerized by the TV as videos evolved from music performances into storytelling. Some artists ended up being quite influential.

For instance, remember how Michael Jackson made history with his 15-minute mini-movie for "Thriller"? By the mid-80s most videos had montages of images showing the musicians telling a narrative; the popularity of videos continued to soar. By the latter part of the decade, however, videos began to highlight the special effects that technology could provide. In some ways, it can be argued the very evolution of how videos progressed throughout the decade had a direct impact on the music.

Videos Alter the Music Business

In the early 80s the music was primary, but with the addition of the visual enhancements technology was able to provide throughout the decade, the industry changed. Had music now become more about the image? Audio and video tools continued to progress and, as a result, more ornate visuals were used, putting even more emphasis on images and less on music. Which perhaps led to other issues.

It could be argued one of the culminating events occurred at the end of the decade when rumors surfaced that the lead singers of "Milli Vanilli" had not actually provided the vocals on the band's songs. In fact, the duo had been "singing" live at an MTV-taped performance in 1990 and the record skipped. Repeatedly.

The lip syncing was later admitted by the performers, Rob Pilatus and Fab Morvan.1 While the men were not, by far, the first artists to lip-sync a live performance, they were the first ones to get caught in such a big way. However, there was also the fact they didn't sing on their albums, which adds a different dynamic to the scandal when compared to other artists that lip synced in the past.

Prior to video, the real singers could stay visually anonymous behind the recording or radio airplay (including interviews). But the video component mattered during this era -- a lot. The business end of music was highly focused on musicians having a marketable image.  Had the promotional images of video not been such a heavy focus, events such as the Milli Vanilli occurrence would probably not have happened. Or would it have?

Either way, the scandal happened, making it an interesting way to move on from the previous decade that had initially started the magic of it all. Video not only transformed the music, but it effectively altered the nature of the business end of things too.

MTV Would Never be the Same

The greatness, wonderment and "innocence" of the early 1980s would never be the same where music and videos were concerned. MTV evolved to a point where it wasn't even about the video or the music anymore. Over the years, the network branched off into reality shows and promoting political causes. Videos were longer the focus of the network. The early 80s were perhaps the true age of music television. Any other generation probably so not quite get that same sense of excitement and are likely not thinking "I miss my MTV" the same way viewers from the 1980s do.

What happened, did the music get lost on MTV? Not to mention, the network completely ignored its 30th anniversary three years ago. You'd think that would be a significant milestone to celebrate. However, the network's attitude was anything but celebratory. Instead, the station went on business as usual.

"MTV as a brand doesn't age with our viewers," explained Nathaniel Brown, senior vice president of communications for MTV, who confirmed  at that time there were no plans for an on-air MTV celebration. "We are really focused on our current viewers, and our feeling was that our anniversary wasn't something that would be meaningful to them, many of whom weren't even alive in 1981."

(Original article/quote is now offline but you can still see the text on the web2). Sister station VH1 was the network running the flashbacks and celebratory TV events that year.

It seems while the early 1980s experienced the thrilling transformation of putting music to video, at the same time, it also removed the mystery. Before this decade any recordings were typically live or taped performances set for a specific showing. With music television, the videos possibly became as important as the original recordings since it would put artists in the proverbial spotlight instead of allowing them to remain unseen behind a recording or radio airplay.

Since those remarkable early days of video, music has certainly transformed to mesh with technology. Today many pop stars began to rely on synthesized vocals and computer editing in their recordings. Lip sync also evolved to become an accepted practice because the musicians are more focused on their physical performances and the images they want (or need) to project to their fans.

Perhaps video truly did kill the radio star.

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Jan 10, 2015 8:57am
I used to love MTV and because we did not get cable until I was almost 20, watching videos at a friend's house was really fun for me.

We watched the I Heart Radio concert on New year's Eve and Arianna Grande was out of breathe because she was actually dancing and singing, while Nicki Minaj was fine as she was lip synching. Very different performances.
Jan 11, 2015 1:49am
Same here, we didn't get cable until some time years later, around the time I was moving out. My friend's family got it very early on, and we got hooked fast, staying up to all hours of the night watching on weekends.

I didn't see the I Heart concert, I can imagine how different the two were. It's interesting how much has changed over the years, esp now that the Internet is now in the mix too.
Thanks so much for commenting!
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  1. Mike Hess "Milli Vanilli, the Real Story -- 20 Years Later." Pop Eater. 29/01/2010. 9/10/2014 <Web >
  2. "MTV ignores its own 30th birthday." Google Groups. 9/10/2014 <Web >
  3. "The Real Voices Behind Milli Vanilli Share Their Side Of The Lip Syncing Scandal (VIDEO)." Huffington Post. 27/02/2014. 9/10/2014 <Web >

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