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Michael Jackson on the "Billie Jean" set in Los Angeles, 1983.Photo: Sam Emerson/Polaris

When MTV launched, in 1981, it was an outlet for something that barely existed: The channel had about a hundred videos in its inventory, mostly by marginal or unpopular British and Australian bands. But it soon became the sun around which popular culture rotated. The MTV aesthetic during its golden age of 1981 to 1992—quick cuts, celebrations of youth, shock value, impermanence, beauty—influenced not only music but network and cable TV, radio, advertising, film, art, fashion, race, sexuality, even politics. The channel was plotted to captivate an audience whose interests had been ignored: John Lack, who started MTV, called teenagers “the demographic group least interested in TV,” because TV wasn’t interested in teens. Children had cartoons; adults had the evening news and most of the shows that followed it. Teens were untapped, an invisible power. MTV gave them what they wanted—sometimes more or less accidentally. Before Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and text-messaging, kids did one thing, separately but simultaneously: They watched MTV. These are the behind-the-scenes stories of five history-making videos.

Photo: Eugene Adebari/Rex USA/Everett Collection

Michael Jackson
“Billie Jean” (1983)
MTV, thinking it was a rock station, refused to play it at first.
Jeff Ayeroff, A&M Records Exec: Quincy Jones called one day and told me to come to his office and meet Michael. I played them the Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me” video and said, “That’s who should do the video.”
Steve Barron, Director: Michael liked “Don’t You Want Me,” so his management contacted me. They said he wanted something cinematic. I had this flash to do something magical, where he’d have a Midas touch and everything he touches lights up.The budget was set at somewhere around $55,000. Jackson’s manager Freddy DeMann called me and said Michael had been practicing dance moves in front of the mirror, so it would be good to save some of the video for him to dance.
Susan Blond, CBS Records: I brought this amazing video to MTV, and they said, basically, “This doesn’t fit onto our network.” I first met Michael when he was a kid, and he was obsessed with the Osmonds—they were getting more coverage because Michael was black. This had been a major thing with Michael—his whole life, he had been excluded from the media because he was black.
Bob Pittman, MTV Co-Founder: Rick James made the claim that MTV wasn’t playing any black videos. I figured, “That’s ridiculous, people will watch MTV and know it’s not true.” I learned my first great PR lesson there. The press ran with MTV PLAYS NO BLACK VIDEOS, ALLEGES RICK JAMES. All of us realized, “God, we’d better work extra hard to find some black videos.” So we looked for artists. And when the guys saw “Billie Jean,” they said, “This is it.”
Walter Yetnikoff, CBS Records President: My recollection about “Billie Jean”—and I was drinking and drugging a lot during that period, so my memory’s a little spotty—is that I called Pittman and said, “You have to play this video.” He said, “We’re a rock station, we don’t play black music.” I said, “That’s great. I’m pulling all my videos.”
David Benjamin, CBS Records: I helped negotiate our contract with MTV, and there was a clause that allowed us to pull all our videos on 24 hours’ notice, in case we hadn’t negotiated the proper clearances with our acts. We hadn’t intended it, but that clause gave us a heavy hammer to wield.
Pittman: If anybody at CBS thought that we weren’t going to play Michael Jackson, they were out of their minds. Walter claims that he made us play the video. That’s such a typical Walter trick, to make himself seem important to his artists.
Yetnikoff: Now they say they played “Billie Jean” because they loved it. How plausible is it that they “loved it”? Their playlist had no black artists on it. And at the time, Michael Jackson was black. So what is this bullshit that they loved it?

Photo: Everett Collection

“Like a Virgin” (1984)
“Material Girl” (1985)

A lion and a junket to Italy made her the first true video star.Les Garland, MTV VP of Programming: Freddy DeMann had managed the Jacksons and Michael, but he got fired by the dad, Joe Jackson. One afternoon, Freddy phoned and said, “I got one that’s gonna be huge. She’s gonna be bigger than Michael.” I go, “Dude, you’ve got big balls.” “Trust me, Gar. Her name is Madonna.”
Susan Silverman, Warner Bros. Exec: Madonna came into our office on a skateboard, all sweaty and dirty. She went to see Bob Regehr—a big product manager at Warner Bros.—and left a note on his bulletin board that said, “Sorry I missed you, because I’m gonna be a star.”
Mary Lambert, Director: Ayeroff[then a Warner Bros. exec.] wanted to position her with a little more integrity and depth. He gave me the song “Borderline” and bought me a plane ticket to New York to go meet her. When I heard her music, I thought she was black. She was living in a bare-bones apartment on the Upper East Side. It didn’t look like anyone lived there, to tell you the truth. There wasn’t any furniture. But we hit it off. She had four or five different boyfriends at the time. We talked for a couple of days about “Borderline.” She was really into Hispanic boys, and she wanted the video to be about having an affair with a cute Hispanic boy who was part of the street scene.
Ayeroff: MTV jumped on “Borderline,” and that was it. Away we go.
Lambert: For “Like a Virgin,” Ayeroff said, “We want to do something outrageous.” I said, “Let’s do it in Venice!” The idea of Madonna singing in a gondola was the most outrageous thing I could think of.
Ayeroff: By that point, Madonna was on the cover of Rolling Stone. So we went to Venice, like a bunch of fucking wack jobs. I don’t know what we spent—$175,000?—but it was way more than we’d ever spent on a video.
Lambert: There’s this famous carnival in Venice where everyone wears masks. Madonna’s love interest in the video wore a lion mask, and that gave me the idea to get a real lion. I wanted to have the guy in the lion mask turn into an actual lion.
Simon Fields, Video Producer: The lion started to get crazy around Madonna. And then we found out that you can’t have a lion around a woman when she’s on her period.
Sharon Oreck, Video Producer: Madonna’s breasts are super-perky, so they tend to pop out when she dances. In the “Material Girl” video, she’s wearing a pink outfit, and I guess it didn’t have a bra, so whenever she’d go upside down or lay back with her arms in the air, one or two of her boobs would come out.I was on the set when she first met Sean Penn. She was in her Marilyn Monroe finery. We all knew they were going to fall in love and get married.
Freddy Demann: People often misunderstand the “Material Girl” video. The idea was that Madonna was a Marilyn Monroe–type actress playing the role of a gold digger—a “material girl”—in a musical, but off-camera she was a good person. She chooses the poor guy in the shitty car instead of the rich guy. But everyone assumed Madonna was identifying with the material girl. The title stuck to her, and that bothered her. She never liked that handle.

Duran Duran
“Girls on Film” (1981)
An unknown British band makes T&A a staple of music videos.John Taylor, Band Member: “Girls on Film” is pretty fucking insane. I mean, it’s like Penthouse or Hustler. It’s cheesy! But it worked.
Lol Creme, Co-Director: Duran Duran’s managerstold us they were going to break the band in America by making an outrageous video.
Kevin Godley, Co-Director: They wanted a video that would be controversial. I went to the south of France with a fashion crowd for a few weeks and Lol went to L.A. When we came back together, he’d seen some mud wrestling and I’d seen fashion shows. We thought, What if we did a sort of catwalk show, but with sumo wrestling and sex?
Taylor: There’s no plot to “Girls on Film.” The only plot was to set up some sexy scenes with girls.
Simon Le Bon, Band Member: Those two models in the video completely polarized the band. I liked the dark one. John liked the blonde one.
Godley: Someone mentioned that at porno shoots, in order to get an erect nipple, you put some ice on it. So we said, “Why not?”
Le Bon: My favorite moment is definitely the ice cube on the nipple.
Godley: Subsequently, it was edited for MTV, which made it a little less raunchy.
Le Bon: It was banned. That was the best thing that could ever have happened to it, really. Godley: It had glamour, it had polish, it had sex, it had good-looking boys, girls sliding on poles. It was a dirty film. In hindsight, it had the ingredients that became MTV-able. If it was influential, I can only apologize.

Photo: Jeff Kravitz/Filmmagic/Getty Images

“Smells Like Teen Spirit” (1991)
Seattle punks start a revolt, and snuff hair metal.Robin Sloane, Geffen Records Exec: Kurt Cobain was the only artist I’ve ever known who had brilliant, fully realized ideas he could express in one sentence. With “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Kurt said, “My idea for the video is a pep rally gone wrong.” He looked at director Sam Bayer’s reel and loved it, so I hired Sam. But there were a lot of problems between Sam and Kurt.
Courtney Love: Kurt hated Sam Bayer. For “Teen Spirit,” Kurt wanted fat cheerleaders, he wanted black kids, he wanted to tell the world how fucked up high school was. But Sam put hot girls in the video. The crazy thing is, it still worked.
Dave Grohl, Band Member: The idea was, the kids take over and burn down the gymnasium, just as Matt Dillon did in Over the Edge, with the rec center. Kurt was a huge fan of that movie. We walked into that whole thing really cautiously, because we didn’t want to misrepresent the band. There were certain things we found to be really funny about videos—tits and ass and pyrotechnics, shit like that—and when we showed up at the shoot, we were like, Wait a minute, those cheerleaders look like strippers.A lot of people we worked with didn’t understand the underground scene or punk rock.
Samuel Bayer: I scouted L.A. strip clubs for the cheerleaders. Kurt didn’t like them. I couldn’t understand why he wanted to put unattractive women in the video. I think Kurt looked at me and saw himself selling out. So anything I did was construed as corporate. But to me, these were nasty girls. They had rug burns on their knees. In my eyes, the whole video was dirty. It’s all yellows and browns. It was the opposite of everything on MTV at the time; every video was blue and backlit with big xenon lights. I was a painter. I was trying to rip on Caravaggio and Goya.
Sloane: All the kids in the bleachers were drunk.
Grohl: We did a couple of takes, and the audience just started destroying the stage. The director’s on a bullhorn screaming, “Stop! Cut!” And that’s when it started to make sense to me: This is like a Nirvana concert.
Bayer: The day of the video shoot was pure pain. Kurt hated being there. Maybe it was his venom coming through, but I’ve been on 200 music-video sets since, and that was the best performance I’ve ever seen.
Amy Finnerty, MTV VP of Programming: Initially, my boss said, “Look, the visuals are great, and they have a catchy name, but beyond that, I don’t really know what this is gonna do.” I said, “I understand why we’re playing Paula Abdul and Whitesnake. But if there isn’t a place for this, I don’t know what I’m doing here.”
Love: The first time Kurt and I slept together was at a Days Inn in Chicago. We were having our first postcoital moment, and we’re watching MTV and the video came on. I pulled away from him, because it was his video, his moment, he was the king of the fucking world, and he put his arm around me and pulled me closer. Which was symbolic, like, “I’m letting you into my life.” That really endeared him to me. The next time I saw the video with him was at the Omni Northstar Hotel in Minneapolis. I’d flown there to fuck Billy Corgan, who still had lots of hair. I didn’t even know Nirvana were playing that night. Kurt and I wound up at the Northstar, and our daughter, Frances, was basically made that night. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was on MTV every five fucking minutes.
Bayer: That video gave me a career. Everyone wanted to do a Nirvana-type video: Ozzy Osbourne, Johnny Lydon, the Ramones.
Kip Winger, Hair-Metal Singer: I watched “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and I thought, All right, we’re finished.
Kevin Kerslake, Director: “Teen Spirit” crossed the Rubicon. Nirvana became the mold for success, the way Poison had been four years before. There are many ironies within the history of MTV, and that is one of them: The revolutionary fights the dictator, and ultimately becomes the dictator. It’s just swapping chairs.

Adapted from I Want My MTV, by Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum (October 27; Dutton, a member of Penguin Group [USA] Inc.). Copyright © 2011 by Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum.

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