MTV turned 40 years of age this week. Its contents live on for viewing now, and their blend of optimism and awkwardness feels familiar.
The first two hours of MTV – broadcast past midnight into August 1, 1981 – are preserved for posterity in this YouTube rip:
Of course, some of this you probably know by heart – tons of cartoonish, fast-cut animations, replete with references to the US space program (both the then-new Space Shuttle and the not-so-new planting of the flag on the moon), and the opening “Video Killed The Radio Star” by the Buggles. MTV was high on the music industry and unabashedly nationalistic about space.
Here are the music videos on their own (mostly, some are missing video). The campy Buggles and trendy opening animation hold up in retro glory; a lot of the rest comes off as surprisingly stuck in the 1970s and not-so-futuristic:
It’s a weird history in retrospect. MTV supported but also appropriated a lot of the experimental film world, then developed the music video, then killed the music video. They helped advance reality TV; they remade the visual and editing style of a couple of generations.
All this has been said by folks going deeper into the history – NPR refers to I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution by Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum.
But what I find interesting is how much these tentative steps into the new medium remind me of what the last year and a half have been like. There’s some fascinating, bold experimentation. But there’s also a lot of struggle to work out what the medium is – taking fairly conventional performances and sticking cameras in front of them. (Sound familiar?) Some of the videos that ironically have far better live production values are the ones that feel the most mundane.
Rod Stewart delivers one of the better combinations, at least for just documenting the band. It’s got performance energy, it feels spontaneous, it’s visually innovative. The mucking around with the video mixer – presumably rarified gear in 1981 – works.
Maybe some of the videos that are loopy and don’t try quite as hard hold up better with their quirks, like Little Susie here, even if they seem more like a student film than the future of music:
A lot of these creations feel noticeably like early xR. In 1981 as in 2021, artists were trying to work out what the virtual metaverse music arena looked like, and drawing on old constructivist and expressionist traditions.
Video Killed The Radio Star is essentially the most effective. While production was crammed into a short period of time, it establishes the peculiar narrative – concert – surreal tableau that would define the medium to come. Russell Mulcahy had already established a unique voice in making music videos long before the network – and his fast-cut edit rhythm right from the first video establishes an eye candy magic that endures to this day. But in turn, it’s surely indebted to early Avant-Garde cinema – this video would look familiar in conception to the makers of Entr’acte, for one. Satie’s jerky, jump-cut-compatible music sounds almost pop and MTV-friendly, as if he’d be at home playing keys in the Buggles, too. Instead of a Satie score, though, you do get to see Trevor Horn and Hans Zimmer on keyboards, which is cool.
Probably the other really impressive video is, naturally, Talking Heads and their friends:
The credit there goes to the collaboration between David Byrne and innovative multi-talented Toni Basil, who choreographed Byrne’s quirky movements. And maybe that’s the real revelation for both 1981 and 2021 – the actual medium here, even if it seems like theater or cinematography, may well be dance. Dance is the link between music and motion, sound and image. It’s the medium that comes best equipped to deal with the peculiar virtual space that the TV creates because a skilled choreographer like Basil is able to forge the link into that virtual arena.
For the most part, though, the most notable thing about that 1981 broadcast at MTV is that it isn’t terrifically recognizable as MTV. The videos were largely canned creations made in advance of the network; you miss what would evolve as the VJs and news.
Yet make no mistake – this was an economic and production achievement, against the odds.
It just reminds us that our own first steps into trying to work out streaming in a pandemic were – all of them, even the most costly and ambitious – struggling a bit to evolve. And in 1981 as in 2021, the model for actually developing work or supporting the people producing the work was vague and uncertain.
At the same time, it’s not lost on me that looking back, the platform – MTV – is really not the star. Not even the artists are. (Again, sound familiar? A platform taking credit for creative innovation… but I digress.)
It’s really the work of the teams assembled by Russell Mulcahy and Toni Basil to put together a new language of cinematographic dramaturgy and dance, respectively, for this new medium. It’s the actual composition that endures.
Credit, too, a name you’ve probably never heard – Candy Kugel, who designed the animation and logo work.
Here is essential reading from a 1998 Animation World Magazine:
In it, she not only retells the history of the animation production, down to 16mm and Xerox details, but the economic topography of the NYC landscape at the time.
And she talks about the evolution of that visual style:
In the late ’70s and early 80s there was a new interest in tinting photographs. Although color photography had long been perfected, the quaintness of turn of the century color tinting of black and white photos was refreshing. There was also an art movement coming out of Milan, Italy, Memphis Milano, with its squiggles and bright primary colors. It was fun to imagine the combination of influences and how a piece could turn out. So, that was my plan to get an even exposure on the live-action so that I could bring out contrast in the coloring. Using magic markers and grease pencils on the cels to give the photos a hand-colored quality (and rouge the stars’ cheeks), I kept the MTV logo as a black outlined cartoon character of its own, using the Memphis Milano-type palette. The combination of the silliness of the logo gags (I was joined in animation by Vincent Cafarelli and Jan Svochak), the straight ahead constant motion of the color tinting on the live (the color was followed through by Cotty Kilbanks and Lisa Fernandez) and the brightly colored logo, made Dale Pon dub it, “Eye Candy (Kugel).”
I can’t help but look to how that article ends, though – especially now, with uncertain times for the economics of artmaking as the pandemic rages on and the world continues to shift. It wasn’t technology that changed – it was the way labor was structured and supported.
What’s chilling is that this bit is 1998:
As for the state of the animation community in New York this last half of the `90s decade? There is no more dichotomy; no more intense rivalry between the independents and the union studios. Most independents do commercial work since grants have dried up considerably. There is no more union or union studios. In the mid-80s Local 841 got swallowed up by an indifferent Local 644, the camera union, which in turn, just last year, got swallowed up by the West Coast Local 600. Many studios and independents compete for the same work. In addition, many studios, even if they don’t produce their own independent work, produce short pieces that compete in the international film scene. Here at Buzzco Associates, we try to produce enough income-generating work to allow us to keep making our own projects. Often, as in the case of the 30-minute direct to home video that we did for Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Talking About Sex, we get to produce income-generating productions that we can treat as an independent project. The best of both worlds!
And that pretty much sums how to try to keep the video star from getting killed.