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MTV: a pop culture revolution

Over 30 years ago, MTV was launched, sparking a musical and cultural revolution.

Designed to expose music videos to a mass audience, MTV popularised a medium that possessed a marketing potential equal to its artistic potential. It operated as a vital promotional platform for global artists and labels alike and became the nucleus of pop culture.

MTV was undoubtedly responsible for the rapid growth in popularity of cable television in the early ‘80’s as the channel became a symbol of identity for youth, influencing all aspects of pop culture from music and film to fashion and even politics.

Artists who had relied solely on album sales and tours to generate revenue were now able to exploit endless promotional opportunities previously unknown to them, transforming the music industry.

On August 1st, 1981, at 12:01am, the Chief Operating Officer of MTV John Lack presented MTV for the first time, announcing, “Ladies and gentlemen, rock ‘n’roll.” Broadcasting images of the space shuttle countdown of Columbia and of the Apollo 11 launch and landing, an American flag was replaced by a color-changing flag emblazoned with the, now world-renowned, MTV logo. This iconic moment was appropriately followed by MTV’s premier music video, Video Killed The Radio Star, by The Buggles.

Over the years MTV has aired numerous television series, but none deserves it praises to be amplified louder than the legendary MTV Unplugged, a live show dedicated to the raw, acoustic performances of the most popular artists of the era. The concept of the show was influenced by The King of Rock ‘n Roll, Elvis Presley’s 1968 Comeback Special, The Beatles’ film Let It Be and Pete Townshend’s, (of The Who fame), appearance at the 1979 Secret Policeman’s Ball.

MTV Unplugged premiered on November 26th, 1989 and it was appearances on this show that would go down in musical history, propelling some artists directly into superstardom.

Paul McCartney became the first artist to release his Unplugged show as a live album and this set a trend for others to come. Mariah Carey’s Unplugged EP sold over 10 million worldwide, owing largely to her number one cover of I’ll Be There by The Jackson 5 on the show. Eric Clapton exceeded this figure, as his Unplugged album became the best-selling of its kind in the U.S., remembered by most for his rendition of Layla by Cream in a 1992 episode. The album went on to claim Album of the Year at the 1993 Grammy Awards. MTV Unplugged also hosted several high profile reunions including The Eagles’ show, Hell Freezes Over and Jimmy Page and Robert Plant from Led Zeppelin in 1994 and Kiss in 1995.

Despite an endless list of greats having graced the stage of MTV Unplugged, such as Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, the one performance that will linger longer in the memories than most for the vast majority of viewers was that of Nirvana.

On November 18th, 1993, Kurt Cobain’s Nirvana recorded a powerfully poignant fourteen-track set in one take, comprising mainly of lesser-known songs, apart from the classic Come As You Are. Cobain had been suffering from drug withdrawal and nervousness prior to the performance and insisted his acoustic guitar went through an amp, despite the premise of the show. He refused to play an encore and demanded the set to be decorated with black candles, stargazer lilies and a crystal chandelier, “Like a funeral.” This request became even more eerie less than five months later when Kurt Cobain committed suicide at home on April 5th, 1994. MTV Unplugged was one of Cobain’s last television appearances and for many was considered his parting gift to the world.

MTV is not merely a launch pad for musicians, but an institution dedicated to the acknowledgment of musicians services to the industry and the Video Music Awards, were designed to reward outstanding music videos. The awards themselves are in the shape of an astronaut clasping a flag, referencing MTV’s initial broadcast of the network. The ceremony, usually broadcast live, first occurred in 1984 at Radio City Music Hall in New York City and despite the guaranteed star-studded guest list, has grown to be synonymous with scandal and lewd behavior. That said, the VMA’s, music’s equivalent to the Grammy Awards, have provided some of pop culture’s most unforgettable moments.

Madonna’s controversial and explicitly sexual 1984 performance of Like A Virgin, where she writhed across every square inch of the stage, sporting a lacy wedding gown and ‘Boy Toy’ belt, during the inaugural VMA’s, set the tone for ceremonies to come.

1992 saw Nirvana smash their equipment up on stage following a legendary performance of Lithium, which began with the opening few lines of their song Rape Me, an anti-establishment track just to remind MTV executives who was boss.

Michael Jackson performed an unforgettable fifteen-minute medley in 1995 including smash hits Billie Jean, Beat It, Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough and Black or White, all backed on stage by Guns N’ Roses lead guitarist Slash. He went on to dominate the show picking up three awards for Best Dance Video, Best Choreography and Best Art Direction for his video Scream, a duet with his sister Janet Jackson.

Britney Spears has provided no end of entertainment throughout her career both on an off the stage and she never disappoints at the VMA’s. At the 2001 event, she performed the sexually charged I’m A Slave 4 U, scantily clad, with a seven-foot long albino python draped across her shoulder, followed up by a highly-publicised lesbian kiss on stage with pop queen, Madonna in 2003.

More recently, we have been unfortunate enough to witness egomaniacal acts of self righteousness by the ever-unholy Kanye West, who deemed it appropriate to storm the stage and abduct the microphone from Taylor Swift during her acceptance speech for Best Female Video in 2009, to voice his distaste at the decision, claiming that Beyoncé should have been the recipient. This wasn’t Mr. West’s first expression of disgust. He walked out of the 2004 ceremony and also crashed the stage in a profanity-ridden explosion in 2006, both times unable to accept defeat graciously. Far from setting a good example for the youth of today, but entertaining nevertheless and undoubtedly moments that will live on in the memories of the MTV viewers for years to come.

The less said about Miley Cyrus’ epilatic gyrating at this year’s 2013 VMA’s the better.

The expansion of MTV with sister channels MTV2, MTV Hits, MTV Base and MTV Dance has given more choice to more viewers, allowing people to focus specifically on their preferred genre of music. However, some feel this is one of many negative aspects of MTV, believing it serves merely to segregate fans in an unnatural manner, giving rise to the “I only appreciate one genre” enthusiasts, contradicting entirely the true definition of ‘an appreciation of music’.

With so much choice at the click of a button, the birth of an easily bored audience has influenced artists to make shorter, more visually appealing releases, often sacrificing real musical artistry for commercialised mediocrity. A sad result of a generation so heavily influenced by McDonaldization. Another argument suggests MTV have linked sound and vision so closely that limited musical ability is easily overcome by providing a visually stimulating set of images, guaranteeing success, undermining the true nature of the music industry. The crazy frog brand is a perfect (-ly infuriating) example.

The overexposure to glamorized depictions of tobacco and alcohol alongside overtly sexualised broadcasts are argued to have developed a desensitization to violence and weapons, spawning a much more liberalised youth, keen to emulate what their favourite stars are seen to be doing, particularly so with the rise of hip hop and the sentiments often expressed in the gang culture that fuels such videos.

When MTV was born, in 1981, there was barely a bad word spoken about the revolution, but as Bob Dylan once said, The Times They Are A-Changin and evidence suggests that attitudes towards the impact of MTV on pop culture as a whole are now often seen in a negative spotlight. To some the birth of MTV was the death of the recorded music business, solidifying a mindset that emphasised marketing over substance, creating a disposable music culture.

MTV was deeply influential on my upbringing. As an early-mid ‘80’s baby, I have witnessed MTV’s life almost in its entirety, including its personal developments and its changing relationships with those around it, so I feel informed to pass my judgement on the impact of its creation. I recall arriving home from school and turning down dinner, enabling me to finish my homework quicker, so I could watch MTV. I remember when a party consisted of sitting around the television set with MTV playing and the suspense and excitement of not knowing which track would play next. And when I was finally old enough to appreciate the opposite sex, I would sit for hours in front of MTV, taking mental notes on popular fashion trends.
The arguments surrounding style over substance and the potential segregation of music enthusiasts ring true and with the rise of the new generation, I am sensitive to the same issues of inappropriate exposure of alcohol, sex and violence to youth. But, to rule MTV as having had an entirely negative impact on pop culture is implausible.

The emergence and development of music videos has served as a unique tool for artists to connect with their audience. It has been a symbiotic relationship with both MTV and the record companies benefitting. Those concerned with dwindling sales should be reminded of the impact of illegal copying of music via the introduction of the Internet, rather than isolating MTV as the culprit.

When debating MTV’s impact on pop culture, it seems only adequate to refer to the king and queen of pop, Michael Jackson and Madonna.  Talented as they undoubtedly were, without the monumental promotional power of MTV, these heirs would have never been crowned. For all the negatives of the modern marketing Monster, one simply cannot deny that pop music and indeed pop culture, would not be what it is today without MTV and for that it deserves a royal Celebration.

Dominic Wallace