MTV, Our Modern Nostradamus

On Saturday, August 1, 1981, at 12:01 a.m. Eastern Time, MTV launched with the words “Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll.”

I’m not blind to the fact that a great many of you reading this post weren’t actually alive when MTV first launched. That was 1981, after all. If you’re 34, you missed it. According to an article in the Harvard Business Review, the median age of a top startup founder is 30. An article in Entrepreneur gives 39 as the median age for tech founders, and a Fast Company articles notes that the median age of employees at major Web 2.0 startups ranges from 28 to 31.

The point being, is that you may not know that much about a pre-MTV world. It was different then.

To give you a couple quick snapshots that illustrate one of the really significant changes MTV ushered in, let’s look at the top of the Billboard music charts for 1981, when MTV launched, and the charts from last year, 2015. Specifically, let’s look at the age of the artists at the time they appeared on the charts:

1981

  • John Lennon, 41
  • Deborah Harry (Blondie), 36
  • Kool & The Gang (multiple members, band formed in 1964)
  • Dolly Parton, 35
  • Eddie Rabbitt, 40

2015

  • Drake, 30
  • Adele, 28
  • Meghan Trainor, 22
  • Taylor Swift, 26
  • Kendrick Lamar, 26

At 30 years of age, Drake is the elder statesperson in 2015. In 1981, he would have been the youngest by 5 years!

Let’s continue the theme, and look at some of the bands whose videos were most successful during MTV’s first full year of being in business, 1982:

  • The Motels, formed 11 years prior
  • The J. Geils Band, formed 15 years prior
  • The Cars, formed 6 years prior
  • America, formed 12 years prior
  • .38 Special, formed 8 years prior

Even many of the so-called “New Wave” bands hitting the charts at the time had already been around for a while:

  • The Human League, formed 5 years prior
  • Men at Work, formed 4 years prior
  • Dexy’s Midnight Runners, formed 4 years prior
  • Duran Duran, formed 4 years prior

Even Flock of Seagulls, one of the new-waviest of the new wavers to hit it big in 1982 (I Ran So Far Away) were formed in 1980. BEFORE MTV!

Where I’m going with this is pretty obvious; a post-MTV world has skewed younger and younger when it comes to who succeeds in popular music. There are exceptions of course. When Rolling Stone profiled top acts for 2015, they included the bands Eternal Summers and Highly Suspect, both of whom have been around since 2009. That said, they also included Super Unison, around for about a year, and Leon Bridges, whose career began in 2014.

So what’s it all mean? Is there some weird kind of ageism at work here? As music became increasingly more visual rather than strictly aural, did we not want to be looking at older people?

Or perhaps this has something more to do with technology? The launch of MTV can certainly be seen to have been a harbinger of sorts that technology in the music industry was changing, and there is certainly an argument for the idea that technology has made it easier for people to try and start a career in music. No more years of slogging through the clubs honing your chops. All that’s ostensibly required now is a smartphone, thereby making it much easier for the younger and less experienced.

Ultimately, the impact MTV had went way beyond music. It’s not too much of a stretch to suggest that Bill Clinton bested George Bush Sr. in the presidential race through his ability to connect with younger voters via appearances on MTV. Remember “Boxers or Briefs?” Bush Sr., on the other hand, initially refused to appear on the channel. MTV was of course also a partner with Rock the Vote, an organization that continues to influence youth politics to this day.

In the 90’s MTV moved away from music-only programming, and in doing so, they arguably birthed a whole other phenomenon that continues to significantly impact the modern cultural landscape: Reality TV. MTV’s Real World debuted in 1992, and you probably won’t get too much of an argument if you try and posit that without MTV’s Real World we wouldn’t have Survivor, The Kardashians, Top Chef, and yes, in yet another presidential overlap, The Apprentice. Statistics vary, but virtually all estimates seem to agree that Reality TV counts for somewhere over 50% of all television programming. And Donald Trump is of course the Republican candidate for the presidency.

“NBC’s The Apprentice made possible Donald Trump’s presumably successful bid to become the GOP’s presidential candidate, NBC Entertainment’s late night and alternative programming president Paul Telegdy said today.”
—Deadline Hollywood, May, 2016

So today is the 35th anniversary of MTV’s debut. Should we celebrate? Or cry?

How you answer that question may depend on your age, but one thing is certain — you simply can’t overestimate the impact or significance of MTV on our modern culture. You see the influence everywhere. Not just in music, not just with Reality TV. Honestly, the seeds of social media and selfies were sewn in MTV’s garden, and it’s safe to say everything from YouTube to Netflix’s “Original Programming” owes a debt to MTV.

But MTV’s legacy may in fact run even deeper, and its power as a prophet of the future may prove to be even more incredible that we thought.

The fact that the first video played on MTV was “Video Killed The Radio Star” by Buggles (who were formed 4 years PRIOR to MTV’s launch!) has long been a staple of modern cultural folklore, so it’s not interesting to note it here, per se. But what IS eerie, is the following lyric from that song:

They took the credit for your second symphony
Rewritten by machine on new technology

It was only a month or so ago that Google’s Project Magenta team debuted an original song composed entirely by a machine learning system!

Meaning, it may just turn out that MTV is in fact our modern Nostradamus, which ultimately leaves one scratching one’s head and wondering, “What else does MTV still have to teach us?”

We may find out sooner than we think. A recent article in Variety notes that MTV Classic (formerly VH1 Classic) launches today. Funnily enough, here is the final sentence from that article:

“The birth of MTV Classic seems to indicate that to understand the future, sometimes you have to return to the past.”

~

(This post was written by Christopher Watkins, Senior Writer, Udacity)