Video Rocks! proclaimed the cover of Time Magazine's December 26, 1983 issue, with the appropriate subheading A Musical Revolution. While the music video wasn't invented in the 1980s, it certainly came into its own when the MTV network premiered on August 1, 1981. The music business was not only revived but reborn. In this new era, image was nearly everything. Artists were able to define and redefine their images almost at will, which the decade's teen subculture used to shape its own unique group identity. MTV was called "illustrated radio" and "a subliminal fashion show" by detractors, and some artists complained that it elevated image above music. Moralists deplored its sexiness, and citizens in several communities sought to ban it entirely. But no one could deny that MTV wrought fundamental change in the music industry.
That industry was in decline by 1979, with revenues plunging by more than 10 percent that year alone. A young radio director named Robert Pittman was targeting "TV babies" when he developed MTV; his research showed Eighties teens who shunned the "Woodstock" and disco music of the Seventies were largely ignored by radio stations that often refused airtime to new wave, punk and heavy metal. Pittman transformed an old Sixties cereal slogan I Want my Maypo!" into "I Want My MTV," a phrase popularized in Dire Strait's megahit "Money For Nothing," and before long everybody was singing it. Indeed, as Warner-Amex Satellite Entertainment Company was pleased to discover after it bankrolled the new network, the target audience of 12-24 year olds wanted its MTV very much. By 1987 MTV was available in nearly 36 million homes, up from 2.5 million homes in 1981. The network posted a $47 million profit in 1986, launched VH-1 for older viewers and Nickelodeon for pre-teens, and expanded into Europe and South America. Furthermore, it was credited with revitalizing record sales. A music video, after all, was a three- to five-minute promotional tool designed to sell albums. In no time at all it became apparent to most artists that videos were an essential marketing ingredient, and record companies typically paid $20,000 to $50,000 for video production of singles. Usually completed in one or two days, a new video was provided to MTV for free and placed in rotation based on viewer response.
By 1983 every major record label maintained its own video department, and top video directors -- those skilled at manipulating viewer emotion with rapid-fire imagery -- were courted by Hollywood studios who wanted to lure the MTV generation to the theaters. At issue was whether the music video approach would succeed in a feature film format that depended on narrative and continuity. The universal goal was to duplicate the success of 1983's hit flick Flashdance. Though critics portrayed the movie as a 95-minute rock video long on looks and short on substance, Flashdance -- the story of a fesity female steelworker who moonlights as a nightclub dancer while dreaming of joining a ballet company -- opened in 1,140 theaters and grossed $97 million. Its soundtrack garnered another $47 million, moving off the racks at a rate of 50,000 to 100,000 units a day. Films like Vision Quest, Electric Dreams and Footloose were made using the same formula. (Herbert Ross, the director of Footloose, prepared for his job by watching MTV music videos.) Movie soundtracks became ubiquitous. The success of soundtracks from films like The Big Chill, Purple Rain and To Live and Die in L.A. proved to Hollywood moguls that music -- and music videos -- could sell movies. Three singles from the Footloose soundtrack were Billboard hits before the film even premiered in February 1984. "Studios are evaluating the viability of music in every project," said Warner Bros. exec Joel Sill.
The musical revolution invaded network television as well. NBC and TBS appealed to the MTV crowd with programs like Friday Night Videos and Night Tracks. Then, in 1984, NBC launched Miami Vice. With its MTV-inspired score and cinematography, this stylish and innovative cop show starring Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas spawned a flurry of imitators and changed the look of television drama. The show popularized Italian men's fashion; Macy's created a Miami Vice section for its men's department. The Miami Vice soundtrack was a big seller. Critics claimed the show sacrificed plot for visual impact. Director Lee Katkin didn't deny it. "The show is written for an MTV audience," he told Time, "which is more interested in images, emotions and energy than plot and character." In fact, the series concept evolved from NBC's desire to capitalize on MTV's success. One day, NBC head honcho Brandon Tartikoff jotted a quick note for himself that simply read "MTV cops" -- and Miami Vice was born. Another of the show's directors insisted that music was not just background but a "psychological subtext" for the series. Much attention was paid to sets and fashion, but there was substance behind the style; Miami Vice earned 15 Emmy nominations. For several years the series usually resided in Nielsen's Top Ten. Johnson and Thomas were guests at a White House reception. The city of Miami, initially leery of the show's impact on its image, saw its tourist trade boosted significantly.
A number of musical artists enjoyed tremendous success in the Eighties thanks primarily to the popularity of music videos. The band Duran Duran knew its appeal depended on MTV exposure, and it was the first to release a "video album." When Michael Jackson's $1.1 million video for the song "Thriller" appeared on MTV, the album's sales rose 600,000 units in just five days. But no artist topped Madonna in terms of taking advantage of the decade's image-based music revolution. By the mid-Eighties it seemed that every other teenage girl was a Madonna "wannabe," sporting tube skirts and white lace tights, tank tops and black lace corsets, flourescent bracelets and cross-shaped earrings. By 1985 Madonna's first album had sold nearly 3 million units (U.S.) while her second, Like A Virgin, went quadruple platinum. Her first feature film, Desperately Seeking Susan was a big success. So were her live concerts; an appearance at Radio City Music Hall sold out in a record 34 minutes. Pundits speculated that Madonna epitomized the self-absorption and materialism of American teen culture. "Madonna's whole image," wrote one commentator sourly, "is like a finger flip to feminists and earnest liberals."
But Michigan-born Madonna Louise Ciccone was more than just the quintessential Eighties "material girl." An astute businesswoman and relentless self-promoter, she was also a talented performer. Described as a sex kitten, boy toy or "trash queen," the media-savvy Madonna parlayed image into millions in profits. "I think she's the 'It' girl of the '80s," said manager Freddy DeMann. Her music was perfect for video, but some rock scholars surmised that she was indifferent to rock 'n' roll and had her sights set on a movie career. She also had a knack for stirring up controversy not seen since the early days of the Elvis phenomenon. In the video "Like A Prayer," she caused turmoil by kissing a black saint and dancing seductively in front of burning crosses. She picked for her Broadway debut David Mamet's Speed-the-Plow, a raunchy and profane play lambasting Hollywood producers. But Madonna always seemed to come out on top, thanks to her skill at manipulating the market. Between 1986 and 1990 she earned an estimated $125 million.
Defenders of the music video art form insisted that a good song was still a necessary ingredient, but some artists agreed with Daryl Hall, of the pop duo Hall and Oates, when he said that "the visual has begun to overpower the music." Still, most successful acts (including Hall and Oates) accepted the fact that music videos were crucial to their careers. Record sales were on the rise again. Radio was forced to play a greater variety of music. Video dance clubs sprang up everywhere. Corporate national advertisers targeting the lucrative teen market paid music stars like Whitney Houston and Steve Winwood to appear in video commercials. Whether MTV was good for music, it was certainly good for business. And it changed forever the way we looked at music.
A Rocky Start
Things did not go smoothly when MTV was launched at midnight on August 1, 1981. Following the airing of the very first video, "Video Killed the Radio Star" by the British band Buggles, the five spots in which the MTV veejays introduced themselves and each other began to run -- but in the wrong order. (Pat Benatars's "You Better Run" was the second video aired.) After a commercial break there were only white lines on the TV screen as engineers fumbled a switch between two tape machines. A promo spot had no audio. And then videos were aired in the wrong order, so that veejay Mark Goodman ended up introducing the wrong songs. But the MTV staff, gathered in the basement private room of a small bar called The Loft in Fort Lee, New Jersey, were too ecstatic to care. They had made history, and they knew it.
The Miami Vice "look"
The Economist, 21 September 1985
Newsweek, 6 August 1984, 26 September 1988
U.S. News & World Report, 27 February 1984
"I Want My MTV"
Once Upon A Time in the Eighties
"The 80's: Music Video and Madonna"
Once Upon A Time in the Eighties
MTV: The Making of A Revolution
Tom McGrath (Philadelphia: Running Press Books, 1996)