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.