I Want My (Old) MTV! Looking Back At The Heyday Of Music Television

VIDEO KILLED THE RADIO STAR, Trevor Horn of The Buggles in a scene from first video to be shown on MTV (08-01-1981). VH1 Documentary aired 05/08/2000.
Everett Collection

As Gen Xers like myself age, one of our go-to “old person” gripes tends to be less “Get off my lawn!” and more “Hey, when did MTV stop focusing on music?”

When exactly MTV largely stopped its initial mission of being “Music Television” and started focusing on reality shows and, eventually, scripted programming may be up for debate, although the launch of the Real World franchise in 1992 is a good initial suspect to look at. One thing cannot be argued, though, and that is that, during the 1980s, MTV was the destination for anyone wanting to hear the latest pop songs as set to a music video. It also made music videos a dominant art form, and other networks quickly tried to duplicate the format (NBC’s Friday Night Videos was a notable competitor), although none could match MTV’s 24/7 grabbing of young people’s eyes and ears.

From its launch in August 1981, MTV saw many seminal moments and personalities over its first decade as it grew into a cultural force. Here are a few things we remember most about MTV in the ’80s.


“Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll.”

With these words, MTV launched on Aug. 1, 1981, accompanied by footage of the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing. Instead of seeing an American flag being planted on the moon, though, the flag was revealed to feature the MTV logo. This iconic image became a staple of MTV’s promotions throughout the ’80s, and the “Moonman” is still featured in the form of the award handed out at the annual MTV Video Music Awards, so MTV does retain some sense of its own history.

Day of the VJ

MTV, Original VJ's, from left: Mark Goodman, Martha Quinn, J.J. Jackson, Nina Blackwood, Alan Hunter, 1981

Everett Collection

MTV’s answer to the radio DJ (disc jockey) was the “VJ” (video jockey) — a personality who introduced videos or gave updates on music news — and several of them became famous in their own right. The original five MTV VJs in 1981 were Nina Blackwood, Mark Goodman, Alan Hunter, J.J. Jackson and Martha Quinn.

Video Killed the Radio Star

If The Buggles are never remembered for anything else (and I think I can say with certainty that they never will be), their place in history is secure as the band that had the first music video ever played on MTV. The network’s initial programming day in 1981 kicked off with their song “Video Killed the Radio Star.” It was an appropriately themed song for MTV, even if radio ended up surviving video’s murder attempt.

This Is Thriller


MCA/Universal / Courtesy Everett Collection

On Dec. 2, 1983, the hugely influential music video for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” debuted on MTV. The approximately 13-minute-long video was epic not only in its length but also in its budget — it cost about half a million dollars to produce (it was the most expensive video ever made at the time). It was the first video to truly embrace a cinematic style (it was directed by feature filmmaker John Landis) and tell a complete story, which would become commonplace among videos afterward (video premieres, especially Jackson’s, would often become events almost as anticipated as film premieres). The video was actually scary in spots, complete with effective zombie makeup on Jackson and his dancers, and the choreography, particularly for the “zombie dancing” scenes, was superb. “Thriller” the video surely played no small part in helping the Thriller album become a historic smash hit.

Touched for the Very First Time

MTV’s Video Music Awards have courted controversy over the years, starting right at the very first ceremony on Sept. 14, 1984. Madonna performed her hit song “Like a Virgin” while wearing a bustier/wedding gown combo, with her infamous “Boy Toy” belt buckle. Any stuffy parent in the viewing audience who hadn’t already collapsed onto a fainting couch after seeing the outfit and hearing her lyrics was likely finished off after catching a glimpse of the Material Girl’s lace stockings and garter as she eventually rolled and writhed around on the stage to simulate (?) being in the throes of ecstasy.

’80s Where Are They Now
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’80s Where Are They Now

March 2023

Who can forget all the great TV shows, movies and music of the ‘80s? See what your favs are up to now!

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