When MTV Showed Videos

(Pictured above: Michael Jackson in ‘Beat It.’ Source: YouTube screenshot)

The year 1981 marked the birth of MTV (Music Television), a channel that supported pop music through promotional videos.

As groundbreaking as MTV was for entertainment, the concept of music videos was not an original idea. The Beatles’s A Hard Day’s Night and Help! were essentially a series of MTV-style videos stitched together by the flimsiest of movie plots. And speaking of music-driven gossamer, let’s not forget the Busby Berkeley films of the early 1930s.

Thanks to MTV, however, the language of music videos became commonplace throughout entertainment culture in the 1980s. MTV provided continual three to four-minute videos — not to mention Michael Jackson’s 13-minute “Thriller,” which was narrated by horror movie icon Vincent Price. Videos ranged from dry presentations by popular recording artists lip-synching their latest hits to the early work of innovative directors like Russel Mulchavey, whose fast cuts, tracking shots and use of glowing lights not only influenced other MTV directors but film in general.

Over the course of the 1980s, MTV’s video language and imagery evolved from being routinely serviceable to becoming highly inventive and artistic. It was also, on occasion, pretentious and ridiculously arbitrary.

Consider these four examples:

Daryl Hall & John Oates – “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)” – 1982

This early Hall and Oates video is one of the best, providing imagery generated organically from the song. The focus is Hall and Oates, plus Charles DeChant singing and playing tenor sax.

The imagery memorably alternates between Daryl Hall’s solo vocals and the subtle, but rhythmic, choreography and staging among all three. Soft focus and a simple but atmospheric set design supports the music’s pulsating drum sample and “cool jazz” inflection. To my mind, this is one of the purest of MTV videos.

Michael Jackson – “Beat It” – 1983

The video for “Beat It” has a back story conceived by Michael Jackson and Bob Giraldi, the commercial and film director. The scenario featured two warring (and bad-ass dancing) street gangs. Hardly a stretch considering any particular stanza of the song’s lyrics:

You have to show them that you’re really not scared
You’re playin’ with your life, this ain’t no truth or dare
They’ll kick you, then they beat you…

The joy of Michael’s music and moves mitigate the derivative story line. But this approach became the norm for future MTV videos.

And if you’re in the mood, there’s always Weird Al Yanovich’s parody, “Eat It.”

Cyndi Lauper – “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” – 1984

“Thriller” may have boasted Vincent Price, but Cyndi Lauper’s first MTV award-winning video has WWF’s Captain Lou Albano playing her hectoring father, who – in his tenement t-shirt – is obviously a girl-having-fun-blocker. The song and video, which are delightfully catchy and energetically edited, provide an amusing slice of 1980s’ neo-bubblegum pop.  And don’t forget those iconic hairdos.

Oingo Boingo – “Stay” – 1986

The lead singer and chief composer for Oingo Boingo is none other than Danny Elfman, the go-to film musical scorer for Tim Burton films. “Stay” was released years before Elfman’s other-worldly scores for Edward Scissorhands and the Michael Keaton Batman Films. That said, the refrain “Go, don’t you go. Won’t you stay with me one more day?” displays some distinctly eerie Elfman-like harmonies.

Indeed, this video suggests the ghostly tale of two ill-fated lovers who don’t “get the room for one more night.”

Unfortunately, the video conception is not up to Elfman’s song. It lags about halfway through despite an audience of sympathetic lovers, happily performing Oingo Boingo members, and two (quite unexpected) mischievous dwarfs.

About Charlie Greenberg

Charlie Greenberg is a NY-based theater and instrumental composer.

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