I Want My MTV!

by Daniel A. Kaufman


Jay Jeffers (The Partially Examined Life) and I discuss the beginnings of MTV and our recollections of it, on this 40th anniversary of the music channel.


3:40 – Aug 1 marks the 40th Anniversary of the launching of MTV in its “original iteration.” 6:20 – How Jay and Dan first got into KISS 13:30 – Jay and Dan discuss their personal histories with MTV / The importance of “Thriller.” 34:30 – Was MTV the beginning or the end of something? The 80’s vs. the 90’s. The impact of the Cold War. 51:30 – The atomization of music audiences and the fracturing of youth culture. 59:50 – Youth culture, social capital, and power. 1:18:25 – David Bowie confronts MTV on black representation on the channel.


Rob Tannenbaum’s, I Want My MTV (2012).

Why MTV doesn’t show music videos anymore.


David Bowie on black representation on MTV.

Jay at the Partially Examined Life.


The Buggles, “Video Killed the Radio Star.”

Molly Ringwald on the cover of Time magazine in 1986.


My essay on “OK Boomer.”


9 responses to “I Want My MTV!”

  1. Peter Smith

    I thought your description of your first concert with your father, followed by the description of your first concert with your daughter, was utterly delightful. I look forward to your description of your first concert with your grandchild. You will discover the truth that I discovered, you only really know why you got married when you have grandchildren!!!!

  2. Dan,
    I was never a big fan of KISS, although the guy who played drums with me for years had his rock baptism as a pre-teen member of the KISS Army; I preferred the snappier punch to the head from punk-rockers. Nevertheless, I think I can understand some of their appeal, following as they did the era of Alice Cooper and glam-rock.

    BTW, you may not know, but KISS had a brief separate career as a cappella group The Ascot Five, and as such became the favorite band of famous animated crime solver Fred Jones of Mystery Incorporated: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WFSaKL5dFgc

    For my age group (born in mid-50s), in my area at least, the importance of MTV was that it helped popularize Talking Heads. But we had already seen rock on TV, on the “in-concert” shows that broadcast late night on Friday and Saturday. (One of the most interesting segments of which (ca. 1979) had The Cars choosing their own guest-stars, which included Iggy Pop and Suicide.) Otherwise, I think that MTV drew a kind of dividing line between us and your own age group, since a lot of MTV was definitely more poppy and less strident in either the ’60s or ’70s sense, culturally. Back in the ’60s, rock was either part of a larger revolution, or it *was* a revolution; by the late ’80s, it was just more entertainment.

    I think the primary reason for the darker, depressed social atmosphere of the ’90s is that the hope of social mobility, which had long sustained the American Dream, was simply evaporating. Winning the cold-war didn’t get us anything but a more comfortable – and more rigid – status quo. I was raised to believe anything was possible, at least for the savvy individual, but perhaps for motivated groups as well. By the ’90s it seemed nothing was possible, but more-of-the-same – if you were lucky.

    The situation has only gotten worse… it will only get worse…. Not just the young, but large swaths of the population are profoundly unhappy with an overwhelming sense of powerlessness, and this powerlessness is becoming ever more concrete.

    Good discussion. May come back with further comment.

  3. Did not know that about KISS. Thank you!

  4. Eric Schambion

    Well, that resonated quite a bit with me, being a metalhead born in 1967 in France. I started with ACDC, The Scorpions, ,Motorhead and NWBH (Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Saxon) then moved on to Led Zep, Thin Lizzy, Rainbow to name a few. Later cam the US hair and glam bands.
    The band “Trust” was very big at the time in France (their lyrics, all in french, were highly political, with all the themes of the epoch). The band Anthrax covered their emblematic song “antisocial” in the late 80s.
    MTV came later in France (mid 80s) and my parents didn’t have cable TV.
    My very first gig was The Scorpions for their Blackout album in 1982. My uncle (10 years older than me) arranged for some old friends of his. We went with a van, I was in the back with a few others who couldn’t wait until we got there to roll joint and pass it around ! Great concert !

  5. I think Dan Kaufman’s argument about the momentous effect of the loss of a unified culture is spot on and brilliant. I think things end and simultaneously begin, always, and in a most discontinuous fashion. So that unity ended and fragmentation and niche began and we are in that now. But there are negatives an d downsides to the loss of unity, particular when it comes to accomplishing important goals (even though that might appear far removed from the frivolity of pop music etc.)

  6. DW


    This was a very interesting conversation, but I bet it would have been better and sharper if you had gotten some pushback. Either Jeffers agrees with you too much or he is just not as used to holding the floor as you are. We heard you argument about MTV being the end of something, but I also wanted to hear Jeffers argument about it being the start of something else. (As an aside, I thought you said something about digitization and wondered if you were going to talk about Max Headroom.) It is worth noting that MTV was only possible because cable offered more channels that over-the-air could. But analog cable couldn’t offer very many. If cable had had hundreds of channels from the get-go, MTV could have had many channels that differentiated like radio did, and Bowie would have had nothing to complain about. MTV is probably the first big milestone in the technological developments that led to today’s atomized scene.

    I agree with you that a common pop culture has significance. (There is a story from the Berkeley Free Speech Movement that during a sit in somebody started singing the Howdy Doody song and next thing everybody was singing it.) But in your discussion of 80s culture, you really should have considered the difference between the producers, performers, and consumers. In 1984, Molly Ringwald was indeed 16. But John Hughes was 34, and the executives at Universal Pictures were certainly older than that. Ringwald’s star power drove those movies to their success, but she was literally following the script. And in music, the big labels were making the decisions when it came to the groups with national prominence. They couldn’t always guess what would succeed, but they knew how to rework an act to widen its appeal, and of the thousands of acts that showed at least a bit of promise, they picked the ones to dump money into for big promotion. So I guess I see the consumers as more passive and path driven than you do from what you have said here.

  7. DW,

    I appreciate the constructive criticism. To take just the portion that’s relevant to me, It’s probably true that I’m not as polished at holding the floor, at least in this context as opposed to having some beers with friends.

    But, I don’t think that was a big factor here re disagreement. The topic is highly subjective, which doesn’t mean we’re not getting at anything real, just that there’s not a clear thesis and antithesis, as opposed to mutually exploring possible insights. On the 80’s and MTV being both the beginning and the end of something, for example, I don’t think our stories were even in direct conflict. What I was getting at when the topic was introduced is that the 80’s started a digital ambiance, phenomenologically, and a vivid color screen presentation that we’re still living now. Dan was saying something about generational influence and media unity that ended. I see those as two different kinds or levels of description of the same time period. As for agreement, I haven’t fully digested it but I do find Dan’s view quite plausible and not even in conflict with my observation, so maybe there is too much agreement there for push-back worth having.

    But there’s a time and a season for everything, so if we ever do it again, I’ll try to stay open to the possibility of a healthy scuffle here and there!


  8. DW


    In an attempt to not go on for too long (which I’m often prone to do), I perhaps kind of compressed two different things. But they both involved Dan doing most of the talking. So yes, one was that I wished to hear more about your idea. Things like: besides MTV, what else in the 80’s do you see as contributing to this start? And perhaps most interesting, do you think this is mostly a result of improving technologies? Electronic ones, obviously, but perhaps also chemical/manufacturing that lets us do new things cheaper with the colors of textiles, plastics, and the like? Or do you think there is also a big cultural component along the lines of what Dan was saying about the saturation of color going up and down relating to a national mood going up or down?

    And the other thing was that I wanted Dan to get some push back. Since it was only you two in the discussion, I was hoping that you would do that to provide a bit of “devil’s advocate” type questioning. Not just because a bit of scuffle is entertaining, but because I thought that Dan’s ideas, while interesting, were also rather broad and vague. I wonder if he could make them more detailed, or perhaps back off to a narrower more sharply stated claim.

    But, sure, I’d be glad to see you guys have another conversation, and next time you should grab some pretzels and pour a beer. No reason not to be comfortable!

  9. Jay Jeffers

    We can definitely agree on beer and pretzels!