MTV Brings World Music to Americans

By Michael Jay Friedman
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington - On August 1, 1981, a small number of American television viewers heard an off-camera voice exclaim, "Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll!" Moments later, a music video — "Video Killed the Radio Star" by the Buggles —appeared, the first clip aired on Music Television, or MTV.

Today, 25 years later, more than 50 MTV channels appear in 168 countries. They broadcast in some 28 languages and increasingly theses foreign-language variants serve as a source of new music for American MTV, introducing young Americans to artists enjoyed in other parts of the world.


MTV is transmitted by cable television lines, but in 1981 relatively few Americans received cable TV. As Nina Blackwood, one of MTV’s original video jockeys, or "VJs" recalled for Entertainment Weekly magazine, "The day [MTV] launched, New York City didn't even have cable yet. They hired buses and took everybody over to some club in New Jersey to watch the launch."

Early cable systems featured limited channel capacity, and, at first, few made room on their lineup for MTV. The network responded with an "I want my MTV!" campaign, in which rock music stars like Sting and Mick Jagger urged viewers to phone their cable systems with the four-word demand. Insistent viewers and improved cable technology soon brought music television to increasing numbers of American homes.

The network's mainstay during the 1980s was rock music videos. Artists like Van Halen, Eurythmics and The Police were among the staples, while "Weird Al" Yankovic became known for parody clips based on other artists' videos. MTV at first focused on the rock sound popular with many white American teens, but gradually incorporated African American music, beginning with Michael Jackson's "Thriller" in 1983. In 1988, the station added a weekend show entitled "Yo! MTV Raps" and today hip-hop and rap videos co-exist with rock on MTV. Meanwhile, in 1985, MTV created a second channel, VH-1, which played music for a slightly older audience.


MTV gradually branched out from music videos. A number of animated series portrayed different aspects of youth culture. Possibly the best regarded was Daria, which appeared in original episodes from 1997–2002. It portrayed the bookish and sarcastic Daria Morgendorffer as she navigated high school life.

MTV pioneered the genre known today as "reality television." Its signature series, The Real World, began in 1992. Each year, it follows the lives of seven young people who live together in a common house for the course of the show. One 1994 cast member, HIV/AIDS activist Pedro Zamora, was among the first openly HIV-positive gay men portrayed in depth on American television.

In 1992, the network launched its "Choose or Lose" campaign to encourage young people's participation in that year's election. All the major candidates appeared on MTV. Bill Clinton's effort widely was considered the most memorable. He played saxophone and flinched from neither serious nor less serious ("Boxers or briefs?") questions from his young audience.

"Reality" programming dominates much of today's MTV schedule. Some programs exaggerate wildly. Depictions of lavish birthday parties and raucous spring break entertainments are meant as entertainment and not as accurate portrayals of how young Americans live today.


As MTV spread beyond America, it has partnered with local music industries to satisfy the musical tastes of different cultures. “We don't even call it an adaptation of American content: it's local content creation,” one MTV executive told The Economist magazine. MTV Europe signed on in 1987 and was followed by stations catering to individual nations. There is an MTV Italy, MTV China and an MTV Pakistan, among others. In the United States, new channels cater to the musical tastes of ethnic Americans. MTV-K, aiming at Korean Americans, launched in June. It followed on the heels of MTV Desi (South Asian American) and MTV Chi (Chinese Americans).

The ethnic MTVs feature music videos and programming from MTV networks in other parts of the world. The original MTV also benefits. Acts like Shakira and Tatu first were popular in Colombia and Russia, respectively.

As John McMurria, assistant professor of communications at DePaul University told National Public Radio, MTV "has been central in terms of bringing different international groups to U.S. attention."