August 1, 1981– MTV: Music Television goes on the air for the first time at 12:01am EST, with the words, spoken over footage of the first Space Shuttle launch countdown of Columbia, were spoken by one of MTV’s creators, John Lack:
“Ladies and gentlemen, Rock and Roll.”
My boyfriend (now The Husband) and I got cable for the first time just so I could watch MTV. I was quite dedicated to it for the first decade.
The Buggles’ Video Killed The Radio Star was the first music video to air on the new cable television channel, which initially was available only to households in a few areas including parts of New Jersey and Kansas City. MTV went on to revolutionize the music industry and become an influential source of pop culture and entertainment all over our pretty planet, 138 countries in Europe, North America, Latin America, Asia, The Middle East, Australia, even Sub-Sahara Africa, all have MTV-branded channels
The original purpose of MTV was to be “music television”, playing music videos 24 hours-a-day, seven days a week. The programming consisted of basic music videos that were introduced by VJs (video jockeys) and provided for free by the record companies. As the record industry recognized MTV’s value as a promotional vehicle, money was invested in making creative, cutting-edge videos. Many directors, including Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Her), David Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club) and Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind), worked on music videos before moving on to feature films. In the 1980s, MTV was incredibly important in promoting the careers of Madonna, Michael Jackson, Prince and Duran Duran, whose videos played in heavy rotation.
The VJs became celebrities too. The original five MTV VJs in 1981 were: Nina Blackwood, Mark Goodman, Alan Hunter, J.J. Jackson and Martha Quinn.
During MTV’s first year on the air, very few black artists were included in rotation on the channel. The exceptions were Michael Jackson, Prince, Donna Summer, Tina Turner, and Herbie Hancock. The very first people of color to play on MTV was the British band The Specials, which had white and black musicians. The Specials’ video Rat Race was the the 58th video on that first day. After much protest, including an on-air scolding from David Bowie during an interview, MTV added videos in its regular rotation by Stevie Wonder, Chaka Khan, Lionel Richie, The Pointer Sisters, Kool And The Gang, and Diana Ross.
Eventually, videos from the emerging genres of Rap and Hip Hop would also begin to enter rotation on MTV. By the mid-1980s. you would see videos by Run-DMC, LL Cool J, and the Beastie Boys.
The channel’s iconic tag line “I want my MTV!” was based on a cereal commercial from the 1950s with the slogan “I want my Maypo!”. The campaign featured Pete Townshend, Pat Benatar, Adam Ant, David Bowie, The Police, Kiss, Culture Club, Billy Idol, Hall & Oates, Cyndi Lauper, Madonna, Lionel Richie, Ric Ocasek, John Mellencamp, Stevie Nicks, Rick Springfield and Mick Jagger, interacting with the MTV logo on-air and encouraging viewers to call their cable or satellite providers and request that MTV be added to their local channel lineups.
MTV’s effect was immediate in places where the channel was carried. Within two months, record stores in areas where MTV was available were selling music that local radio stations were not playing: Men At Work, Bow Wow Wow and the Human League. The channel sparked the Second British Invasion, with British acts in heavy rotation, who had been using music videos for promotion for half a decade.
MTV struggled during its first few years. Conservative cable operators often refused to carry the channel. It developed a reputation for pushing cultural boundaries and taste; the airing of Madonna’s Like A Prayer video in 1989, caused the Christian Right to lose their shit.
Today, MTV’s music video programming is mostly confined to one show, Total Request Live. But, on this day, 36 years ago, it was all music. The first 10 videos to play were:
Video Killed the Radio Star- The Buggles
You Better Run– Pat Benatar
She Won’t Dance With Me– Rod Stewart
You Better You Bet– The Who
Little Suzi’s On The Up– Ph.D.
We Don’t Talk Anymore– Cliff Richard
Brass in Pocket – The Pretenders
Time Heals– Todd Rundgren
Take It On The Run– REO Speedwagon (This video was interrupted after a few seconds due to technical difficulties)
Rockin’ The Paradise– Styx