Let’s take it way back to August 1, 1981. That was the day that MTV launched, and it changed the world. If you were around then, you remember the first image on MTV: the doctored footage of the Apollo 11 moon landing, with the astronaut planting the MTV flag on the lunar landscape. We heard the words, “Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll.” With this phrase, we were launched into years of unprecedented music television. Even the first video that aired, “Video Killed the Radio Star,” by the Buggles, promised a whole new era in which music videos would reign supreme. And that they did for a while.
But then things started to shift. Around 1995, MTV started to look a lot different, with a huge increase in the number of hours dedicated to original reality television programming and live shows (like “Total Request Live”), and a sharp decline in the number of videos that were being played. Suddenly, if you wanted to watch videos, you needed to watch one of MTV’s sister channels like MTV2, or (God forbid) our parents’ video channel, VH1.
Then came YouTube and the internet, where any music video could be found with the click of a button, and the MTV that we all grew up knowing and loving was, for all intents and purposes, gone.
Looking back at those earlier years, here are some things that we miss from the Golden Age of music television. Let us know what you loved most about old-school MTV in the comments!
6. Live Aid concerts
Back in 1985, if you wanted to watch any of the Live Aid concerts, which featured incredible performances by world-renowned performers like Sting, U2, David Bowie, Elton John, Freddie Mercury, and Paul McCartney, you desperately needed MTV. Regular network television at the time only showed highlights from the concerts during prime time, but MTV devoted 16 hours of its broadcast time to its coverage.
5. Early seasons of The Real World
Yes, one could argue that reality shows such as The Real World led to the ultimate downfall of MTV, but early seasons of the show really had the feel of the network and were revolutionary for the time. It was such a novel concept, to have cameras following around regular people who were complete strangers and forced to live together in a strange city. Early on, no one looked like a model, and they all had real jobs and lives. They got into very real arguments about everything from race to sexual orientation to AIDS and death. It was riveting for a good while.
4. The Video Music Awards
There was a time when the VMAs actually meant something. We would tune in every fall (it always seemed to air the night before the first day of school) and hope that our favorite videos would win. By the time Kanye West was attempting to pull the Moon Man out of Taylor Swift’s hands, the awards show had lost its shimmer. But when videos were the talk of the town, the VMAs were spectacular.
Who can forget Downtown Julie Brown, Bill Bellamy, Karen Duffy, Kennedy, Matt Pinfield, or Colin Quinn? And what about MTV News with Serena Altschul, Kurt Loder, Mark Goodman, and Tabitha Soren? These TV personalities knew their music. They were walking, talking encyclopedias about anything having to do with the topic. It was refreshing to watch them on air.
2. MTV Unplugged
One by one, top artists who normally sold out arenas thanks, in part, to their skills on the electric guitar, surrounded themselves by an intimate audience and played a set completely unplugged. Arguably some of the best performances came out of this original MTV programming (Nirvana Unplugged, anyone?). It also gave fans a chance to see a quieter, softer side of their favorite musicians who now had the opportunity to tell stories and explain the origins of songs as if they were sitting around a campfire with a bunch of buddies.
1. Music videos
Try to wrap your head around how many videos you saw for the first time on MTV. Videos by Madonna (and the scandalous Like a Prayer), Aerosmith (starring Alicia Silverstone), Janet Jackson (who can forget “Rhythm Nation”?), Paula Abdul (remember her slithering around that room full of suits?), the Beastie Boys (in your face, rapping right into the camera), Bruce Springsteen (with Courteney Cox dancing her heart out), Dire Straits (with that odd animation), and Michael Jackson (and his groundbreaking Black or White with every person’s face melding into the next one). We watched these videos and we obsessed over them and talked about them. We couldn’t sing a song without thinking of the accompanying video.
Today, if someone asked you to describe a video of a new song you’ve grown to like, would you be able to? Probably not, unless it’s a video that has gone viral, like Single Ladies or This is America. And that is truly a travesty.