MTV Ruled the World: The Early Years of Music Video
Non-Fiction. Paperback. By Greg Prato
MTV means so much (and so little) to generational assembly lines. It is at the epicenter of youth culture, forever setting and following trends in the singular pursuit of controlling what’s cool and what’s not. The Viacom-owned network has built a global empire on entertainment progression, and for a time, we were all caught up in its web. It was the backdrop for all our adolescent [wet] dreams and desires. Video vixens. Pop-star style. Rock-star snarls. We’ve all been fashion victims of MTV, and we were happy to spread our cherub cheeks wide open to be spoonfed by Music Television.
Of course, Music Television no longer exists. You hear it from the groans of past generations that will lecture you about the ills of reality programming while reminiscing about the heyday of the music video — those seemingly carefree days, when Michael Jackson danced into rural living rooms and Duran Duran took us to exotic locales with 4-minute pop gems and state-of-the-art style. City life wasn’t an abject desire of one farm boy or girl, but an attainable fixture for a community of disenfranchised youth tired of being stuck in their two-bit towns. Those desires manifested themselves into reality programming such as The Real World and Road Rules, but until they were pumped full of collagen and locked in a tanning bed, they were our shows. They meant something to us.
Despite its current programming, MTV will forever be the signifier of the music video. Combining disparate ideas from the 1960s and 70s, Music Television launched on cable outlets on August 1, 1981, setting in motion nearly two decades’ worth of style and substance influenced by musical depravity. MTV Ruled the World investigates these glory days with a steady stream of interviews from the VJs, executives, creators, musicians, and critics who lived MTV’s first five years — the “golden years” of the music video.
However, author Greg Prato’s desire to recapture the Springsteenian vision of the past is a complete disaster. Prato comes off as an errand boy during the nearly 400 pages of backslapping, self-aggrandizing, and hazy reminiscing that occurs on the pages of MTV Ruled the World. The interviews are edited to fall neatly into Prato’s mix of chronology and subject. While the book boasts thoughtful insights from some of the era’s biggest breakouts — Daryl Hall and John Oates, ‘Weird’ Al Yankovic, members of Def Leppard — these nuggets of wisdom and truth are largely drowned out by the repetitive company line held by former MTV executives who would rather hold their darling project in the same esteem they did during its rough infancy.
MTV Ruled the World had the opportunity to approach MTV from a unique perspective. Rather than dissect what set MTV apart and launched it to status as a global phenomenon, many of Prato’s subjects are happy to harp on the reasons why MTV failed. The worst of it comes from Jello Biafra — who openly admits to avoiding MTV for two decades — and critic Dave Marsh. Their vitriol for MTV does not act as a counterbalance for the praise it receives. Rather than providing the kind of deep perspective for which he’s known, Biafra harps about his precious punk scene and spews tired one-liners. Marsh equally avoids grace by playing the role of blowhard critic rather than being the conscience the book desperately needs.
That job falls to original VJ, Alan Hunter. Hunter provides the soul throughout MTV Ruled the World, neither towing the company line for the network that made him nor lambasting it. Hunter continues to be his affable self, a man who knows his shortcomings and saw the music world of 1981-86 as what it was. As former MTV execs Les Garland and Bob Pittman steer discussions to the safe side of MTV history, Hunter is happy to oblige in meat-and-potatoes thoughts.
However, Prato’s hatchet job of his interview subjects surrounds these few moments of clarity. Prato turns Chuck D into “angry black man” during chapters discussing the emergence of Michael Jackson and Prince as early African-American breakthroughs on a decisively white MTV. Marsh once more plays the rubber and glue game by doing his best politico impression, blowing hard about MTV’s indecision to air black artists and videos with talking-point rhetoric rather than insight.
Prato has a history of worthwhile music journalism, but his light touch with the subject matter renders MTV Ruled the World nothing more than an appendix to the MTV fantasy. He had the opportunity to be the voice of reason, but instead plays the confused moderator — and worse, editor. With so much history left to dissect about the early days of MTV, MTV Ruled the World proves a disappointment. Prato’s list of interviews should provide the be-all, end-all to MTV’s first five years, but it flounders like the industry into which MTV was born.