Where were you 40 years ago? Were you anxiously awaiting the launch – at midnight on August 1, 1981 – of Music Television, better known as MTV?
Were you born? If you did exist on Earth back then, were you old enough to remember this august (pun intended) moment in American cultural history?
I am old enough to remember the start of the MTV phenomenon, though I did not witness the launch personally. The availability of cable television wasn’t widespread in 1981, especially in urban areas. So in Pontiac, Michigan, where I grew up, our TV choices were still limited to over-the-air broadcasts from stations mostly in Detroit:
Here’s how the Detroit Free Press noted the upcoming launch of MTV two days before it started:
An interesting note about cable TV availability: I was listening to the original MTV video jocks (Mark Goodman, Nina Blackwood, Martha Quinn, and Alan Hunter – the fifth original VJ, J.J. Jackson, died in 2004) chat about MTV’s start on SiriusXM’s “80s on 8” yesterday, and they recalled that they had to travel to Fort Lee, New Jersey during the evening on July 31, where they went to a restaurant that had cable since it wasn’t yet available in Manhattan. They’d been taping their segments that would appear between the videos, but really weren’t sure what MTV was going to look like until the channel started at 12:01 a.m.
My first exposure to MTV was about a month later when I went off to Central Michigan University for my freshman year. As noted in Bettelou Peterson’s Free Press item above, Mt. Pleasant was one of the Michigan cities that had cable and was going to have MTV on their lineup. So when I got to my dorm (the late, great Tate Hall), some of my new dorm mates were aware of the channel already. The dorm had only one cable connection, located in the basement hangout room, where it was attached to a then-quite-large 24” diagonal color television.
I spent a bit of time down there watching, but frankly, I was more into radio and didn’t see the attraction of watching music instead of just listening to it. But some of our classmates spent way too much time down there, and it was apparent that the concept definitely had appeal.
During “Welcome Week,” in fact, the university’s Program Board, which organized music and other cultural events on campus, held a “video watch” event in the Kiva space in Moore Hall. Music videos were projected onto a screen. About 100 people showed up and a good time was had by all.
By the time my radio career got started in 1982, first at campus station WCHP and then at WCFX-FM in Clare, MTV was already affecting how music was being marketed and consumed by fans. MTV’s popularity profoundly influenced what it took to be a successful popular music artist. While it never hurt to be physically attractive before, visual image became even more important in an era when your song absolutely had to have a video to have any chance of getting played, not just on MTV but on the radio as well.
Change is often gradual, and it’s hard to point out exactly when our culture started moving in a different direction. But August 1, 1981, was a pivotal moment in American society when the rocket took off and MTV started burrowing into our collective consciousness.