JENNINGS: 40 years later, who wants their MTV?

MTV made its debut on Aug. 1, 1981. (Contributed photo)

In 1981 cable television was in its infancy, at least where I grew up in Western New York. The decision to pay for a television service was not an easy sell back then. Many people could not see the value in paying for something that was available for free on an antenna. Of course, back then, nobody could imagine paying for water in a bottle when it flows freely from a tap.

Cable had its appeal in that it offered some unique channels, and there was one every young kid wanted to have back in 1981, they wanted their MTV.

I distinctly remember the first time I tuned in to MTV. The station was showing a concert video of Loverboy’s “Turn Me Loose.” I was so excited that I crouched in front of the television to soak it all in, waiting to see what video they would play next.

MTV celebrated its 40th anniversary this year, but the station bears little resemblance to its original form, and it has lost most of its cultural significance. Back in 1981, the station could launch music careers simply by playing a low budget concept video, or poorly shot concert footage.

Madonna and Michael Jackson became mega-stars thanks to MTV. Acts like Cyndi Lauper and The Police solidified their careers thanks to MTV, and established acts like ZZ Top and Peter Gabriel found a wider audience because of their effective use of concept videos.

The first group of MTV VJs became celebrities, and radio stations and concert venues benefited from the massive influx of new acts. Four decades later, the MTV generation still supports many of the artists from the height of MTV’s prowess in the 1980s.

What really made MTV important in the early days of its history was the station’s ability to meld genres. In any given hour you could get a video from Madonna, Van Halen or Lionel Richie. MTV was a music melting pot before they became a powerhouse, and then music executives tried to control their programming. MTV pushed back and it was the beginning of the end for the station’s independent mindset.

The station’s shift from music influencer to a television wasteland was slow and complex. By the mid-1990s the endless stream of videos on heavy rotation were replaced by animated series and reality shows.

These days, there are a myriad of sub-genres, and while it is easier to launch an independent career through social media, it has become difficult to find one medium that captures the collective attention of music consumers.

There are remnants of MTV’s heyday on streaming services and YouTube, but the channel's 40th anniversary seems to have come and gone with little fanfare, even though MTV was as significant to Generation X as the Beatles appearance on Ed Sullivan was significant to Baby Boomers.

You can still find that old Loverboy video online, but it doesn’t have the same magic as it did back in 1981. MTV dropped “music” from its moniker years ago, and its iconic logo is found on cheap t-shirts at big box stores, worn mostly by a generation of kids who never experienced the power of a video in heavy rotation, or understand the profound meaning of the phrase, “I want my MTV.”

Thom Jennings covers the local music scene for Night and Day.

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