Written by Nikki Sztolc
Ladies and gentlemen, rock ‘n’ roll…
Long before MTV was taken over by Teen Moms and Nev from Catfish (and its successor, Ghosted), the channel was a beloved staple for many teens in the 80s. MTV launched as a 24-hour music channel, providing music videos of the 80s and 90s with shelter, warmth and visual representation that they couldn’t get through radio. I Want My TV, directed by Tyler Measom and Patrick Waldrop, is a 2019 documentary which recalls the channels’ formative years of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll…
… Okay, maybe it wasn’t all that to begin with. But as we find out later it certainly wasn’t out of the equation.
The film undoubtedly champions MTV, established by the documentary’s emphasis on the fact that prior to the 80s, music did not exist in tangent with television. Television, as a relatively new concept, meant that not many households had one. It also meant that teenagers were bored by its programs which catered mostly to older generations and remained relatively conservative. MTV saw this as a challenge. Between punk and rock music taking centre stage on radio and Walkman, and television making its way into homes, co-founder, Robert Pittman, saw an opportunity.
The film bounces between home videos, original studio footage, music videos and present-day interviews in a way that immerses you into the 80s as if you were there
Writer and musician, Jack Antonoff, makes a statement about money quite early on in the documentary; a topic which continues to be addressed throughout the film. MTV didn’t care about money. They had none. They did it all in the name of bringing music to the youth. So, within the first five minutes of the film we know three things: a) there was little to no music television in the United States before MTV, b) music videos were only just beginning to take off, and c) MTV did not do it for the money.
Some black and white clips of early live music and dance performances flash on an old-fashioned television to introduce the first major part of the film. ‘If television stations were like radio stations, wouldn’t it be cool if they played music videos?’ was one of the many iconic quotes from the documentary. Another being: ‘We were told “Music doesn’t work on television”.’ The interviewees laugh, knowing the success of MTV contradicted everything TV executives told them in the early days.
There is something so fascinating about watching the original creators recall MTVs early beginnings. From the pitches, the meetings and rejections, to the naivety and innocence of the first launch. Even though we know now that MTV was a hit, you can’t help but think ‘there’s no way this will work’ as the creators take you through this little project with big dreams. The logo was really a throwaway design made by a studio behind a Tai Chi studio and the employees really went to a dingy bar in Jersey to watch MTV air for the first time. Humble beginnings.
It’s nostalgic in a way that makes you feel like you experienced the era, even if you hadn’t
Maybe it was their sense of humour, but playing The Buggles’ Video Killed The Radio Star as the first song seems incredibly fitting, and the fact certainly deserves an audible laugh. “The next thing since sliced bread” sounds about right now, but even after its launch, MTV struggled to find more than 200 videos to play on any one rotation. Jack Antonoff was right; they didn’t do this for the money, mostly because they didn’t have any. With that, the documentary dives into its second act.
After more meetings with record labels and even more rejection, they were convinced that the end of MTV was near. It was only when Les Garland joined the team as Vice President that they launched the iconic “I want my MTV” campaign. The animated retelling of the story of Garland going to see Pete Townshend in London makes for almost comedic relief, as if the future of the channel didn’t completely rely on his co-operation (spoiler alert: it did). It’s funny to think that if Mick Jagger and Pete Townshend hadn’t agreed to do this ad- no, not an ad, promo – MTV may have seen its end quite early on. This sparked a succession of artists like David Bowie, Billy Idol, The Police, and Stevie Nicks to agree to this promotional advert asking pay TV networks in the US to add MTV to their local channels lists.
With its new popularity on pay TV, submissions for music videos started flowing in more regularly, meaning MTV could now be more selective with what they play. With this selectivity came great responsibility, and, in a way, this is where the documentary falls short. Perhaps the director is not entirely to blame for this, but when the topic of racism is brought up and white MTV executives start defending their choices, something doesn’t sit quite right. While the film jumps between these shots, and those of musicians of colour claiming MTV did have racial bias, there is no conclusion by the end of it all. David Bowie’s famous video questioning the presenter on MTV’s diversity draws mostly to the fact that the presenter felt ashamed of the way he had answered. MTV’s decision to play Michael Jackson’s music is offered in an almost “save face” kind of way, and the two-minute segment on the topic of racism is dropped to discuss Jackson for a further ten. Alas, it is difficult to review this part in more depth since it doesn’t offer much in the first place. The same can be said for the discussion of female representation in music, a fault more-so of the musicians themselves than of MTV, and in a time that was not as progressive as the 21st century is also hard to criticise.
MTV, love it or hate it… I Want My MTV is ultimately a captivating look back on the channel that changed music and television forever
Past employees and music industry professionals discuss the rise of MTV, reiterating the fact that its humble, broke ass beginnings played a big part in its success. That’s not to say that its commercial success is not a milestone to be celebrated too, but its shift to reality shows appealed to a different audience than it had initially set out to attract. The 90s were still good years for MTV, but the 2000s saw more corporate lean in its programming, slowly eliminating many of the much-loved music shows that began its success (think Headbangers Ball, Yo! MTV Raps, and MTV Unplugged). In the end, I Want My MTV comes full circle with another appearance from Jack Antonoff (now that I think about it, why is Jack Antonoff here?) saying ‘I really only wanted music on MTV.’
The film bounces between home videos, original studio footage, music videos and present-day interviews in a way that immerses you into the 80s as if you were there. It’s nostalgic in a way that makes you feel like you experienced the era, even if you hadn’t. Perhaps it is the fact that vinyl and 35mm photography aesthetics are seeing a major comeback in today’s society, or perhaps it really is just a compellingly structured documentary recounting something that became bigger than was ever imaginable. MTV, love it or hate it… I Want My MTV is ultimately a captivating look back on the channel that changed music and television forever.
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