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by Rachel Devitt

November 6, 2012

Cheat Sheet: I Want My MTV

by Rachel Devitt  |  November 6, 2012

Once upon a time, MTV was a channel that played music videos. We know, it's hard to believe. But back in the day, when you said, "I want my MTV!" you meant you wanted it for musical reasons, not Jersey Shore-related reasons.

When the Music Television Network launched in 1981, it was a mysterious cable channel dedicated to broadcasting a relatively untested new format: the music video. Starting with its very first clip, for The Buggles' aptly titled "Video Killed the Radio Star," MTV "VJs" not only played this new medium (by literally feeding VHS tapes into a player), they and the network also helped create it -- and revolutionized the way we consume pop music in the process.

Music videos gave artists a visual medium for their craft that provided fans with more access to (and more opportunities to idolize) their favorite pop stars. But MTV itself also shaped a musical canon that continues to influence pop culture today. Gussied up in that sexy new medium, the songs the channel chose to play became instantly desirable to legions of teenagers, who fell hard for the edgy pop rock, early metal and, later, glammy synth pop (plus, a lot of Rod Stewart early on) the station favored.

On one hand, MTV's musical preferences broadened the spectrum of '80s pop: The network's hipster investment in genres like New Wave, for instance, introduced kids across the world to under-the-radar bands like Men at Work and Bow Wow Wow that their local radio stations weren't playing. On the other hand, especially early on, the network offered an extremely racially limited picture of pop music. Claiming an emphasis on rock, the channel boasted an overwhelmingly white roster in its early days, with a few (usually late-night) exceptions made for artists like Prince and Tina Turner.

Michael Jackson, of course, is often credited with breaking MTV's "color barrier": By the time Thriller came around, the network, which could no longer ignore the R&B and pop sounds the kids were digging, went M.J. crazy, helping to make the video for "Thriller" one of the most iconic and prolific in pop-culture history. But the network took even longer to come around to hip-hop. Though Blondie's rap-doused "Rapture" and Herbie Hancock's hip-hop-hued "Rockit" were in heavy rotation, the station didn't play a true hip-hop song by a black artist until 1986 -- and even then, it was "Walk This Way," Run-D.M.C.'s rap-rock duet with Aerosmith.

In addition to Michael Jackson, MTV developed symbiotic relationships with several other '80s artists. The history of the network and the early careers of artists like Madonna (whose famously writhing performance of "Like a Virgin" set a scandalous precedent for the channel's Video Music Awards), Bon Jovi (whose stint as MTV heartthrobs bridged the divide between arena rock and pop to help create hair metal), and Eurythmics (who took the visual artistry of the music video to new heights) are so intertwined that it's hard to say whose fame and establishment as a pop culture icon came first: the music video network or the musicians it favored. Focusing on the network's first five years, 1981-1986, this Cheat Sheet explores the artists that MTV made into stars -- and the albums that made MTV a musical institution.

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