MTV at 40: four generations on how the iconic music channel rocked their youth

For four decades, MTV has provided a slipstream of music, colour, craziness and innovation, which brought our favourite artists right into our living rooms. As the channel turns 40, we hear from four different generations of MTV addicts.

a-ha’s ‘Take on Me’ video, a fixture on MTV in the 1980s

The first decade: 1980s

For many in the right demographic – I was 18, a college sophomore – the first confrontation with MTV’s conceptual barrage was hypnotic. Here was an entire TV channel with no scheduled shows, just a radio-like babbling brook of song after song – one effortfully bizarre and/or inspired mini-movie ‘music video’ after another – interspersed with occasional prerecorded ‘VJ‘ host blatherings, just to assure us that humans were at the helm.

Every four minutes or so the visual palette and temperature would change, from raw recycled concert glimpses of Van Halen and 38 Special to goofball comedy by youngster new wavers like Madness, Devo and Haircut 100 to art-school design explosions from the likes of Peter Gabriel, David Bowie, Talking Heads and U2.

It was like having the DNA of contemporary and future rock sequenced for you in real time. You saw new bands you’d never hear on your provincial radio stations, and saw them in a new way: as ‘MTV bands’, performative concoctions that used film, post-punk styling, heart-racing editing and counterintuitive visual ideas along with their dance beats, poppy synthesiser riffs and jumpy rhythm guitars.

You didn’t have to imagine what each artist looked like in action, or what their visual version of their music might be – here they were, zooming by like colourful Formula 1 racers.

Some critics thought it was a new art form; most of us didn’t know what it was, just that it was addictive. Pre-internet and online gaming it was the slickest way to chew through four or five hours in a constant state of maintained discovery.

Of course, we knew as well that this odd format spawned and fermented the form – after the first year, the exposure power of MTV initiated a creative surge in video production that would last for decades. And the clips got bigger, stranger and more ambitious, whether it was Michael Jackson’s big-boned, if trad, ‘Thriller’ or a-ha’s pencil-drawn ‘Take on Me’ or R.E.M.’s Derek Jarmanesque ‘Losing My Religion’. The station created a booming creative industry to provide it with free programming, and everyone was watching.

It – the freeform format, the unstructured flow of surrealist craziness – couldn’t last. Was it an innocence waiting to be lost? I aged out of MTV’s demographic soon enough, but as scheduled programming started to invade the purity of the weird waterfall, one had a sense that media orthodoxy had taken over, just as the bands themselves – if they were lucky/unlucky – sold off their subversive individuality for bigger corporate contracts.

Whole adolescent afternoons spent rafting down the curated MTV spillway – if there’s a generational mass-memory map for the American kids of the Reagan years, that’s it.

Michael Atkinson

The second decade: 1990s

MTV Europe played a major role in shaping my dream landscape in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The channel launched when I was just out of my teens, fresh out of university, and on the dole with no clear future job prospects. Starved of money and travel opportunities, I became voyeuristically addicted to late-night MTV shows like Party Zone, which seemed to be filmed at a never-ending mega-rave in some glamorously vague Middle European metropolis.

In those prehistoric pre-internet days, it was rare to see electronic or left-field pop artists on mainstream television, so it was largely thanks to MTV Europe that I first discovered the likes of Aphex Twin, Bjork, Prodigy, Yello and many more.

But the allure of MTV Europe during these pioneer years was more than just musical. With rave culture exploding just as revolutions swept the old Eastern Bloc, the network seemed to embody borderless unity and naive optimism, Fukuyama’s “end of history” set to a techno beat. Europe endless, as Kraftwerk once prophetically sang. I wanted to move to this Dream Europe and never come home again. 

Which, in a way, I did. I became a music journalist soon after MTV Europe launched, spending much of the next two decades interviewing musicians all over the continent, and intermittently living in Berlin, all partly because of MTV’s lingering influence on my impressionable young brain.

Of course, this Dream Europe never really existed, on screen or off. MTV Europe divided into regional single-nation channels in 1997, dissolving that amorphous, stateless, borderless fantasy. With bitter hindsight, it could be argued that Brexit began with the rise of Britpop and the Balkanisation of MTV Europe.

But I still feel a nostalgic ache for that magical Party Zone. Proustian flashbacks, hauntological echoes of a utopian future that never arrived, but which arguably changed my life forever.

Stephen Dalton

The third decade: 2000s

Growing up, I had a small TV in my room. The benefits of being an only child of working parents, I guess. There were two channels that I remember devouring: TCM and MTV (which, weirdly, was broadcast with German subtitles). The former informed my love of cinema; the latter, of spiky-haired pseudo-punks. 

People tearing up backyards, all-American white picket fences, pop punks making faces into the camera and many, many fisheye lenses. The videos at that time, regardless of music genre, were rife with hyper saturated cinematography and often dripping with sweat (why was everyone so sweaty in the 2000s?). 

Male nudity was always played for jokes, whereas female pop stars were presented as shiny, slick with sweat and, even though I couldn’t fully understand what they were singing about, I knew it was something for adult ears only. 

With pop punk and emo bands, there was a distinct love of pageantry, with circus aesthetics peppered with winks to films like A Clockwork Orange and The Shining (hello, My Chemical Romance, 30 Seconds to Mars and The Used) or even ripping off entire paragraphs from books (I’m looking at you, Panic! At the Disco).

Gradually, then suddenly, the videos and music-related content became sidelined by reality shows, mostly hosted or anchored around musical personalities like pop stars Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey’s Newlyweds, the family dynamics of metal star Ozzy Osbourne in The Osbournes and the car make-over show Pimp My Ride, hosted by rapper Xzibit.

Then there was the manchild magnum opus Jackass. I videotaped all of Jackass and its spinoffs, rewatching them after dark. When I realised there were more TV shows than music videos, mostly centred around dating, pranks or wannabe celebrities, I started switching off. And YouTube came along, where I could rewatch all the Jackass clips without having to rewind the tape. 

Anna Bogutskaya

The fourth decade: 2010s

By the time I’d reached adolescence, the era when MTV had a stranglehold over popular culture had all but come and gone, but none of that mattered to me. In all honesty, I only remember three channels on television when I was growing up, and those were MTV, BBC and the Weather. The former was far and away the most important.

It was deeper than music… to control the TV meant to control the energy, ambience and vibrations within our little world. As the youngest of three, I had to wait a long time before the ceremonial torch (ie the TV remote) was passed down. The first videos I ever saw were Eminem’s ‘The Real Slim Shady’ and Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’. It was like having your baby food prepared by a Michelin-starred chef; the only way was down after that. 

That was until MTV premiered the new Kanye West video, ‘Runaway’. The anticipation reached levels that my teenage self had only witnessed on New Year’s Eve. When it finally arrived it was an excessive, self-indulgent, 34-minute masterpiece. It reminded me why I had fallen in love with music videos, and why I kept coming back to this channel when YouTube was far more convenient.

Throughout my teenage years I would spend late nights bingeing MTV, stumbling across little-known artists like Kendrick Lamar, J Cole and Drake – then hidden gems who would go on to take over the world, and my playlist, for the next decade.

While I didn’t get the revolutionary version of MTV where Michael Jackson broke colour barriers, or the provocative version where Madonna kissed Britney Spears in front of a live audience, the version I did get shaped my taste in music ever since.

Whelan Barzey

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