Saturday, September 5, 2020

The MTV Documentary | Lefsetz Letter

Tuesday September 8th at 9pm on A&E:

Biography: I Want My MTV

Seems like only yesterday.

But it wasn’t.

Watching this documentary you will feel old. You will feel like you lived through history, but that it was a long time ago.

MTV’s heyday was really the eighties. It bled into the nineties, it and its associated music video channels even lumbered into the twenty first century, but now they’re gone, history, for all I know there might still be channels on the cable, but I don’t know where or what they are and nobody ever talks about them and the truth is today’s movers and shakers in the music world never grew up in an era where MTV mattered, never ever.

But it did, it was everything.

Funny going from a monoculture to today’s Tower of Babel society. We all knew everything and now we know nothing, or just something in a very narrow silo. The only equivalent to MTV is the Trump show, we’re all aware of it, the shenanigans, but although the Donald is making it up as he goes, he has no sense of humor and doesn’t realize that we get sick of train-wrecks, that at some point you’ve got to change the programming.

Which happened with MTV with the firing of the veejays. It was like killing your brother or sister, your best friend, they were everywhere, omnipresent, and then they were nowhere. Eventually it leaked out that MTV’s philosophy was not to grow old with its fans, but to always appeal to the same young demo. A brilliant viewpoint that “Rolling Stone” refused to follow, but both entities are now in the dumper, because when it comes to art it’s always about the cutting edge, and if you’re not exploring, pissing people off, alienating your core, you’re dead in the water.

That’s the dirty little secret of successful artists…their fans want them to remain the same, even though when the acts give them what they want they still complain. But to walk into the wilderness? Some have done it, Bowie and Madonna, but everybody else seems stuck in time, locked in amber, with the same long hair/wig and the same outfits and it’s weird how they haven’t changed and we have.


The record business was in the dumper. A cash machine from the late sixties through the seventies, it was killed by corporate rock and the denigration of disco. This is not opinion, it is fact. CBS Records fired a ton of people, remembered by everybody working at that time, but how many of those people are still working in the business, how many are still alive?

It’s not only the VJs who disappeared, but all the execs too. Tommy Mottola was on screen briefly…does anybody fear Mottola today, does anybody care what he’s doing, is he even doing anything? Label heads were titans, now they’re unknown, just like the heads of movie studios. They’re not creative people so much as business people, it’s all about the bottom line, but Jack Antonoff says money is irrelevant if you’re ambitious, you just want to make it to the top.

And the star of this documentary, the man who appeared to have the most fun, was Les Garland. A legend inside the company’s walls, a known quantity in the business, all the ink went to Bob Pittman, who is heavily featured in this documentary, but Garland is the firecracker, the star, who knows all the musicians, whose office is always a party, who stays up all night just to roll into the building early the next day. In other words, have a good time while you’re doing it, that’s all that matters, everything else is irrelevant, like MTV itself, but once upon a time…

This is the viewpoint from inside the belly of the beast, from those who did not get screen time, who helped create the channel and its programming. And create they did. Maybe you can get the same charge from writing code, but I don’t think so. I don’t even think you can get the same charge from building a billion dollar business. Everybody had power and they were given a clean slate. Do what you want to, what feels right. And when you remove the reins, you’ll be amazed what people come up with, they don’t want to let the team down.

So, much of this is history. Documented. But still, Michael Nesmith gets a lot of screen time, he could have been involved, but he didn’t want to be a businessman, just like Meg Griffin refused to be a VJ. Small choices turn into big mistakes. You’ve got to be willing to take a flier, to jump. Even Mick Jagger… They want him to do a commercial? Is he gonna get paid? Garland whips out a dollar and Mick is closed. The “I Want My MTV” campaign is born. Pete Townshend is next. Then everybody wants to get on board. That’s the way it always is, everybody’s gun-shy until you lock the heavy-hitter, then they all want to be involved.

As for the retelling of the story… All the big points are covered, but I wouldn’t have told the story quite the same way.

There was the idea. Then the launch. Then the campaign to get the channel on all the cable services.

All the initial clips were of old rockers in performance, and then…

Came Culture Club and the other English new wave acts. Not that the movie does not mention this, but it skates over the fact that this happened in 1982! That’s when the power of MTV started to be evidenced. And then came Duran Duran, with its expensive videos, and the change was complete. You had to look good, your clip had to be innovative, you had to spend bucks, and the field was wide open if you delivered on these accounts. In other words, the programming niche was not really that narrow.

And then came Michael Jackson. I was not in the room, but the story on the street, documented everywhere, is that Walter Yetnikoff threatened to pull all of CBS’s clips from the channel if Michael’s wasn’t aired. MTV caved. But in this movie, MTV wants Michael Jackson, but when the company delivers “Billie Jean” instead of “Beat It,” they’re hesitant. The stories are not inherently contradictory, but the Yetnikoff story makes MTV look bad, and gives power to the record companies, and that does not fit with the narrative. Although they do credit David Bowie with changing their programming philosophy, airing videos by black artists. This was a big battle back then, as was the airing of hip-hop, which is dealt with fairly in this doc, it’s just interesting that the kids of all the old rockers are now deep into hip-hop.

But it’s completely different. If you were on MTV, you were BIG! GIGANTIC! No one is that big today, NO ONE! There ended up being MTV outlets all over the world, you could tour everywhere, you were rolling in dough, you can still tour to this day. As for today’s artists? The biggest, from Beyonce to Lady Gaga to Bieber… None of them are even as big as Pat Benatar was. Remember “Fast Times”?

Yes, MTV was influential. It WAS the culture. You learned how to dress and…

The movie makes Viacom the bad guy. This is the first time I’ve heard that with this emphasis, that when sold to Viacom the air bled out of MTV, the lunatics were no longer in charge of the asylum. But in any event, we got a game show, “Remote Control” and then other half hour shows, many reality-based, to prop up ratings, and it was over. Yes, the reign of MTV was very brief, maybe ten years, from 1981-1991, for the following decade it was running on fumes, not where the action was, and when the internet and Napster and then YouTube put the means of distribution into the hands of the customers, it was all over.

Videos became an on demand item online. And despite all those inane articles about the death of music video, there are now more videos than ever before, it’s just that the video is no longer everything, but just a piece of the puzzle, a way to see the act.

And although he’s seen, there’s no mention of the power of Abbey Konowitch. Yes, one guy was ultimately responsible for what got played and what did not. Nothing could be further from the truth today. What gatekeepers there are are much less powerful.

So it was clear, they were there and you were here. They were on screen, they worked at MTV, and you were at home, and your greatest desire was to be involved. You didn’t want to work at a bank, or in tech, or become an entrepreneur, you wanted to be involved with MTV, not only the engine of youth culture, but all culture!

Yes, the documentary makes MTV seem like the little engine that could. But the truth is Michael Jackson just blew it up. It already had purchase. People would turn it on and never turn it off. Can you imagine that today, sitting at home and waiting for ANYTHING??

Now it’s all on demand. The audience is in control. Everybody can play. However, something has been lost. The truth is, the internet and the creativity it has spawned is just as momentous as MTV, it’s just that more people are in control and there’s no dominance. MTV added coherence, clarity. If it made it on the channel, it was worth knowing about. And all the worthwhile acts were on major labels. It wasn’t until the early nineties that indie labels really started to get any traction.

So, what am I saying here?

The truth is you know almost everything in this movie. Not EVERYTHING, but it’s like looking at a family photo album. Yes, there are business insights, tips, and those might be unknown, and they’re important and cool, but really it’s about what was on screen. You were there, just like they were! That’s another thing that was left out, the contests! Win Mellencamp’s house? That was the lottery in those years.

So, the truth is this should have been a six to ten-parter. Ninety minutes is just a survey. There are good talking heads, there’s reference to both Billy Squier’s pink video and Tawny Kitaen, but all that might seem miniscule in retrospect was positively gigantic at the time. The channel was on 24/7, ninety minutes is not enough.

Then again, who is the audience?

Well, if it was on Netflix, kids would tune in to dig deep into history. Remember the impact of the Motley Crue movie? Kids want to go deep, they do not have short attention spans, in truth they want something to chew on, that they can marinate in, and if you’re delivering fluff they’ll treat it that way, by ignoring it or sampling it at best.

All the battles…the twenty first century cries for more videos on the channel…they seem quaint these days.

But make no mistake, MTV and music were positively PRIMARY in the eighties. Has there been any musical event in the twenty first century with even a tenth of the mindshare and impact of Live Aid? OF COURSE NOT! And you wanted to get rich, but you also wanted to give back. Sure, you might have hated Kurt Loder and Tabitha Soren, but the news they were delivering oftentimes couldn’t be gotten elsewhere or was ignored by the target audience…MTV was a public service, in tune with its fans!

So, MTV is a great illustration that nothing lasts forever, that you must pivot. Pittman and Sykes made their way back to radio, but a lot of people got lost in the shuffle, they thought it was forever, and it was not. Nothing is forever, be ready to pivot, think about the future or you can be left behind.

And very little is remembered. Ask a millennial who Martha Quinn was. She gets very little airtime in this documentary, but what is truly overlooked is she was America’s Sweetheart. Normal, yet cool. Plucked from the suburbs to hang with the heaviest of the hitters. You wanted her to be your friend or your girlfriend or… One can argue strongly that MTV never recovered from her firing.

It was so long ago. Decades. But back then it seemed that MTV would be forever, like the Yankees. Or physical media. Or…funny what gets left behind.

So, if you’re playing to impress others you’ve got it wrong. No one cares. Come to L.A., during non-Covid days, you’ll see people who couldn’t leave their hotel room in their heyday walking the aisles of Whole Foods or Ralphs alone, unbothered.

And in the past…the past just faded away. But now we’ve got all this footage, all these videos, that are just a click away. The past coexists with the present. And this impacts music, it used to be the oldies were forgotten, but now every act has to compete with Led Zeppelin and Michael Jackson, never mind the Beatles.

But no one is competing with MTV. It’s a dead paradigm. Kaput! A hula-hoop, yet with more meaning. Not inert like a pet rock, but just a moment in time. And, of course, never forget MTV made instant stars, and oftentimes they fell off the radar screen just as fast. To last, you must pay your dues. Which is what is going on today, but it’s the opposite of the MTV era, people can’t believe it’s taking this long to break through!

But it’s about commitment, taking risks.

And that’s what the original MTV team did, push the envelope.

Fun. That was MTV. Both on screen and off. In the offices and at home. You wanted to get closer to the magic, you needed the magic. It was in an era where everybody was still optimistic, when the American Dream still existed, you truly believed you too could make it, even if the odds were long.

But some did. Some worth paying attention to, and some not. MTV blew up Dire Straits, but it also blew up Warrant.

But remember the first time you heard “Money For Nothing”? Or saw “Sledgehammer”? They captured the zeitgeist. That was MTV.

If you lived through it, you’ll want to watch this doc. Not because you will learn so much but because you will be brought back to what once was. It’s not exactly nostalgia, more a memory of a past era, that you were a part of.

We haven’t had that spirit here since 1991.

We’re waiting for more.


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