Nothing makes you feel more like a relic than reading and relishing a massive oral history of Music Television. Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum assembled hundreds of pages of recollections of the network, and there’s a buried memory trip every few millimeters. Because yes, the book covers the years 1981 to 1992, but if you were alive and young and watching television then, I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution isn’t about bands, or music videos, or the birth of reality television, or pop culture. It’s about you.
Since those years, indifference has sent my pop culture literacy drifting into the remote, frigid waters of ignorance; I have no way to know if what airs on MTV currently carries the emotional and generational weight it did for me and my peers. But my heart tells me there’s no way it can, because it’s a different beast now, this music-free MTV, and in this millennium there are a million ways to connect with this global community of music and coolness and youth. But back then, for thousands of populations of us, it was the only game in town.
As can be expected from such a book, I Want My MTV includes buckets of dirt. An array of cable television executives, music video directors, and record label bigwigs repeatedly whine about not getting credit for some minor or major pop culture innovation, and repeatedly come off sounding like giant douchebags. Metal musicians reminisce about drugs and debauchery. Current hip-hop superstars say how excited they were as kids to see the Ed Lover Dance on “Yo! MTV Raps.” The Wilson sisters of Heart describe the impossibly big hairdos and impossible amounts of cocaine required for a successful video shoot (blow driers and blow, I suppose). For a lot of musicians, the jig was up pretty quickly.
Steward Copeland: I grew to understand that videos were mainly about getting our singer’s face there. Because it’s so pretty. Drummers learn that lesson pretty early in life. Guitarists never quite learn that lesson. Drummers and bass players, we’re over it.
So that’s the way the drummer for the Police felt, but to me, MTV was like a bakery truck or milkman or friendly neighborhood crack dealer, daily delivering life necessities right to us. My family didn’t have cable until about 1986, and MTV wasn’t part of our package until maybe 1988. I was in middle school, awkward and unsure and perpetually bored, and when MTV arrived I plunged down that wormhole wholly and completely. The slack-faced hours I spent splayed across various sofas and easy chairs with half-sipped cans of Diet Coke cannot be added up. I wish I had those hours back; maybe I could have earned a Master’s Degree, or had a job to earn money to pay for that Master’s Degree. I could have prepared rivers of hot food in a soup kitchen or built a village of log cabins or walked across the goddamn country and back half a dozen times, but I didn’t. I sat there and watched, and even when I didn’t like the video, I still watched.
The summers of 1989 and 1990 in particular are my lost years. My friend Kelli went to boarding school, so we never saw each other during the school year, and neither of us drove, so we couldn’t hang out in the summer, either. We spent the whole day talking to each other on the phone while watching MTV. They showed Poison’s “Unskinny Bop” relentlessly, and though of course we were aware of how awful it was, it still immobilized us. We made fun of the animated outlines of bikini girls framing Brett Michaels, and we cracked up over how he jacks off on the microphone stand in time to the music. You can even chant “jack-off-on-the-mic-ro-phone” to it, which we still do to this day, because you can bet Kelli and I can’t get near a karaoke venue together without butchering us some “Unskinny Bop.” (3:27 into the video will get “jack-off-on-the-mic-ro-phone” .)
Of a thousand perfect examples of how frivolous and tacky and tasteless rock music videos can be, “Unskinny Bop” remains my own preferred evidence of the era’s futility. That’s what I spent my time watching? I look back on this not through my eyes, but those of my mother, and I want to smack my 13-year-old self, and I marvel at how my Mom managed not to. Those summers, the times she was able to get through to me on the phone, she’d ask me to do something perfectly effortless—taking a package of chicken breasts out of the freezer, pulling a load of towels out of the dryer—and I couldn’t even rally to do that. There she was, stuck at work 40 hours a week, while her daughter wasted entire days talking to Kelli on the phone, not bothering to change out of the boxer shorts and tank tops she slept in and eating entire bags of corn chips in one sitting, glued to that godforsaken channel filling her brain with sexist crap.
That’s why I don’t watch TV now. I shot my wad then. My own daughter will grow and want to spend many unproductive hours doing something I disapprove of and I’ll be torn between letting her and voicing my objections, which will be so square and empty to her ears. When Mom asked the young teenage me to “turn off that garbage MTV,” I didn’t have the words to tell her how the garbage filled up this gap of uselessness that opened up in my life. I yearned for something glamorous and adult, and MTV was as close as I could get. I imagined videos that my band, a band that only existed in my head, would make. I imagined better videos for songs I liked and videos for songs that didn’t have them. So even though most of the videos on MTV were crap, what when on in my head as I watched them was a parallel MTV.
Boy George: Videos were like postcards, going to every corner of the world. People living in small towns in the middle of nowhere were able to have access to what artists were doing. That’s the positive aspect of MTV. The negative aspect is that it turned music into a product, like a can of beans.
I still have hours and hours of MTV that I recorded on stacks of videocassettes, tapes that now reside in the rain-drenched shed among Christmas decorations and tax records; I love how unwieldy the VHS format is, displaying its messy tracking and poorly produced local cable TV ads. Watching those on our VCR (also shed-bound), which I drag out every few years, delivers a preserved-in-amber rush that a million YouTube views cannot come close to furnishing. I remember who I was, and it makes me feel good about who I am today: motivated and active and usually full of purpose, and how I was none of those things in my MTV lost years. I want those years back, to do over again, without the Diet Coke and fruitless brooding.
Dave Holmes: Sitting in front of a TV certainly looks passive. But watching MTV made me want to grow up and be a creative person. It made me want to write, it made me want to get onstage. MTV was instrumental in me not being a banker, and not being a banker has made all the difference in my life.
Perhaps if I’d been a banker I wouldn’t have the persistent, inescapable credit card debt my writerly ass has carried throughout too much of my adult life. But I was never meant to be a banker. I’d be unhappy, and most of the time I am at least moderately happy, and the makeup of a lot of that moderately happy person includes significant, inextricable portions of MTV, and the amazing thing is how I can go about my daily grownup life and not even realize it. Who knows what I else I may have turned to for comfort: vandalism? Self-mutilation? Drugs? I didn’t, and in that light, “Unskinny Bop” doesn’t seem so worthless after all.
Tags: Brett Michaels, Craig Marks, I Want My MTV, Poison, Rob Tannenbaum