Put the blame on Duran Duran.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the 80s lately. The recent 25th birthday of MTV was for me a bittersweet occasion, and not just because it marks those of us who can remember life before MTV as officially Old. It’s also because I feel about those days of the early 80s the way some people feel about the 60s: It was an era when things were changing, the old rules no longer applied, and anything seemed possible. And looking back now with the right set of eyes, you can definitely see the high-water mark — the place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.
The mid-70s had been the era of disco and progressive rock, twin blights that threatened to extinguish music as we know it. (I am grossly oversimplifying, of course. There was a lot of great music in the mid-70s — consider the work of David Bowie, Kraftwerk, and Lee Perry just for starters — but I’m making a point here.) Then just when things were at their bleakest, along came punk and new wave. Never mind the Sex Pistols, how about heroes of the revolution like Devo, Wire, Gang of Four, X, the Clash, the Cure…well, it’s a long list…anyway, this new generation of artists overthrew the status quo and suddenly the future looked bright again. Well, exciting anyway, if not always bright. (Bauhaus, I’m talking to you.)
Then MTV came along, and partly because it was marketed to kids my age, and partly because it had 24 hours to fill every day, it gave exposure to a lot of these new artists. By 1981 we were already well into the second stage of the revolution, where some of the originators had fizzled out and been replaced by a deluge of bandwagon-jumpers. Even so, MTV gave airplay to people who never made it on radio or had been pigeonholed as one-hit wonders. Sure, “Whip It” had put Devo on the map, but only MTV played “Beautiful World.” Rock radio paid lip service to the Clash, but never played them aside from “Train in Vain” and the songs from Combat Rock. Did you ever hear “Radio Clash” on an AOR station? I don’t think so, but you saw it on MTV.
Back in those days, when MTV actually played music videos, it was a good place to discover new bands. I’d never heard of X before I saw the video for “The Hungry Wolf” on 120 Minutes. My first prolonged Bowie exposure came from the videos from Scary Monsters. And if, as an MTV viewer, you tended to end up with records by people like Naked Eyes, Classix Nouveaux, and EBN-OZN in your collection, was that so bad?
So where did it all go wrong? I blame Duran Duran. Not that they were the worst band around — they had some good songs, in fact — but the videos featuring the Durannies, pretty young men in pastel 80s fashions, were the beginning of MTV’s slide from innovation to mere trendiness. It was inevitable anyway; given the power of the medium, it was only a matter of time until the agents of the Long Plastic Hallway were going to swoop in and take over. Pretty soon mainstream artists dominated MTV, then it started doing half-hour shows instead of playing videos, and so on until it became the all-day crapfest it is today.
Too bad. For a minute there it looked like quality music and mainstream music were going to become, if not one and the same, at least agreeably overlapping. I know that sounds naïve today, like thinking that everyone’s going to start practicing peace and love and wearing flowers in their hair, but it was a different time. Maybe this generation coming up now, the MySpace kids, will finally dislodge the Plastic Mafia from its dominant position in the music industry. Probably not, but it doesn’t hurt to dream.