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Video killed the radio star

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MTV was launched 40 years ago [!] today. For those of us a certain age — I was in college at the time — it’s sobering to contemplate that the distance between the present and the dawn of MTV is the same as that between the latter event and the attack on Pearl Harbor. The first thing I can ever remember seeing on the channel that made any impression on me was this video accompanying Bruce Springsteen’s haunting ballad “Atlantic City.”

In any case, whether this is another day that will live in infamy depends I suppose on what effect you think MTV and its countless progeny, of which the most important today by far is YouTube, had on the music industry.

A key side note here is that “nobody” had cable TV in the mid-1970s and “everybody” had it by the mid-1980s: cable subscribers went from ten million to 40 million over this decade. And the chicken-egg relationship between the rise of CATV and the videofication of pop music is no doubt a complex one.

The extent to which music videos were still a marginal thing in 1981 is driven home by scrolling through the first 100 videos played on MTV, given that such a large percentage of them were several years old:

On the plus side, within just a couple of years the explosive popularity of the channel was creating a lot of work for a lot of creative people:

“Thriller” was the most important moment in music television since the Beatles rocked Ed Sullivan. “After Michael Jackson, when American artists got a sense of the potency of a well-thought-out video,” said Duran Duran bassist John Taylor, “everything became more expensive.” Director John Landis remembered CBS Records president Walter Yetnikoff screaming and swearing when he heard the proposed budget. But its lofty aspirations came with vision: “Thriller” had the gloss of Hollywood; special-effects genius Rick Baker transformed a shy superstar into a beast; and co-choreographer Michael Peters helped create a historically iconic dance sequence. “He’s not a trained dancer,” said Peters. “He would say to me . . . ’I want something that’s hot and angry.’ He would describe it in emotional terms.” “Thriller” turned a suburban street into a horror flick and helped make video a new kind of art. As Michael says in the clip: “I’m not like other guys.”

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