Book Talk: I WANT MY MTV, by Rob Tannenbaum and Craig Marks

I WANT MY MTV via indiebounddotorg

Penguin Plume (2012), trade paper (ISBN 0452298563 / 9780452298569)
Nonfiction: pop culture (oral history), 592 pages
Source: Purchased ebook (iBooks ISBN 9781101562415)
Reason for reading: Personal

The popular music of my lifetime is divided, in my mind, between “before MTV” and “after MTV.” I first saw Music Television in the fall of 1982–my boyfriend’s family had cable–and was fascinated by the channel and the new music it showcased. I lost track of it for a few years–the boyfriend became a husband, we became parents, and we didn’t have cable–and when I caught back up with it again, we had both changed. MTV came to define the 1980s…but in reading about its first decade in the oral history I Want My MTV, it occurred to me, and not for the first time, that its 1980s weren’t exactly my 1980s.

The 1980s are sometimes dismissed as an era when style trumped substance, and MTV and its influence are a big part of why it has that reputation. In its early years, MTV was radio with an enormous potential reach, and as the book notes, it reached audiences that hadn’t had the chance to be exposed to cutting-edge popular culture–many smaller, more isolated markets had cable television well before the big coastal cities did. (MTV was produced in New York City, but it actually wasn’t available for New Yorkers to watch it for a while.) But the “television” part of Music Television was what made the difference–the channel’s reach was amplified by the visual images that accompanied the music, and presented us with style and attitude that soon seeped into the mainstream.

I Want My MTV delivers on the style and attitude. I thought it resembled the channel’s early, all-music-video years in the way it kept me reading, eager to see what would come along next–but it also mimicked the exhaustion that would set in after watching MTV for hours, seeing some videos half a dozen times while the ones you were waiting to see never turned up at all. The book includes quotes from hundreds of people who were involved with MTV during its first decade in both its business and creative operations, and result is rarely dull, but it’s often scattered and not particularly insightful. It’s not at all difficult to imagine a multi-part TV documentary based on this–the talking-head clips are already here, and there’s certainly plenty of suitable video footage to edit in among them.

I might watch that documentary, to be honest, and I’d probably find it more satisfying than the book. I really did hope for more substance from I Want My MTV, and maybe that was my mistake. Maybe those years I lost touch with MTV are part of it too; I missed much of the channel’s transition from “modern rock” to “hair metal,” so I was less interested in the behind-the-scenes dirt on many of the videos discussed in the book. Don’t get me wrong–it was fun to read all the insider stories here, but I find that I don’t really need to hear as many tales of excess and decadence as I Want My MTV offers. I think MTV’s influence on late-20th-century popular culture is undeniable, but I think I’d like to read a history of it that’s a little more analytical and a little less personal.

Rating: 3.25 of 5

Book description, from the publisher’s website:
It was a pretty radical idea-a channel for teenagers, showing nothing but music videos. It was such a radical idea that almost no one thought it would actually succeed, much less become a force in the worlds of music, television, film, fashion, sports, and even politics. But it did work. MTV became more than anyone had ever imagined. 

I Want My MTV tells the story of the first decade of MTV, the golden era when MTV’s programming was all videos, all the time, and kids watched religiously to see their favorite bands, learn about new music, and have something to talk about at parties. From its start in 1981 with a small cache of videos by mostly unknown British new wave acts to the launch of the reality-television craze with The Real World in 1992, MTV grew into a tastemaker, a career maker, and a mammoth business.

Featuring interviews with nearly four hundred artists, directors, VJs, and television and music executives, I Want My MTV is a testament to the channel that changed popular culture forever.
From the Introduction:
“Hardly anyone thought it would succeed.

“Upon hearing of the plan to launch a TV channel that would show music videos around the clock, businessmen of wealth and experience–wealthy men who ran record companies and partied with rock stars, and visionary men who made fortunes by anticipating the explosion of cable TV–scoffed and snickered. Who would watch this channel? Even if it proved popular, who would advertise there? Why would FM or Anheuser-Busch want to reach this channel’s audience, consisting mostly of fourteen- to twenty-four-year-olds? Where’s the money in that?

“Prior to the launch of this channel on August 1, 1981, only a few dozen people believed it would succeed, and all of them worked at the channel. The start-up staff was a coterie of misfits, inexperienced and determined, and included two one-eyed executives who were later hailed as visionaries. Which is not to say everyone who worked at the channel believed it would succeed. ‘It sounded like an asinine idea,’ Bob Pittman (one of the one-eyed executives) admitted five years after the launch, when the channel was the centerpiece of a $525-million bidding war. It’s easy to imagine this as the theme of one of the network’s early advertising campaigns, which were usually brash and self-mocking: ‘MTV: It sounds like an asinine idea.’”

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