Books About TV: Recounting MTV’s Early Music Days

Books About TV: Recounting MTV’s Early Music Days

It’s hard to talk about MTV without someone inevitably chiming in that the network was better when it was all about music. If that person happens to be you, then I really recommend reading this book:

I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution
– By by Rob Tannenbaum & Craig Marks


A quick disclaimer of sorts before I continue: I enjoy music and try to get to a handful of concerts every year, but I’ll be the first to admit that the music industry is something I know very little about. I don’t know producers, labels, probably haven’t heard most of those ‘quintessential’ albums, and I really can’t even name the individual members of bands I do listen too. All of this is my not-so-short way of saying that while I picked up the book because it had to do with a television network, those who are seriously into music will probably get much more enjoyment out of it.

I Want My MTV Book Cover

That’s not to say I didn’t like the book, because I did, but all of the stories about, and from, various artists and other major players (video directors, network brass, and early MTV VJs) probably mean a bit more when you’ve got some more background knowledge or context than what the book provides.

Regardless of your music ‘cred’, you’re going to want to have YouTube* handy while reading I Want My MTV. What would otherwise be a quick read thanks to its conversational recounting from a variety of sources is slowed down a bit by the overwhelming desire to watch every music video ever mentioned.

[*Someone awesomely put together a playlist of music videos mentioned in the book – enjoy!]

Multiple contributors also make for an unreliable narrative. If you’re looking for facts or an accurate timeline of events, you aren’t going to find it in this book. The saying, “Sex, Drugs, and Rock & Roll” accurately describe MTVs early days (even in the offices) so you can’t really blame anyone for their fuzzy memories or contradictory accounts.

Overall, I was most surprised by how directly the book’s conclusion handled the whole ‘MTV doesn’t play music anymore’ elephant in the room. After all, we all know how the story ends. And while a good portion of the book is spent reminiscing about the ‘golden days’, the final four chapters actually address the network’s transition to scripted and reality series head on.

It goes without saying that many people miss the days when MTV was all about music, but it’s obvious, especially with the luxury of hindsight that the channel did what it needed to do in order to survive, even thrive. MTV was ahead of the curve when it came to music and again when it came to reality programming. The Internet would have killed MTV, and in the age of instant gratification no one in their right mind would watch several hours of TV just to see their favorite band’s newest music video.

Maybe at it’s inception MTV was really all about the music, but a lot happened in its first decade and by the early 90s there was no denying that MTV was a business. In the end, MTV went mainstream – they sold out, and that’s a pretty universal story in the music industry.

Odds & Ends:

  • Select TV markets in New Jersey were some of the first to see MTV upon its debut.
  • The brief story of why and how VH1 was created was amusing, I actually wanted to know more.
  • Because labels wanted nothing to do with music videos, but saw them as necessary evils, a lot of women who were generally lower on the pay scale were put in charge of the videos.
  • Michael Bay and David Fincher were two of the top directors in the music video / MTV hayday. They didn’t like each other, and I’m betting even back then their visual styles differed greatly.

Still nostalgic for the early days of MTV? Here’s an hour of MTV from 1981:


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Written by Jamie Paton

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