Arts & Culture

Talking MTV With Rob Tannenbaum

Talking about the network that shaped a generation with the guy who wrote the book about it. Read More

By / November 9, 2011
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Trying to adequately explain how revolutionary MTV once was to a teenager is like pulling a very large rock up a mountain in a very small wagon.  Not to sound like a curmudgeon, but kids today are surrounded by garbage.  Snooki?  16 and Pregnant?  At least Generation X’s brand of mindless MTV nonsense offered drunk glam rockers, pre-creepy Michael Jackson dressed like a zombie, and of course, Martha Quinn.

Rob Tannenbaum and Craig Marks recognize the sea change, and that’s why the duo has taken on the Herculean task of compiling a comprehensive history of the network that changed and defined an entire generation, for better or worse. I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution is a truly massive undertaking.  The book follows the network through its 1980s heyday until the early 90s, when MTV realized that it was more than just a cable channel; it was all of America’s youth culture presented in a neat little package.

Jewcy: In the book you mentioned the contempt Rolling Stone had for MTV early on because they were infringing upon what Rolling Stone was doing in a sense…

Tannenbaum: Rolling Stone had the world of pop culture pretty much to itself prior to MTV. Spin wasn’t around, E wasn’t around and there were no blogs.  RS created the opinion about music and I think they found themselves in a conflicted position because they thought MTV was shallow and they didn’t like shallowness.  On the other hand, MTV was making the bands successful.  At the same time they were putting MTV bands on the cover.

Nobody really has to pay for music anymore.  MTV took what the radio was doing and gave it this visual component, music became even less of a commodity, because now you were getting two things for free. You were getting the song and you were getting this video.  Who cared about going out and buying a record or a cassette single?

First let me talk a little bit about the short term effect because the long term is just an extrapolation of the short term.  Record sales went flat for 3 years prior to MTV’s launch, so from 78-81.  In 1981 US record sales were 3.9 Billion.  3 years earlier they had been over 4 billion.  Sales were essentially flat and flat to the music business is reason to panic.  So if you go back and look at Billboard from 1981 there are all these articles about “oh my god what are we going to do, the sky is falling, we’re not selling records.”  And MTV goes to the record companies and says, “Hey we have this new idea that we think will help sell records.”  Record companies basically said, “Get off my lawn.”  They wanted nothing to do with MTV, they didn’t believe in it.  But 10 years later annual record sales were now over 8 billion, so it doubled in 10 years.  A large part of that has to do with MTV.  Our book ends in ’92 because that’s when MTV begins to taper from music videos.  I think the peak year for annual records sales was ’99, because Napster starts in ’99 or 2000.

It was a bubble essentially…

Yes, and there are two factors in the bubble. One of them is MTV, they have created this entirely new system of marketing records that the record companies never would have thought of.  It’s a little bit like the way Steve Jobs was the smartest guy in the record business for the last 10 years, even though Steve Jobs wasn’t really in the record business.  Innovation in the record business almost always comes from outside of it.  So, record sales are artificially inflated because of what MTV is doing and record companies never anticipate that in ‘92 MTV is going to begin this taper toward original broadcasting and reality shows.  When thy do begin to taper, once again record labels are outraged.  “We wanted nothing to do with you, but now that you’re leaving us, how can you betray us after all the love we’ve given you for the past 10 years.

The second factor is CD sales, that’s the other part of the bubble.  I think it’s about ’88 or ’89 is the first year that CD sales surpass record or cassette sales, and what a lot of people are doing is repurchasing artists.  “I own Sgt. Pepper on vinyl now I want to buy it on CD.”  That’s not genuine growth, that’s a bubble.  But the record companies didn’t understand this, and so they thought nothing of going out and spending a million dollars on a video.  One of the reasons the book was so fun to write, and I hope to read, is that this is one of the last eras of excess.  This is the music business equivalent of the fall of the Roman Empire.  It’s just decadent anecdote after decadent anecdote.

What did you think the first time you saw MTV, do you remember?

Craig, my co-author, has a very amusing story about the first time he saw MTV, he was selling pots and pans door to door.  My parents were probably the last people in Connecticut to get cable.  I don’t think we even had a color TV until ’85 and I’ve almost forgiven them for that.  I didn’t grow up watching MTV. I have no recollection of the first time I saw it.

Earlier this year, another oral history on a cable network was released, ESPN: Those Guys Have All The Fun. I found that book and I Want My MTV to be suitable bedfellows for oral histories.  Even though cable TV really changed the game. Do you think there are any more interesting stories besides ESPN and MTV?

ESPN and MTV are the two cable channels that had really passionate viewers.  You could do an oral history of C-Span and it might be interesting, it would involve politicians and technology and public interest, but I don’t think people who watch C-Span have the same emotional attachment as ESPN and MTV fans do.

What was your initial reasoning to want to do this book?

I thought that it was a great opportunity to tell a couple of stories at the same time.  One was the sex and drugs aspect to the industry, which actually was even bigger than I’d anticipated.  When directors tell me that the crews were often paid in drugs that was nothing I’d never anticipated.  At the same time, it’s a business story, it’s a startup story.  There are some parallels to The Social Network.  I think that the first decade of MTV is something you could teach to Harvard MBA students because there’s so many great examples of things that were done right and things that were done wrong.  Now when we hear the phase “startup”, we think worldly Harvard kids, but MTV is not those people, it was more like Animal House. MTV was started by people who had no experience in the television business and whose prospects for success were not very good.

They had resistance from cable operators who thought MTV would ruin their business, from record companies who didn’t see why they should spend 30,000 on a music video on a network that no one would watch.  They didn’t want to get into the business of selling ads to stations with small viewer ships.   Within 3 years of this startup that no one is paying attention to, no one thinks will succeed and no one will cooperate with, there are 8 or 10 different industries that have been changed by it. MTV changed: adverting, network TV, Cable TV, Hollywood, indie films, Fashion, and even ultimately politics, with Rock the Vote and the election of Clinton.  That was another reason we wrapped up the book in ’92.  Clinton’s election was substantially aided by his relationship with MTV.  He was the first candidate to say, “I’m going to do voter outreach outside the usual channels like Meet the Press.” It affirms MTV’s position as a power broker, It says in the book, “Once you’ve helped elect a president, what’s next?  Another Warrant video?”

What I find interesting is MTV is one of the only brands that’s been able to move into so many different arenas, that’s something that I don’t think many other companies can say they’ve accomplished — which I think you’ve adequately summed up in the book.

Some of the MTV people say that the idea of branding a network, which is now conventional wisdom, was invented by MTV, which I think is probably true.

How long did it take you to do this book?

From the day we singed the book contract to the day we finished with the manuscript, I think was less than 18 months.  This book was done fast.  In order to be published in 2011 in time for the 30th anniversary.

I’m blown away by that.

It was a lot of work.  But I’m almost reluctant to call that work.  Interviewing the woman who played the teacher in the “Hot for Teacher” video.  Is that work?

You’ve been a music writer for a long time.  The old conventional wisdom is that music writers tend to be curmudgeons.  Have you ever gone through or are you going through an anti MTV phase in your life?

I don’t watch a whole lot of MTV right now.  I have greatly enjoyed some Jersey Shore marathons.  My introduction to Jersey Shore was on a flight from LA to NY on Jet Blue, and I’d never seen it before and MTV was running a marathon.  I watched the entire thing start to finish.  I was in awe.

But I’m also not the main demographic.  There are a lot of people that have grown up with MTV who say to us “MTV sucks, it’s not the network it used to be, they betrayed their original vision.”

Well, personally, I’m one of those people.

It depends how you construe their original vision.  If you say that it was to show music videos, then yeah.  They don’t often show music videos, they’ve gone back to showing them early in the morning.  There was a period where I think they were showing absolutely no music videos, so that number has gone up.  What MTV began to realize in the late 80’s was that the original plan wasn’t to show music videos, it was to be a youth culture network.  One of the ideas of youth culture is that it evolves every 5 or 6 years.  If you’re 13 and have an 18-year-old brother, you don’t want to be listening to the same bands your brother did.  There’s a very fast churn in teen culture and MTV has responded that really successfully

This is kind of a two-part question.  Before you worked on this book, what did you think the defining moment was, and did it change once you finished all of the interviews?

I’ll answer the second part first because that’s the easiest for me to explain.  There’s a different defining moment every year or two, one of the biggest is the debut of Remote Control, the mock game show.  When MTV began doing their own programs they tried to make the shows related to music.  So if you go back and look at Remote Control you’ll see that LL Cool J and Weird Al Yankovic were contestants and a lot of the questions were about videos which was really meta.  It was a game show on MTV that was about MTV’s own content.  But ultimately Remote Control had nothing to do really with music.  The success of the show was really instructive to the people at MTV because it showed them that if they moved away from music videos, the audience would follow them.  And there are a couple of people who tell a funny story in the book about doing research.  MTV was very heavily researched at a time when networks didn’t believe in research.  They would do audience research and say Should MTV do a game show?” and people would say “Absolutely not that’s an idiotic idea, I would not watch a game show. “ And this anecdote really shows one of limitations of research because the show came on and it was a huge hit.  There was a lot of angst inside MTV because there was a lot of people who really loved music videos and didn’t want to go away from them, but once they saw how successful Remote Control was, then that began in rapid succession, Club MTV, Choose or Lose and even The Real World. It speeds their taper from music videos.

Did you find anybody, among the MTV VJ’s was maybe holding back from discussing things about MTV? Was anybody bitter?

The people who have some bitterness were often the people who most wanted to talk and revealed the most.  Adam Curry ‘s contempt for MTV was really clear in the book.  For the most part, people look back on it as the best period in their lives, even people who worked at MTV in their twenties and have gone on to have a lot of success in TV or in Hollywood, because there was a freedom they had at MTV that they don’t have now.  This was something people often said, “You could have an idea on Monday, get it approved that day, shoot on Tuesday, edit it on Wednesday and have it on the air on Friday.  Because the network had a huge need for content and in a way there were no run ups there.  There were guardians of the brand values.  I can’t believe that I just said, brand values

Something else I found really interesting, that comes through in the book , was how humorous it was presented — which is hard to pull through when you’re working with somebody else’s words I’d imagine.  It’s a funny book. It’s absurd.

Our goal was to be smart and funny.  I hope there’s some cultural analysis in the book.  You want to let people tell the story in their own words, but lets be honest, you’re editing their own words, you’re creating a narrative out of them.  You’re juxtaposing one person’s opinion or recollection against a another person’s, you’re taking a bunch of individuals stories and editing them into a collective story and we wanted to make sure that the absurdity of the era and the absurdity of making a music video was clear in the book.

Midway through I realized that I’d never read a funny oral history…

Musicians and directors tend to be good storytellers, it’s part of what they do.  Anytime you tell a story that involves cocaine and midgets, it’s going to be pretty funny.

Was there one person you interviewed that was really someone you wanted to talk to, personally, or someone that really exceeded your expectations?

Interviewing Weird Al Yankovic was a long dream of mine.  And Paul Westerberg from The Replacements.  There was a Replacements oral history and he didn’t give an interview for it.  So the fact that he gave us an interview made us very happy.

He hated MTV, it seemed.

I think Paul is a good spokesman for the anti-MTV sentiment, which is that Rock n’ Roll is something that happens spontaneously: it’s grimy, it smells bad, it’s unpredictable.  It’s not something that spends 3 hours in hair and makeup.  If ever there was an ‘80’s band that was anti MTV I’d say The Replacements are right up there.

It’s hard for me to pick one.  Richard Marx was hysterically funny which I had not anticipated.  There were some really funny Richard Marx stories that we had to leave out just because we couldn’t find a place for them, and the book is already more than 600 pages.  Michael Mann was incredibly smart.  I could have talked to him for hours about the history of film and television. I interviewed Simon Lebon and Nick Rhodes together and the two of them were just so fucking charming and clever and snide about people they didn’t like and warm about people they did like.

I thought that the funniest chapter was about the Van Halen fan’s “lost weekend.”

It was also a little poignant.  Here’s a kid who fulfilled the dream of every 17 year-old in 1984.  He went backstage at a Van Halen concert, drank whiskey, smoked weed with David Lee Roth, and according to people that were there, had sex with a stripper in a shower.  He also made it clear that he’s had a difficult life since then.  He made it clear that not because of the contest, but he’s had health problems, he had addiction problems.  It was a poignant story.  There were a lot of people in the book that had relationships with MTV that continued to benefit them.  If you were big on MTV in the ‘80’s there’s a really good chance that you’re still playing arenas, if not stadiums.  Madonna, Bon Jovi, Guns N Roses, Metallica.  They’re really huge bands of the 80’ are still huge now.  But there are also a lot of people who had fleeting relationships with MTV whose lives probably haven’t turned out quite as happily.

I think if you look at this history of rock n roll, and this is one of those big statements, but if you look at the regional garage bands in the ‘60’s, they had their one hit and now maybe they’re playing Six Flags off that song.  But something you point out, in particular with ZZ Top: the 70’s were good to them, but then they were maybe the most unlikely band to benefit from MTV.

They had a successful niche.  They played in the south and Midwest to 3 or 4 thousand people a night, and then within three or four nights because of one director, MTV made them stars.  There’s a reason ZZ Top got their own chapters, and that’s because when people talk about MTV stars they say, “All you had to do was be pretty to be on MTV,” which isn’t precisely true.  Huey Lewis I think was not anyone’s idea of a great sex symbol.  It was easier for men than it was for women.  Men could be kind of goofy. There was more pressure for women to sex themselves up.  One of the nice stories is Cindy Lauper.  She was a beautiful woman who in videos made herself look kind of goofy because she didn’t her success to be just based on her looks.”

If you could, do you have enough anecdotes leftover to possibly write a novella about David Lee Roth?

There are so many Roth stories in the book that it seems like he gave us an interview even though he didn’t.

Did you try to get an interview with him?

Oh yeah.  I would say one of my two or three biggest disappointments was not getting a Roth interview.  He hasn’t done and interview in something like two or three years.

He’s busy being an EMT Ninja.

Well I think right now he’s busy trying to get Van Halen back up off the ground.  The closest we came to Roth was Pete Angeles who directed most of the Van Halen and Roth solo videos with Dave.  It didn’t end well between the two of them.  But for the most part Angeles was really complimentary of Roth’s attitude towards videos.  Dave got it really early on.

Some of the videos are insane.

I think that the thing he got was that videos should be funny.  In the book, anytime a musician starts to use the phrase “Mini Movie” somebody’s about to start off a cliff.  Many of the worst videos begin with the phrase, “Lets make this a mini movie.”  One of the best things you could do in a video was just be funny.  Funny ages well if it’s genuinely funny.

Who had Milton Berle in the video?  Ratt?

Yes, and that was arranged by his nephew who I believe was Jewish.  Speaking of the Jewish aspect, I think that one of the things that unite Roth and Berle’s approach is continuing the legacy of Vaudeville.  A lot of those videos, whether they were done by Jews or not, were vaudevillian.  Slapstick comedy, broad stuff, physical stuff, absurdity.

So no novella?

I’ll put this out there.  If Roth wants to update his memoir, I’ll ghost write it with him for a nickel.
No David Lee Roth fan fiction?

I’ll leave that up to people who are genuinely aroused by his physique.

If you hear anyone propose an oral history of Vh1, what are you going to do to that person?

Wish them luck.  You know the backstory to Vh1, which was that MTV launched it to compete with the network that Ted Turner was launching.  One of the MTV executives said, “Originally we wanted to make sure that Vh1 sucked because we didn’t want it to take market share away from MTV.”

An oral history of Vh1 would involve a lot of interviews with Kenny G.

And the nerds who got the factoids for Pop Up Video.

I think if I’m offered a chance to write an oral history of Vh1 I think I can confidently pass on that one.

But you’re not going to go to their house and light a bag of poop on fire?

No, and anyone who wants to pursue that project, god bless ‘em.  Have fun talking to Michael Bolton.