MTV Revolutionizes American Popular Culture

MTV and other music-video broadcasting had a dramatic effect on the music business and and on television programming, generating repercussions across the broad range of popular culture.

Summary of Event

In the 1950’s, the most important site for rock-and-roll music was Memphis, home of Elvis Presley and the legendary stars of Sun Records. In the 1960’s, it was Liverpool, England, the point of departure for the Beatles and other bands of the “British invasion.” In the 1970’s, it was London, which spawned punk rock and the New Wave that followed. In the 1980’s, however, the most important place in rock music was a television studio in Queens, New York; it was there that Music Television (MTV) was born. Television;MTV
Music videos
Cable television;MTV
Musical recording industry;videos
[kw]MTV Revolutionizes American Popular Culture (Aug. 1, 1981)
[kw]American Popular Culture, MTV Revolutionizes (Aug. 1, 1981)
[kw]Popular Culture, MTV Revolutionizes American (Aug. 1, 1981)
[kw]Culture, MTV Revolutionizes American Popular (Aug. 1, 1981)
Music videos
Cable television;MTV
Musical recording industry;videos
[g]North America;Aug. 1, 1981: MTV Revolutionizes American Popular Culture[04590]
[g]United States;Aug. 1, 1981: MTV Revolutionizes American Popular Culture[04590]
[c]Music;Aug. 1, 1981: MTV Revolutionizes American Popular Culture[04590]
[c]Radio and television;Aug. 1, 1981: MTV Revolutionizes American Popular Culture[04590]
Pittman, Robert
Jackson, Michael
Nesmith, Michael
Lack, John

The concept of pairing popular music with television imagery is a relatively old one, dating back to the 1930’s and 1940’s, when cartoons were synchronized to the songs of such performers as Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong. In the 1960’s, a device called the Scopitone offered viewers something resembling music videos, but it never attained widespread popularity, probably because it featured European singers rather than far more popular American performers. More directly, the films of the Beatles, particularly A Hard Day’s Night (1964), Hard Day’s Night, A (film)[Hard Days Night] and long-running British television shows such as Top of the Pops, which featured long segments of musical performance and arresting imagery, can be seen as the inspirations for what became MTV.

The new form began modestly enough. The immediate precursor of MTV was Popclips, Popclips (television program) a music and video program developed by Michael Nesmith, a former member of the pop group the Monkees. Popclips, which featured video clips of music and images, was hosted by stand-up comedian Howie Mandel and appeared on the Warner-Amex-Satellite Entertainment Warner-Amex-Satellite Entertainment[Warner Amex Satellite Entertainment] company’s Nickelodeon Nickelodeon (television network) network in 1980. Recognizing the potential of such a show, Warner executive John Lack backed the creation of an entire channel to be devoted solely to music videos, twenty-four hours a day. The execution of this idea was entrusted to Robert Pittman, a twenty-seven-year-old television and radio executive who already had a long track record of successful programming (he would later be responsible for the talk show hosted by the abrasive Morton Downey, Jr.).

The new project was a relatively low-risk proposition, because the programming would be provided by record companies to the network at no cost in the hope that the videos would serve as advertising. Expectations for MTV were modest; even its strongest proponents said profits would be years away. When the network made its debut on August 1, 1981, MTV had a mere 125 videos, thirteen advertisers, and access to only 2.1 million households a relatively meager potential audience. It was not even carried in New York City or Los Angeles.

It soon became clear, however, that the new format had a number of assets: engaging video disc jockeys (or “veejays,” as they came to be known), hip sets, and often-astounding graphics that ran between videos and commercials. The very first video shown was the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star,” “Video Killed the Radio Star” (Buggles)[Video Killed the Radio Star] an audacious statement that would prove in some ways prophetic. In 1982, the network introduced its famous slogan “I Want My MTV,” which was uttered in ads by a variety of rock stars incessantly throughout the day and night. By 1984, Warner had spun MTV into a separate company that was showing a profit and claiming more than twenty-four million viewers. Radio had not been killed, but it was now a poor relation to the video colossus.

Among the earliest beneficiaries of MTV were such foreign acts as Australia’s Men at Work Men at Work and England’s Culture Club, Culture Club which were familiar with video production from British television and thus were ready with material on hand to add to MTV’s small initial library. The result was a 1980’s version of a British invasion, as new acts such as Duran Duran Duran Duran and more established performers such as David Bowie Bowie, David and Elton John John, Elton quickly seized the music-video spotlight.

Conspicuously absent from MTV, at first, were videos starring black artists. MTV programmers initially believed that the network’s viewers, who were predominantly white, middle-class adolescents, would wish to see only white performers. Media critics claimed that the network was racist; more profit-minded record company executives were angry at the lack of access to the channel for black performers who ranked among the most creative acts of the day. When Michael Jackson’s album Thriller
Thriller (Jackson) topped the charts in early 1983 without the benefit of video, the singer’s label, CBS Records, CBS Records reputedly threatened to stop providing MTV with videos for any of its artists if the network did not start playing Jackson’s work. MTV complied, and the shortsightedness of its former policy quickly became apparent as Jackson and other black acts brought new excitement and new audiences to the form.

Indeed, the fabulous success of MTV spawned a wave of imitators on cable television, local stations, and even the major networks, which began producing television shows such as Night Tracks and Friday Night Videos to compete with the new channel. Some of these shows did reasonably well, but none achieved success on a scale similar to that seen by MTV. Perhaps the greatest potential challenge was posed by media mogul Ted Turner, who started a rival network, VH-1 (Video Hits One), Video Hits One that offered more family-oriented videos. Bad ratings, however, led Turner to abandon the attempt, and he sold VH-1 to MTV, where (with its name changed to VH1) it thrived as a more adult-oriented version of the original network.

One important reason MTV was able to thrive amid such challenges was the almost relentless pace of innovation that characterized it. For example, when rap music achieved broad popularity in the late 1980’s, the network did not repeat its earlier mistake of marginalizing the work of black performers; instead, it achieved a high profile in rap culture with Yo! MTV Raps, a show devoted to the form. As its audience widened, MTV added news service, and the network was widely seen as playing an influential role in registering young voters and interesting them in the presidential election of 1992 (both the major-party candidates, Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush, appeared on the network during the campaign). Moreover, innovative programs such as Liquid Television offered showcases for the latest technological and visual developments in video culture.

MTV’s audience declined by nearly half, according to some estimates following the heady days of the early 1980’s as the novelty of the format wore off. The network continued to be profitable, however, because the youth market it targeted remained attractive to advertisers and because MTV continued to offer the best programming of its kind. Even in the trend-following and constantly changing business of popular music, it was clear that MTV had arrived to stay.


The establishment of MTV was one of the most important cultural developments of the 1980’s. The network had an immense influence on popular music, but it also had a tremendous impact on American society at large, shaping television, advertising, and other areas of popular culture. Rock and roll

MTV’s impact on popular music was manifold. On the most obvious level, it became a new outlet for performers to reach audiences, and as a result it developed unprecedented power in its ability to make or break careers. By the 1990’s, the network’s decision to show a video clip by a fledgling act represented a major break for that act, and a clip shown every few hours (in “heavy rotation”) represented the kind of exposure no radio station or advertiser could hope to match in impact. In a highly segmented even fragmented market, MTV and its sister network VH-1 became the nearest approximation of a musical center, where diverse styles received representation and could influence a variety of performers and audiences alike.

The rise of music video also brought with it a new emphasis on the visual component of musical performance. This had always been important in rock, from Elvis Presley’s hip thrusts through the Beatles’ stylish haircuts and beyond, but MTV created a new showcase for charismatic, visually appealing acts. Outlandish performers such as Boy George of Culture Club and artistic innovators such as Peter Gabriel exploited that showcase to the fullest extent. The more dubious aspects of this development would become obvious in 1990, when it was revealed that the stars of the Grammy Award-winning group Milli Vanilli Milli Vanilli were nothing more than lip-synching impostors.

A subtler but nevertheless significant aspect of MTV’s impact on music was the last push it gave to individual hit records before compact discs and MTV’s own decline in influence brought about the demise of the vinyl single. By the late 1970’s, the single had long since lost influence to the long-playing album, and some of the most successful artists never actually had hit records. Thanks to MTV, however, singles enjoyed a renaissance, and album-oriented performers enjoyed unprecedented strings of hits from individual albums. Billy Joel’s 1983 album An Innocent Man
Innocent Man, An (Joel) spawned six top-forty hits; Bruce Springsteen’s 1984 album Born in the U.S.A. Born in the U.S.A. (Springsteen) had seven. Performers such as Lionel Ritchie and Michael Jackson, who were widely familiar to hit-radio listeners, got an even bigger boost. Jackson’s 1982 release Thriller shattered sales records and became the first album in pop music history to yield six top-ten singles.

If MTV helped Michael Jackson to reach a vast new audience, however, it was Jackson who brought MTV to new heights of excitement and influence. His videos for the songs “Billie Jean,” “Beat It,” and “Thriller” were not merely eagerly anticipated and watched by millions of viewers; they were cultural events that demonstrated the artistic potential of the video form.

Another major figure who can be mentioned in the same breath as Jackson is Madonna. Trained as a dancer and singularly adept at manipulating images to generate interest in her work, Madonna used video to build a media empire that included music, film, and even books. For example, her videos for “Lucky Star,” “Material Girl” (with its evocation of Marilyn Monroe), and “Vogue” extended the form and flirted with taboos that only brought Madonna more notoriety. Some have questioned whether Madonna would have become a star without MTV or, at the very least, whether she could have become so famous so quickly without the new medium.

Perhaps the most striking dimension of the MTV phenomenon was its impact on other cultural forms. What might be called the “MTV aesthetic” bright images, rapid-fire editing, repeated motifs, and dreamlike imagery, among other techniques was widely appropriated. It has often been noted that the hit television shows Miami Vice and Pee-Wee’s Playhouse owed much to MTV, as did trends in television and magazine advertising.

Not all observers saw such developments as positive. Some critics argued that the MTV aesthetic was a superficial one that short-circuited sustained analysis and accelerated the movement away from traditional forms of literacy necessary for a truly educated citizenry. Others argued that MTV and its related forms represented the beginnings of a new visual order that would itself become the norm, much in the way the written word supplanted oral traditions. In either case, few would dispute the enormous impact of MTV on American culture at the end of the twentieth century. MTV
Music videos
Cable television;MTV
Musical recording industry;videos

Further Reading

  • Aufderheide, Pat. “Music Videos: The Look of Sound.” In Watching Television: A Pantheon Guide to Popular Culture, edited by Todd Gitlin. New York: Pantheon Books, 1987. Presents an incisive and readable analysis of music video and MTV that emphasizes the highly postmodern nature of the form and both its intellectually liberating and constricting qualities. Slightly dated, but still highly relevant.
  • Frith, Simon. “Making Sense of Video: Pop into the Nineties.” In Music for Pleasure: Essays in the Sociology of Pop. New York: Routledge, 1988. Brief essay looks at video’s role in the music industry. Includes specific discussion of MTV.
  • _______. “Video Pop: Picking Up the Pieces.” In Facing the Music: A Pantheon Guide to Popular Culture, edited by Simon Frith. New York: Pantheon Books, 1988. Important article by a very influential British rock critic and sociologist situates video within the larger reorganization of the music industry.
  • McGrath, Tom. MTV: The Making of a Revolution. New York: Running Press, 1996. History of MTV emphasizes its beginnings as an innovative business venture and explores the reasons for its success.
  • Rubey, Dan. “Voguing at the Carnival: Desire and Pleasure on MTV.” South Atlantic Quarterly 90 (Fall, 1991): 871-906. Scholarly postmodern reading of music video emphasizes the degree to which MTV represents a new kind of literacy that opens forms of expression that counter those of the dominant culture.
  • Tucker, Ken. “Rock in the Video Age.” In Rock of Ages: The Rolling Stone History of Rock and Roll, by Ed Ward, Geoffrey Stokes, and Ken Tucker. New York: Rolling Stone Press, 1986. Presents a good narrative summary of the rise of MTV and the immediate musical context of the form. Offers a particularly good section on the Michael Jackson controversy of 1982 and 1983.

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