A good friend of mine and I have a theory. That theory is, the music we listen to between the ages of 13-24, is the music we will listen to our entire lives. It’s the music that becomes the soundtrack of our lives.
During these years, week seek out and actively hunt music that speaks to us. We find artists and songs who “get” us and are able to say what we think and feel, much more eloquently that us.
I was fortunate enough to live these musically formative years during the height of MTVs true power. When they played music videos 24 hours a day. Before the Real World came along and ruined the station and changed all of television to a reality TV wasteland.
People forget, but MTV is where people went to find music and listen to it. It was a brand new experience and as soon as “The Video Killed the Radio Star” aired on that day in 1981, everything changed. Television and radio had a baby and named it MTV.
There was such a greater depth to the music now that there was a visual component to it. Musicians are artists and when they were given the license to show people their music, it brought their songs to life. They showed us the story they were telling in their songs.
The only way we could see our bands before MTV was to either see them live in concert or catch them playing on some random show like American Bandstand or late night TV like SNL. We started to stray from the radio and started to watch our music instead of listen in to it.
We got to see Michael Jackson dance, and Eddie Vedder snarl and David Lee Roth jump from the drum riser and do some insane toe touch usually reserved for 13 year old olympic gymnasts. We got to see what our favorite bands looked like while performing live in concert videos.
Bands could showcase their personality. They showed us if they had a sense of humor and we saw that the Foo Fighters, Blink 182 and the Beastie Boys were hilarious. Some bands showcased their dark side like and put out videos that resembled nightmares, like Tool and Marilyn Manson. Some showed us the insane depth of their weirdness like Bjork.
MTV changed our TV watching schedules. There were shows that we didn’t want to miss depending on what music we liked. There was 120 minutes for alternative, Headbangers Ball for metalheads, and Yo MTV Raps for Rap and hip hop. Casey Casum’s top 20 radio show was soon replaced by Dial MTV. A show where we could call in and vote for our favorite video and they would play them in order based on the number of votes.
MTV made stars out of performers and bands who never would’ve made it on the strength of their music. Madonna isn’t Madonna without MTV. Same for goes for Brittany Spears. Let’s face it, the 80’s were the perfect decade for MTV to be unleashed. The decade of excess. Once performers realized that they were going to be seen a LOT more often, there were tens of thousands of sentences that started with, “oooh, you know what we should do?!?”, followed by outlandish comments.
“Let’s have her sing in front of a burning cross!” (Madonna)
“Let’s have him dance with zombies.” (MJ)
“I’ll light my own boots on fire!” (Motley Crue)
“We’ll have him jump off an oil tanker into the ocean, but before that have dolphins swim down the LA strip” (Guns N’ Roses).
“Let’s dress him in spandex. All spandex. Let’s blow his hair out as far as possible. In fact, let’s dress in 4 different spandex outfits (including assless chaps), and then we’ll film the video and splice it all together at the end. But first we have to have him come in wearing full on tribal make up and ask for a bottle of anything and a glazed donut”. The most 80’s thing EVER. It belongs in the Smithsonian. (David Lee Roth)
For almost an entire decade, MTV was my go to place to find music. It’s how I found Dave Grohl who later formed the Foo Fighters. Nirvana blew up in 1991 off the strength of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. The things I remember about that video wasn’t Kurt Cobain. It was the force of nature behind the drum kit in the background that looked like his arms were going to fly off at any moment. “Look at that frickin drummer!!. He’s incredible”!
The other thing I have noticed lately, is when I hear these songs now, visions of the videos flash through my head. We are going through a Bon Jovi phase this summer (don’t judge). My kids are 11 and 8, his music is fun and safe, and “Runaway” totally holds up to this day.
The song “Lay your Hands on me” comes on and immediately, I picture him shooting out from the bottom of the stage from that video. I thought that was so cool when I was a teenager and that memory was unearthed when I heard the song for the first time in 19 years.
I can tell you the exact moment Slash smashes his guitar on the top of the skyscraper on his last chord in “Don’t Cry”.
You know when you hear a song you haven’t heard in a long time, but you still know every word? It’s the same for me and music videos. I still picture that poor kid screaming in the forrest and Eddie Vedder snarling from the “Jeremy” video. For the record, “Jeremy” gets my vote for the best video of all time. It is powerful, chilling, sad and devastating and can have a lasting effect on you. When the words “an affluent suburb” show up on the screen, you have to decide if you have in you at that moment to watch.
I showed my kids a few videos after I had all of these thoughts. They were less impressed than I hoped they would be. Deep down they were probably wondering why I would want to “watch” my music. I will not relent though. They aren’t quite old enough to see the videos that can have a true impact.
Or maybe not. Maybe MTV for those first 10-12 years was a perfect social experiment that went so right. In this on demand, I can watch to whatever I want, I can listen to whatever I want, I can have whatever I want delivered in two days world, MTV wouldn’t work. Attention spans are 6 seconds. Seriously. There was an entire massive social platform called “Vine” that was based on videos that had to be 6 seconds or less.
But for a little more than a glorious decade, MTV was the perfect storm of the ’80’s, a new visual medium, synthesizers, aqua net, spandex, glitter and excess.