Though it’s often hard to see now through the haze of Jersey Shore-induced frustration, MTV was once a revolutionary cultural benchmark. It changed music. It changed film. It changed our concept of celebrity. It changed our very attention spans, and it did all even as almost everyone called it a crazy idea.
The chief brilliance of I Want My MTV is a glorious and purposeful absence of journalistic posturing. Marks and Tannenbaum appear only in brief introductions to the material in each of their book’s chapters. The rest is left up to the people who lived it.
The book is really a series of compelling vignettes, stitched together by a loose sense of the history of the broadcast network that premiered quietly and quickly shot itself into the pop culture stratosphere on the wings of pop superstars, cocky filmmakers and way too many drugs. The creators of the network, the producers and directors who shepherded it through the often tumultuous early years, are here, as are rock and pop superstars like Def Leppard, Duran Duran, Pat Benatar, Billy Idol and Phil Collins.
The picture they paint is a kaleidoscopic, ever-shifting portrait of a revolution birthed out of an often chaotic network that no one thought would succeed to begin with.
It launched in 1981 with a very obvious first video – The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star” – and then continued with a second meant as a message to the record companies – Pat Benatar’s “You Better Run.” From there it grew through blockbusters like Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like the Wolf” and Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and duds like Billy Squier’s infamous “Rock Me Tonite.” It saw the rise of the VJ, the birth of the superstar video director (names like Michael Bay and Dennis Fincher, who are working on a much bigger scale now), the shifting landscape of music and the cultural explosion that is the music video.
But MTV did more than change television and music forever simultaneously. It also changed lives. Musicians, personalities, executives and directors all find their place to explain why in I Want My MTV, from stories of cocaine vials dropping live on stage to massively overproduced videos to the (often reluctant) promotion of hip-hop as a new driving force in the music industry.
Marks and Tannenbaum get out of the way and let all of this happen in their pages, but more significantly, they guide it where it needs to go. The book is a massive sheaf of material ranging more than a decade and featuring more than a few huge personalities. They find a way to craft all of that into a cohesive, compelling and often madly entertaining volume that will make even the youngest reader long for the days when they could actually turn on cable and see these things playing out.
MTV will never be what it was again. Reality television has, for better or worse, overtaken the age of the music video. I Want My MTV strikes a chord of nostalgia for those of us who remember it, but it does more. It calls for everyone reading it to look up and realize that what happened in those TV studios in the ‘80s and ‘90s thoroughly changed media, perhaps more than any other development since the advent of television itself. The MTV age was a revolution, and I Want My MTV is its energetic, often messy, manifesto.