This past Monday marked the 35th Anniversary of MTV. It aired its first music video, ironically The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star,” on August 1st, 1981.
That’s a cool answer for a trivia question, but it’s not actually a memory for a lot of people. Not everybody had premium cable packages back then. My family didn’t. And if we’d had fancy cable channels like that, I’d have been far more thrilled to get Showtime or the legendary HBO. (We called the latter “Home Box” back in the day.)
The first time I laid eyes on MTV was at a friend’s house, and it seemed weird to a fourth grader. I thought it was an inscrutably dumb idea — why did we need to see the music being played? That seemed like something appropriate only for fanatical music fans. In my child’s mind, I pictured them as the weird, overly nostalgic, long-haired men who purchased those “Hits of the 60’s” cassettes that were so often advertised on non-primetime television.
I only gave it a glance; my friend and I then went on to play in the woods, maybe to build a tree-fort. The 80’s were a different time.
Adults, too, scoffed at “Music Television.” I heard more than one opine, disapprovingly, that “music is meant to be heard, not watched.”
MTV also arrived with little initial fanfare, of course, because nobody knew how big it would be. By the end of the 80’s, even describing it as a cornerstone of popular culture would be an understatement. It was … I dunno … a cultural conduit. It was part of life, if you were a teenager.
By the time I graduated from Longwood High School in the spring of 1990, I was watching it nightly, just like countless other kids. This was arguably MTV’s Golden Age — it would be many years before its inexplicable, universally maligned transition away from music videos to brainless, bread-and circuses”reality shows” and other questionable programming.
The countdown show in the late 80’s was “Dial MTV,” Wikipedia reminds me. (Why do I feel like I remember it being called something else?) I didn’t pay much attention to “120 Minutes,” which focused on alternative music. And that’s weird, because I would go nuts for alternative music when I was bitten by the Depeche Mode bug early in my freshman year of college.
MTV could be found on Channel 25 in my part of Long Island; its sister channel, VH-1, was on Channel 26. I remember thinking of VH-1 as “MTV for old people.” And, by “old people,” I did mean people in their 30’s.
For some reason, I had quite a preoccupation as a teenager with Vee-Jay Martha Quinn. I definitely had Martha on my mind, back then. I’m not sure what was up with that. Looking back, I think she resembled a mild-mannered, nondescript librarian who dressed just slightly cool, maybe because she just got a job at the local high school. Or maybe because she was sneaking up on 30.