Not just video clips: how MTV changed our lives

MTV saves in its beginnings the fate of every good idea that later explodes into legend: suspicious glances, low laughter, doors slamming from executives who do not see much fate, tepid results in a takeoff where everything almost crashes to the ground.

But the harsh origin was not related to its essence or its quality as a project; it had more to do with an adverse scenario where the music converted into an audiovisual device did not connect with part of the cultural and commercial sensitivity of those days, especially in the United States. At the end of the 70s, consulting companies began to take a key role in the radio stations of that country, defining what the public wanted to hear on the dial, a kind of rating where the results had a wurlitzer character and almost always the same ones appeared. songs, hits already guaranteed that accumulated up to 20 years replicating in several generations.

On the other hand, there was no nationwide station; on the contrary, they all operated in states or in delimited areas, so that almost the majority appealed to names of guaranteed success, to sacred cows that did not detonate in the public or that look under a frown of “what the hell am I hearing?” , nor the emptying of audience that could top the commercial coffers.

In addition, two formats still reigned, tattooed by fire on the skin of the most classic rock of the 70s: mega concerts and vinyl records. Led Zeppelin, The Eagles, Billy Joel, Fleetwood Mac or Pink Floyd mounted colossal and millionaire tours, while their albums were shipped at fast food speed. In fact, a significant percentage of US signals were destined for classic and traditional rock, without the disruptive accents that were brewing in other latitudes, starting with England, or continuing through Latin America and Africa.

A picture from MTV in the 80s.

Despite the geographic remoteness, the situation in Chile was not very different. The Modulated Frequency (FM) had begun its heyday in 1972 and at the end of that decade had as leading radios Concerto and Carolina, which also referred to amplifying over and over again the successes of the Anglo circuit, standardizing a type of sound and aesthetics. – from disco to Peter Frampton-style stadium rock – that was loved and enjoyed.

In that context, why invent something that would break the shell and interfere with the refuge that gave good dividends to all?

It’s true, maybe it wasn’t necessary, but something happened. The 80s arrived, the great bands separated (Led Zeppelin, The Who) or dismembered (Pink Floyd), and rock in the US ended up bored and stagnant from so much entrenched. Everything sounded more less the same and, to the calamity of the industry, even the sales of the records began to succumb, seeing how the pure gold began to escape between the fingers.

The one who detected with nose that a new way of promoting music could generate fresher and more renewed fruits was precisely a man from the old guard of rock. And perhaps not the best, almost as if it were a rematch against the neglect of previous years: Michael Nesmith, members of The Monkees, a group perpetually regarded as the weak and laughable North American reaction to The Beatles.

Michael Nesmith.

The musician in the latter part of the 70s made a series of imaginative camera records for some of his solo songs, also inspired by the TV series he had with the Monkees in the previous decade, adorned with interludes that looked like proto video clips. (Just as did The Beatles or the Stones).

Nesmith’s audiovisual adventure drew attention in much of the country, but he himself realized that there was no channel that could regularly rotate his screen work. There he came up with a program called Popclips, which debuted on the Nickelodeon channel, owned by the Warner Brothers company.

Over the years, Nesmith has said that the idea of Popclips It also arose from television projects in other countries, far from the great orbits of the entertainment industry (USA and England) and that in those years would never see the big shots of popular music pass through their stages, so broadcasting videos was the only way to make the public feel close to rock idols. And, also, it was a way of building a brotherhood around artists, beyond the one generated by the radio.

You probably never had any idea of ​​the project, but one of those many programs was Midnight Special, Sergio “Pirincho” Cárcamo’s revolutionary Chilean space, who did the same from 1977. And of course, in a very, very distant country.

When Popclips achieved some resonance, Nesmith proposed to Warner executives to implement a channel that broadcast 24 hours of video music. Reluctantly, the bosses agreed, but on one condition: that it was profitable and where the videos of the greatest were shown.

On Saturday, August 1, 1981, MTV officially began with the words “Ladies and gentlemen: rock and roll,” pronounced by John Lack -the executive vice president of the company- and reproduced on images of the first countdown of the launch of the space shuttle Columbia ( which took place earlier that year) and the launch of Apollo 11. The phrase was followed by the original MTV theme song, composed by Jonathan Elias and John Petersen, played over the American flag, which varied to show the logo of MTV in various textures and sizes.

Then what we came to. Or at least what people were looking for: the video clips, with the now legendary and symbolic start with Video killed the radio star by The Buggles, and then You better runby Pat Benatar. The race had begun, but with the days Nesmith was not satisfied.

The great ideologue felt that the commercial desire imposed from above had demolished his artistic desires, that avant-garde stamp with which he thought to endow the pairing of music + image. He resigned and left the project running, with a major puzzle: MTV did not reach the entire US (only 25% of the country had access to cable at that time) and the great giants that with their videos could make more profitable and attractive the station, they looked at it with disdain or simply did not see a substantive benefit in it.

And what happens when veterans don’t believe in you? You join those of your age: that’s where part of the true MTV revolution began, beyond the obviousness of video clips and giving rise to a format that would transform popular culture. Without support or money for some of the greats to trust its platform -and with a music video culture that at least in North America was scarce-, the station began to give circulation to a series of names little or nothing known in the United States, which it symbolized the triumph of new blood and talents with a transgressive spirit that changed the entire musical planet.

Here was the alternative at last, overthrowing the old order and, even more so, forcing it to run at its feet: Pete Townshend or Mick Jagger joined the promotional campaign of the signal (the one that had the slogan “I want my MTV”) .

By chance, the new era fueled by MTV – and fueled by one of The Monkees! – had come true.

Bands of such modern spirit as The Human League, Soft Cell or ABC began to appear insistently -why the promotion suited them-, to later give way to another batch of names such as Duran Duran, Culture Club, Eurythmics and Wham! By 1983, MTV managed to increase record sales again, by 10%.

Duran Duran in 1982.

In addition, almost all the groups that managed to bring MTV to glory – and to be filled with glory – had a peculiarity: they were English. This helped the press to talk about a “second British invasion” – homologous to that of the 60s – and so that 35% of album sales in 1982 in the US corresponded to musicians from Great Britain.

And that they were from the island was not a mere salute to the flag: on the other side of the Atlantic – thanks to The Beatles, Queen, David Bowie and many others – a large part of the artists were already used to the video clip as a hook for the masses. It didn’t sound like futuristic science fiction technology. They knew that it had to hook from the beginning, have a certain glamor, some touches of ambiguity, present fantasy worlds, highlight some feminine and masculine skin; in short, to be a slap to the senses.

That is why almost all the video clips of those years resemble mini films saturated with stimuli, a formula that would later lead Madonna or Michael Jackson to the top. The contraption even gave to be hedonistic and frivolous, which music had allowed so little up to that moment: it is when the concept of pop precisely associated with the video clip arises, but also with a plastic and evasive way of understanding music.

Seldom has such a brief word divided so many waters. For some, the demon with shaggy hairdos and champagne on a yacht; for others, the necessary entertainment that an expression as human as music should carry.

That same substrate even defined the sound of an entire generation, traced between keyboards, drum machines, synthesizers, processed guitars, distorted vocals, and synthetic effects: after all, it had to sound like what was shown on the TV screen.

During those years, Chileans did not know about MTV. Perhaps the most knowledgeable (some linked to the circuit of the Fusión record store), one or another with some mileage from foreign trips or those who could access magazines that reported on this invention where you could observe wonders. But, despite the insular distance, everything radiated by the video music channel reached several of our musicians. And also from the rest of Latin America.

The aesthetics, the visual imprint and a sound rich in colors were the trigger for Soda Stereo or Virus, but also for Los Prisioneros and Aparato Raro. Bands that were clear not only about the weight of how they sounded, but also how they looked. Creators who were no longer willing to guitar Deep Purple chords as they must have heard at home, but also wanted to unleash the fascinating spell of the Anglo bands that populated the 80s.

In short, they understood that music was entering its own era of modernity. And MTV, neither more nor less than with the image of an astronaut on the Moon -the maximum human achievement-, was one of its great responsible.