An alternative title for I Want My MTV: The Uncensored History of the Music Video Revolution could be Drugs and Money. As we learn in Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum’s splendid oral history, music video production fueled a barter economy in which crew members were paid in cocaine. Line producers would make receipts for drug purchases and file them under “craft services.” (“I would always be able to bury at least a quarter ounce of cocaine in there,” one producer explains.) Cocaine was to the mid-1980s video professional as Adderall or Diet Coke is to the contemporary business executive. (How do you know if a member of Duran Duran tooted too hard during a shoot? He’s likely wearing sunglasses in the video.)
But MTV did not live by cocaine alone. Before John Lack (who came up with the idea for the network) could trade a transponder to CNN in exchange for ad time, he was compelled to smoke pot with Ted Turner. On the set of a Van Halen video, midgets — presumably the ones hired to grope a high-heeled lady tied between two stakes — handed out mushrooms. Filming a segment in front of Betsy Ross’ house in Philadelphia, veejay Kevin Seal came up on his tab of LSD on-camera. “I appeared as though I was having a seizure,” he says, “like I was about to leave language behind.”
As will be evident by now, I Want My MTV is compulsively entertaining, hugely edifying (shocker: some hair-metal bands cheated with extensions and plugs), and occasionally profound. (Why is there a cow in the boardroom in the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams” video? “In a way, the video is a statement about the different forms of existence,” Annie Lennox explains. “Here are humans, with our dreams of industry and achievement and success. And here is a cow.”)
Based on hundreds of interviews, the book also deftly unpacks a genius business model. By accident or design, the MTV braintrust lucked on an absurdly win-win arrangement: it was the record companies that financed and supplied virtually all of the channel’s programming, yet MTV could play a video hundreds of times and never pay a dime in royalties—or never play the video at all, regardless of how much the label and artist had invested in making it. (“They looked at it like airplay was your payment,” Tom Petty says, “but we weren’t guaranteed that airplay.”) Eventually the major labels did convince MTV to cut multimillion-dollar deals in exchange for exclusivity rights, but even this concession only cemented the channel’s hold on the music-video market.
MTV really began stacking cash during the peak of the lite-metal reign of Cinderella, Poison and Motley Crue. The early look of MTV, defined in large part by Russell Mulcahy’s candy-colored videos for artists such as Duran Duran and Elton John (signature flourishes: flexing biceps, body paint, ruffled shirts, proto-voguing, crawling, colonialism), gave way to a dominant aesthetic of pole dancing, girls in cages, and Tawny Kitaen doing splits on Jaguars. Or, as veejay Dave Holmes puts it, “Videos were very European at first. Then things started to get less Euro and more big-titted and American.” (Warrant’s “Cherry Pie” video, which drops a pastry in its busty starlet’s lap and hoses her down, emerges as this period’s semiotic puzzle: is it the nadir of the sexist metal promo, or a parody of same?) Meanwhile, budgets climbed ever upward, often to the detriment of the final product: Guns N’ Roses’ bloated, stultifying “November Rain” video cost $1.5 million, which is a lot for what’s basically an extended episode of Platinum Weddings.
“November Rain” first aired in 1992, the year that Marks and Tannenbaum wrap up I Want My MTV and, not coincidentally, the year of the premiere of The Real World, the seminal reality show that gave us “seven strangers picked to live in a house and have their lives taped.” By then, MTV had already been creating non-video programming — such as the fashion showcase House of Style and the game show Remote Control — to shore up ratings as basic-cable channels proliferated. But The Real World was the fulcrum of MTV’s transition from a music-video channel to a reality-TV network that occasionally plays music videos. “That’s really when MTV ended,” says Duran Duran’s Nick Rhodes.
Thus it’s also a logical end point for I Want My MTV. The book goes one step further, though, arguing that as “MTV’s Golden Era” began to wane, so did the music video as an art form. “Videos were now carefully controlled by record labels, minimizing the chance of imaginative work,” Marks and Tannenbaum write. “Large budgets substituted for fresh ideas.” Musician and director Kevin Godley concurs: “People got bored with music videos. Because — guess what? — they were boring. They were safe, they were the same…”
But strange as it may sound, MTV and the music video are actually not synonymous; the decline of one did not immediately speed the decay of the other. Ironically, MTV began to turn its back on videos just before the format reached its creative apex in the 1990s. As of 1992, Spike Jonze had not yet given the Beastie Boys sirens and donuts (“Sabotage”), dug up Happy Days (Weezer’s “Buddy Holly”), staged a Muppet Babies version of the Notorious B.I.G. lifestyle (“Sky’s the Limit”), or forged a groundbreaking collaboration with the Torrance Community Dance Group (Fatboy Slim’s “Praise You”). And Christopher Walken had danced for neither Jonze (in Fatboy Slim’s “Weapon of Choice”) nor David Fincher (Madonna’s “Bad Girl”).
But even taking the prodigy Jonze out of the equation, the time was ripe. Michel Gondry had not conjured the interlocking nightmares of the Foo Fighters’ “Everlong,” imagined the workaday anxiety dream as a hall-of-mirrors aerobics class (in the Chemical Brothers’ “Let Forever Be”), converted the White Stripes into animated Legos (“Fell in Love with a Girl”), or cloned Kylie Minogue (“Come Into my World”). Chris Cunningham hadn’t adapted Don’t Look Now on a council estate (Aphex Twin’s “Come to Daddy”), twisted David Lee Roth’s “California Girls” video into a syphilitic hallucination (Aphex Twin’s “Windowlicker”), or cast Björk in a tender vignette of robot erotica (“All Is Full of Love”). Hype Williams hadn’t trained his fish-eye lens on Missy Elliott working the world’s most glamorous Hefty bag (“The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)”). Hammer & Tongs hadn’t ensouled a milk carton (Blur’s “Coffee and TV”). One could go on.
Granted, this kind of list-making might merely trade one kind of nostalgia for another (and it’s hardly as if we’ve come up short on ’90s nostalgia lately). But at least one participant in MTV’s accepted Golden Era, The Police’s Andy Summers, also thinks that the best was yet to come. “As videos progressed…people started using Super 8 and handheld techniques, and everything got darker and more interesting,” he says in I Want My MTV. “As a total film buff, I regret that we weren’t around ten years later to make those kinds of videos.” Likewise, plenty of viewers might regret that MTV wasn’t around to show them.
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