MTV revolutionized the way we're exposed to new music

Stylish music videos turned nobodies into stars overnight.

By Scott Hickey of The News-Sentinel

U2, R.E.M., Madonna, Michael Jackson, Duran Duran, Men At Work, the Go-Go's, Prince, the Thompson Twins, Billy Idol, A Flock of Seagulls, Simple Minds, Stray Cats, Culture Club, Eurythmics and New Kids on the Block.

If you pioneered puberty during the Reagan years, chances are you spent more than a few hours watching videos from those artists on MTV — Music Television — while trying to decipher and master Michael Jackson's Moonwalk. One channel, 24 hours of music videos — pure adolescent brain rot.

The channel tore down musical walls, while its quick-cut editing shortened the attention span of pimply-faced adolescents, soon-to-be-dubbed Generation X. College rock left the dorm rooms to settle down in suburbia and rap music crashed on the beaches of white America, while Madonna pranced around "Like a Virgin."

Anyone with a basic cable package, regardless of geographic location or social position, could be hip to the new buzz in music by flipping the channel.

On Aug. 1, 1981, MTV blasted its way into youth culture with the broadcast of the Buggles' "Video Killed the Radio Star." While that obscure British band's musical prophecy has yet to pass, it's clear that music videos have changed the way people think about, receive and digest popular music.

Since the dawn of Elvis' pelvis, style and sexiness have always played an important role in pop music — individual style can overcome a lack of substance. But MTV made it even more acceptable for bands to look good rather than sound good, to paraphrase Fernando, Billy Crystal's "Saturday Night Live" character.

At its worst, MTV spawned an orgy of shallow performers with a slick, fashionable look but dubious musical skills. The duo Milli Vanilli looked good dancing around in spandex biker shorts — as long as the tape they were lip-syncing to didn't break. In the '60s and '70s, there was only one Monkees. In the ‘80s, the zoo was full of musical primates.

But there were reasons for everyone to declare, "I want my MTV!"

The channel exposed many good bands ignored by mainstream radio. R.E.M., from Athens, Ga., was a messiah of college rock, but remained a hidden pearl to most of America until its popularity exploded, helped by heavy rotation on MTV. Ireland's U2, another band near and dear to early-'80s college-radio listeners, also found a new level of success thanks to MTV's national exposure.

MTV made stars overnight. What radio did for rock 'n' roll in the '50s, MTV expanded on in the '80s. The lively cable channel with an astronaut for a mascot became the musical rainmaker of the Regan era. Musicians were no longer at the mercy of radio stations and extensive touring for exposure. Besides, radio signals only carried so far, and not every city had a nightclub. And while cable wasn't as ubiquitous a commodity as it is today, MTV still had the advantage of being hot-wired nationally. A few choice spins, and boom — kids were at the record stores from New York to Los Angeles and all points in between.

And in its early days, MTV had the feel of free-form radio. Unlike commercial radio, the channel had no strict genre barriers to which it had to adhere. Rock 'n' roll, heavy metal and bubble-gum pop all lived together in harmony on MTV.

Where radio stations stuck to one format, MTV flew in the face of conventional wisdom that said young people only liked one kind of music. Adopting that mix-and-match approach helped spur rap music's meteoric rise to mainstream popularity.

Rap — like blues and jazz before it — began as a primarily black phenomenon. MTV helped rap cross racial barriers by exporting it from urban centers to middle America. Kids weaned on rock radio probably would never have known about Run DMC, Grandmaster Flash and Kool Moe Dee if not for MTV.

In its prime, when MTV broadcast music videos 24 hours a day, it helped spread the word about music — the superficial and the influential — to a young generation of eager ears and eyes.

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