In 1981, a little astronaut thwunked his flag onto the moon — and the MTV era began. In the next quarter century, the trailblazing cable network wouldn’t just influence top 20 lists, it would do everything from dictate fashion trends to sway political elections. How ahead of its time was MTV? ”The day it launched, New York City didn’t even have cable yet,” remembers original VJ Nina Blackwood. ”They hired buses and took everybody over to some club in New Jersey to watch the launch.” As any trivia junkie knows, the first clip played was ”Video Killed the Radio Star” — a prediction as gutsy as Babe Ruth calling his World Series home-run shot. Musicians began packaging themselves for consumption by a ravenous teen audience — and soon, such impresarios as Sting and Mick Jagger were telling viewers to phone up their cable guy and scream a certain four-word slogan. ”We created ‘I want my MTV,”’ says founder Bob Pittman. ”And then we got all of these famous artists to do the commercials for free.” Hip and savvy, MTV has gone through (almost) as many image changes in the past 25 years as its good pal Madonna. To celebrate the milestone — and yes, if MTV is 25 it means we’re all getting really old — EW takes a nostalgic look back at the network’s rock & roll past.
THE VJ IS BORN
”7, 6, 5, 4… We have main engine start. Ladies and gentlemen, rock & roll. ” That rocket launch not only signified the birth of MTV, it also introduced viewers to a new species of host: the VJ. Pioneering the gig were unknowns Mark Goodman, Nina Blackwood, Martha Quinn, Alan Hunter, and J.J. Jackson (who died of a heart attack in 2004). Hunter, a bartender/actor who was hired just three weeks before the channel hit the airwaves, recollects freaking out about his lack of music knowledge. ”I had three-ring binders like I was going back to college to cram,” he says. The VJs (who are now all DJs on Sirius Satellite Radio) discovered their pop culture impact only after a series of middle-America meet-and-greets. Blackwood recalls one trip to San Antonio: ”There were lines wrapped around the mall. I said, ‘Who’s appearing here?’ And they go, ‘You!’ And I was like, ‘Aaaaaaaaah! Drive around the parking lot for a while.”’
DURAN DURAN EMERGES
When Duran Duran took the stage at MTV’s 1982 New Year’s Eve bash, they had a message for the audience. ”Good evening, America,” said singer Simon LeBon. ”We came 2,000 miles, we want to see you dancing!” While the band was relatively unknown in the U.S. at the time, the group rang in 1983, then dominated the rest of the year — and MTV — with their hyper-stylized clips for ”Rio” and ”Hungry Like the Wolf.”
Nine months after Michael Jackson’s ”Billie Jean” became the first video by a black artist to get heavy airplay on MTV, the Gloved One topped himself with a 14-minute homage to zombie horror flicks. Directed by filmmaker John Landis (Animal House) and starring Jackson and Ola Ray, ”Thriller” cost $1.1 million (making it the most expensive video to date). It featured an often-spoofed dance sequence that won the inaugural VMA for Best Choreography. One minor unfortunate footnote: the subsequent fad featuring hideous leather jacket-pants ensembles.