Thursday, February 23, 2012

BC2012: I Want My MTV by Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum

Back in the 1980s when I was a teenager, I watched a lot of MTV. Come to think of it, I never listened to Top 40 radio (I preferred classic rock, which wasn't as stale 25 years ago as it is now) so almost all of my exposure to new music came through MTV. I can still recall the lyrics to dozens of songs I never even liked after seeing/hearing them so many times on the cable channel (in retrospect it's odd that I watched so much considering that I wasn't really into most of the performers in heavy rotation). I was so enthralled with MTV as a concept that I wrote a research paper about it circa 1986*, which is the midpoint of I Want My MTV and arguably the high point of the music video era. When Barnes & Noble offered a 50% discount on the book after Christmas, I had to buy it.

I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution is an oral history with quotes from hundreds of MTV executives, record label execs, VJs, performers, band managers, directors, et al. It begins with the concept of a music video TV show put forth in the late 1970s by former Monkee Michael Nesmith and ends with the success of The Real World in 1992, after which MTV became less and less of a music video channel. There are many behind-the-scenes stories about the company, the music industry, the making of videos, and the stars who were virtually created by MTV. Readers of a certain age will nod knowingly as they recall the videos being discussed, the images of Duran Duran, Michael Jackson, and Billy Squier (to cover the range from fashionable to groundbreaking to pathetic) burned into their brains by heavy airplay.

One glaring omission is VH-1. There is an explanation of why it was started (to fend off a short-lived Ted Turner video channel), but that's all. Surely there were some turf wars between MTV and its sister channel as they sought their respective niches in the video world (like which channel got to "world premiere" a particular video), but no one talks about it here. I also would have enjoyed reading more about the original VJs, but it looks like they are creating their own book (my interest in MTV apparently waned with their departure because I remember nothing about the later VJs in I Want My MTV).

I Want My MTV reminds me in many ways of Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live. It's an oral history several inches thick, and it focuses more on the earlier years of a pop culture institution (I was pleased to see a tip of the hat to Live From New York in the acknowledgments). Anybody who grew up with MTV prior to 1992 will love this book, although it may be a bit long for some.


* I aspired to be a rock critic in high school. I had the coolest topics for my research papers, including MTV, the changing face of radio, and Bob Dylan.


 

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