Monday, June 29, 2009

Still want my MTV

We lived in the country and for most of my high-school years we didn't have cable. That meant we had six channels, maybe seven if the wind was right, and fine-tuning meant going out to the backyard with a monkey wrench and twisting the antenna. When MTV came around, this was like living in East Berlin. My best friend, Virgil, lived in town -- on the good side of the cable wall. So most days after school I ended up at his house.

Sometimes we would warm up with a little Asteroids on Atari. But before long we'd flip over to find out which one of the Original Five VJs was on the MTV afternoon shift. (The Original Five: Alan, Mark, JJ, Nina and Martha. No last names necessary.)

It's hard to describe what it was like going from a world where the Saturday-night TV choices were, literally, Lawrence Welk or "Hee Haw," to a world where all the musicians I loved -- and a thousand others I had never heard of -- were making little movies out of their songs. You might have grown up in a big city where this stuff was on the radio all the time. I grew up in a town where Casey Kasem's Top 40 was the cutting edge and we had never heard of, never seen, never imagined something like this:



After Michael Jackson's death a lot of people talked about the "Thriller" video as this massive cultural event, which it was -- bars would have "Thriller" nights where they would play it every hour on the hour. But for me the massive cultural events were happening every day. I remember watching that Eurythmics "Sweet Dreams" video, with androgynous Annie Lennox pounding that conference table, and thinking: I don't know what the hell this is, but it's pretty great.

MTV did that over and over again, up until about 1990 -- I think this was the last music video that mattered (at least for me). Since then, of course, the music videos have dwindled to pretty much nothing, and the schedule is now full of reality shows that are painful to watch, literally -- if you pay attention you can feel little pieces of your soul tearing off and flying away. Clearly it's a better business model than music videos; they're not stupid up there in the MTV offices. But watching the Michael Jackson videos all weekend felt warm and celebratory and great. And not just because it was Michael Jackson. For me it was like being in high school, and flipping on MTV at Virgil's house, and feeling that lovely little high of not knowing what would happen next.

8 comments:

rnnyhoff said...

Funny and wonderful Tommy. You got the writing touch (What's new?) ... where can I buy your books? -rudy nyhoff, north augusta (old Chronicle compadre).

lkmi said...

Pearl Jam's "Jeremy" probably came after "Teen Spirit." I'd say that one counted, too.

Anonymous said...

We didn't have cable so if I wasn't at my cable connected friend's house I stayed up to watch Friday Night Videos.

I do miss that. Somehow watching them on youtube just isn't the same.

Anonymous said...

Welcome back,Tommy,welcome back!

badmadman25 said...

In your eyes Im only a baby...a 19 year old baby, but in my defense i must say growing up with an older brother and coming home to TRL or Rap City(BET) and i truly miss that. I loved watching the videos, but now i would have to wake-up early enough to catch a glimpse before heading off to class. I mean the "M" for MTV does stand for "Music" right?

Lynne Stevenson said...

Tommy, you forgot about "Night Tracks", the video show which appeared on TBS on Friday and Saturday nights back in the 1980's also. I miss it too, even now!
I still remember the first time I saw Sting and The Police on MTV when they released the "Wrapped Around Your Finger" video and it was the only one to have ever been lighted solely by candles. And of course, who could ever forget the Halloween 1983 exclusive debut of "Thriller" also courtesy of MTV? I also miss the old MTV...

Anonymous said...

I will never forget RUNNING home from school to watch "Video Killed the Radio Star!" Loved the old MTV, reality MTV is a huge disappoitment. I am saddened that my children have no idea what it is like to listen to half an album before you can hear their favorite song. Gone are the days when you fall in love with an entire album.

TCG said...

I also remember Midnight Special and seeing the Allman Brothers on that show for the first time. Interestingly, people talk about being in small towns and rural areas and not getting their MTV. It was precisely those areas that got MTV first. Cable TV first flourished in areas where the broadcast signals were weak and had little content. FWIW.