Some of the fun facts recounted in I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Revolution:
— When an Epic Records executive started showing a video from a new group called Culture Club for the song “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?,” everyone who watched it said, “Man, she’s really ugly.”
— On the shoot of the first video for The Police’s “Synchronicity” album, lead singer Sting told the director, “Just keep the camera on the money,” and pointed to himself. It was the last album the group would ever record.
— MTV programmers didn’t think much of Guns N’ Roses’ first video “Welcome to the Jungle” and initially aired it only once or twice after midnight. Then David Geffen called the channel and requested the clip get more airplay. A couple of weeks later, Guns N’ Roses became superstars.
— On the set of the Black or White video, director John Landis had to keep asking Michael Jackson to stop grabbing his crotch and rubbing himself on camera. “Madonna does it. Prince does it,” Jackson pointed out. “You’re not Madonna or Prince,” Landis replied. “You’re Mickey Mouse.”
— When Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares to U” beat out Madonna’s “Vogue” for the Video of the Year award, Madonna was furious (“Sinead O’Connor has about as much sex appeal as Venetian blinds”) and Sinead gloated (“I was very pleased to beat the s— out of her.”)
Every page of this fat, addictive, ridiculously entertaining book, which covers the rise and fall of MTV from 1981-1992, is overstuffed with such anecdotes. Authors Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum interviewed more than 400 musicians, directors, executives and VJs to create an unusually candid oral history of the music video channel and its enormous impact on pop culture. Although the writers couldn’t land any of the really big names — Bruce Springsteen, Prince, Madonna — they did get enough people who knew and worked closely with the superstars to make their absence irrelevant.
Prince, for example, was “cuckoo paranoid”, barely spoke to anyone outside his inner circle, directed most of his videos himself via passive-aggressive tactics, showed up to meetings wearing different-colored high heel shoes and used to much smoke on the sets of his clips that everyone got diarrhea.
Springsteen was initially suspicious of music videos, but he eventually embraced them — only on his terms, though. For his famed video for “Brilliant Disguise” — a single shot that gradually pulls closer to his face as he plays the song on a guitar — director Meiert Avis scoured homes in New Jersey until he found one with a kitchen big enough to film in. But the day before the shoot, with the trucks carrying equipment already in route, the man who lived at the house returned from a business trip and nixed the whole thing. Panicked, the director called the National Guard and found a kitchen at an abandoned military base big enough to house the production.
Although it focuses exclusively on the channel, “I Want My MTV” doubles as a cultural history of the ’80s, showing how the network influenced everything from fashion trends to hairstyles to filmmaking. The book argues that trends such as rap music and hip-hop might have never entered the mainstream if MTV executives, who hailed from rock-oriented radio, hadn’t gradually relented and started playing videos by black artists (most notably, of course, by Michael Jackson, but also Run-DMC, MC Hammer and Public Enemy). Pretty much every member of Generation X watched MTV obsessively at some period in their lives, so reading about the time Bobby Brown dropped a vial of cocaine on the stage while performing at the Video Music Awards or the uproar that greeted Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” video feels like leafing through a yearbook of your youth.
For readers who know MTV primarily as the home of Jersey Shore and 16 and Pregnant, the book will seem like a work of science-fiction. Yes, there was a time when MTV aired nothing but music, when VJs were huge stars (and treated horribly by their bosses), when President Bill Clinton went on the channel to secure the youth vote, when the world premiere of a new video was the sort of thing you marked down on your calendar.
Like the era it covers, I Want My MTV is filled with excess, drugs, egos and tragedy. It’s also a legacy to the music of that decade, some of it garbage, but a lot of it better than you might remember. It also helps to explain the ambivalence most everyone feels about the era: The ’80s weren’t just something you lived through. They were also something you survived.