MTV at 30

I’m a day late, but I had some thoughts on the 30th anniversary of MTV this morning during my commute to work. The Boston Globe had a great collection of the first 10 videos to air on MTV which set the Wayback Machine into overdrive for me.

It was the fall of 1981. My family and I had been living in Rome, Italy for a few months while my dad attended the NATO Defense College, our first of several years in Europe. The house my parents had always dreamed of buying was being put on the market and my folks were being offered first refusal. So, once dad returned from Turkey (after frantic calls from my mother), we were off for a visit home to Boston.

At this point in time, I considered myself a victim. I had no TV. Gone were the days of watching Woody Woodpecker and Scooby Doo when I came home from school. There would be no more reward of Mork & Mindy for cleaning my plate at dinner. We were living in a furnished apartment in Rome with no TV, and even when we moved to Naples the following summer, our TV remained in storage back in the US. Small consolation was the fact that there was no English language programming in Italy at the time anyway (though the advent of the SEB years later would sting terribly…). The biggest treat was when our neighbors across the street would go on vacation and lend us their TV and betamax. (I still have a fond place in my heart for The French Connection, High Anxiety, Chariots of Fire and Gallipoli.)

So, home we came. But, no salve would be immediately forthcoming for my television withdrawal. My grandmother’s black and white set only got three channels, and even then, was only turned on for the evening news. But, fear not 8 year old me! One weekend my mother and I went to the North Shore to visit my aunt and cousins. It was here that I was introduced to… cable television. Whoa. More channels than the dial on our old TV could handle! Color! Terrible programming that didn’t matter because it was TV!

And then, it happened.

My cousins were somehow able to convince me to turn off the Atari (another miracle of modern science!) and watch some “MTV.” I had no idea what the ‘M’ stood for, but thought that it could only be good. The channel came on and a collision of color and sound hit my brain. A flag emblazoned with the MTV logo changed colors while a guitar riff roared. the next thing I knew Pat Benatar was on the screen and “You Better Run” seized control of my brain.

Needless to say, I was hooked. The Buggles told me that video killed the radio star, which if MTV was any indication, was just fine with me. I felt bad that some woman wouldn’t dance with Rod Stewart. I better, I better, I bet that The Who were awesome. I didn’t have brass in my pocket, but Chrissie Hynde made me, made me notice. It was weird seeing some of the bands that only knew through listening to my sister’s record collection, but I didn’t care. I was an MTV junkie. I was never going back to Europe. A week later an Army C-130 would drag me across the Atlantic, while I slowly went through withdrawal in my bucket seat. But, that time sitting in a bean bag chair and watching MTV would stay with me throughout.

Well, MTV never made it to Europe in my time, but trips home became more interesting. When we finally moved back to the US in 1985 MTV had become a staple of cable television and people thought my love of it was a bit odd. VH1 had launched as well, but I was (at that time) well out of their demographic (though sadly that doesn’t appear to be the case anymore…). We finally got our own cable TV in our house in NJ, and a VCR! I could record MTV, Star Trek at 11 pm on WPIX and some of my favorites on Nickelodeon (provided my mother didn’t change the channel while I was at school).

When I was living in Egypt in 1997, my roommate and I sprung for cable television and MTV International caught us up on everything we weren’t missing in the US music scene. I had never liked Indian music before, but it was far better than what was coming out of America at the time (at least in video format…).

It’s disappointing what MTV has since become. As Viacom desperately tries to stay one step ahead of what’s hip, but falls 13 steps behind, MTV has receded into an anachronism. I would never let my kids watch it now, except maybe as punishment or as a warning of what too much hair product can do to the human brain.

But, in the fall of 1981, MTV changed my life (and my taste in music) for the better.

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