In the latest WNBA Reads newsletter feature, Rachel Weiss-Feldman reviews I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution by Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum.
At age 13, I came home from camp to two new additions to the family: a yellow Labrador named Susie and MTV on cable. The latter definitely got more of my attention. For most Gen-Xers, MTV was such a staple part of our lives that it’s almost personal. We watched it after school, at parties, on weekends. We couldn’t recollect most songs without imagining the little movie that went with it. MTV was the first station marketed to young people, and in its 31 years of existence it has grown to change music sales, advertising, film making, fashion, and above all else, popular culture.
MTV was started in 1981 by a small team of music and radio industry people with little experience in television, little financial backing, and few predictions from anyone that it would succeed. And for the first year or so the channel was indeed very touch and go. Videos shown were predominantly ones that had already been made and were sitting around record companies. Ad sales were difficult. Cable wasn’t readily available in many cities, but mainly the rural suburbs. But MTV’s targeted audience, the teens, loved it. Soon enough, there was evidence that it was affecting sales and Billboard charts. Musicians and bands that would never sell in certain regions of the country became sellable and known because listeners “saw them on MTV.” And more cable companies carried MTV after the channel launched its “I Want My MTV” campaign that asked viewers to call their local cable companies and demand it.
I Want My MTV is told through interviews of hundreds of producers, musicians, directors, actors, and studio executives, giving detailed histories and backstories that tell the story of MTV’s humble, skeptical beginnings, to the $500+ million dollar media empire it is today. There are plenty of stories and fun facts about their most influential videos and shows. Major issues involving sexism, racism, celebrity drama, and censorship the channel faced are discussed in great detail.
Read about the bands and musicians who owe much of their fame and fortune to their videos being so cutting edge—and those whose careers nearly ended because theirs were embarrassing duds. And read what famous directors cut their teeth doing many of them. I Want My MTV stops at 1992, before Snookie and the ‘Teen Moms’ were even toddlers. That was the year The Real World premiered, signaling the beginning of the end of the channel’s original format. For those who loved the music channel and can still remember its glory days of all music all the time, and/or for those who work with or study the history of media, this book is a lot of fun, as well as informative. One note: while I Want My MTV is a great physical addition to one’s bookshelf, at 600+ pages it’s quite a tome, so perhaps consider the e-book.
Rachel Weiss-Feldman is the Membership Chair & Social Media Coordinator for the NYC Chapter. On Twitter @RachelWF