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Decade-Defining Brands: MTV


When it comes to vapid, meaningless pop, Music Television rules.


The 1980s are a unique and curious beast. Due in part to satirical period comedies and VH1's talking-head programs, the 80s have been stripped of their historically significant moments and infused with Rubik's Cubes, day-glo stretch pants and moonwalking. Short of the Challenger disaster and a unified Germany, the 80s seems to stand apart from other decades as one that's largely defined by superficial pop culture.

And when it comes to vapid, meaningless pop, Viacom-owned MTV (VIA) is responsible for some of the best.

Hitting the airwaves on August 1, 1981, MTV led Reagan's America into a new era in which bands not only had to be commercially accessible, but aesthetically pleasing. In the network's defense, it did -- early on -- have the gumption to actually show videos by Men at Work and The Cars. But today, Colin Hay's eye and Ric Ocasek's Adam's apple wouldn't be legally allowed to come within 50 feet of Beyoncé.

Despite launching with a viewership just north of public access, MTV aired The Buggles' "Video Killed the Radio Star" video as a victory anthem of sight over sound.

But for all the negative aspects of turning songs into advertisements, music videos paired often indelible imagery with catchy hooks. Who among us can hear the opening synth notes to Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" without picturing glowing cement tiles? Or Peter Gabriel's "Sledgehammer" without thinking of a dancing chicken?

Naturally, the cornerstone of MTV's livelihood was the youth market. Its rally cry, "I want my MTV!" galvanized teens to not only maintain a somewhat punk-rock rebellion -- a socially acceptable one, of course -- but also to pledge to their local cable affiliate to put the network into its lineup - thereby spreading viewership across the globe.

MTV became a vehicle for teens to keep abreast of the latest trends, which only served to confuse the old squares. The network influenced everything from fashion (mesh lace gloves and skinny ties, anyone?) to slang ("Pass the dutchie, wastoid!") to film production (rapid-fire cuts have been dubbed "MTV edits"). In fact, some of our best directors -- Michel Gondry, David Fincher and Spike Jonze, to name a few -- got their feet wet directing music videos.

The MTV of today is a far cry from 1981. For starters, there's nary a music video to be found and the demographic is now decidedly pre-teen rather than teen. Hip hop and pop starlets have replaced the likes of Billy Idol, David Byrne and Steve Perry. And the network has succeeded in turning alternative music into a catch-all genre that actually includes the All-American Rejects.

But whether you think MTV's contribution was for good (Headbanger's Ball) or ill (Pauly Shore), it's hard to deny that the 80s belonged almost entirely to the upstart cable network.

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