Part 1 in a series.
Gen-X. Slackers. The MTV generation. Latchkey kids. Thirteeners? Apparently, generational theorists Neil Howe and William Strauss suggested the latter name for the thirteenth generation born since the American Revolution; thankfully, it never caught on.
The term Generation X was coined by writer Douglas Coupland, in his 1991 book Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture. Gen-X generally refers to people born to baby boomers, and is typically defined as people born between 1965 and 1980. I am decidedly, proudly a Gen-Xer.
Due to an increase in divorce rates and more women in the workforce, Gen X-ers were unsupervised a lot more than previous generations. I was certainly a latchkey kid, especially once I was in 7th grade and both of my older sisters had moved out of the house. Both my parents worked full-time, and I was responsible for myself a decent amount of the time. I never felt like this defined me as a person; it was just the way things were. What did define me, as you might guess, was pop culture.
What does Gen-X pop culture look like? We’ll explore that in a series of posts, and we’ll start with perhaps the single most consequential one – MTV, or Music Television. As Steve Jones, professor at the Department of Communication at the University of Illinois, Chicago, in an article titled “MTV: The Medium was the Message”, wrote, the development of MTV “had an immediate impact on popular music, visual style, and culture”.
Because my house was on a street with only two other houses, we did not get cable until the late 80s, but music videos were a huge part of my existence nonetheless. I recall watching Friday Night Videos, an NBC show that began airing in 1983. I would record the show (which aired at 12:30 am, so I guess technically it was Saturday Morning Videos?) on our VCR and play it back, savoring every moment. And of course, when I visited friends that had cable, we watched MTV as often as possible.
If you weren’t alive at the time, you might not realize how revolutionary MTV was. It wasn’t just the videos; music videos had actually been around for decades. Prior to the 80s, they were primarily promotional clips and merchandising tie-ins. In 1975, Queen employed Bruce Gowers to direct a promotional clip for their new single “Bohemian Rhapsody”, to be played on BBC’s Top of the Pops. The resulting video is widely considered the first to be central to the marketing strategy for a single. Queen was always ahead of their time.
Obviously, the videos were a big part of the picture, but MTV changed the way we dressed and how products were advertised and what graphics looked like. It changed the way movies and commercials looked – more quick cuts, montages set to pop music. It helped popularize formerly niche musical genres such as alternative rock, hip-hop and heavy metal. But at the end of the day, the thing it changed most was how musical artists promoted themselves.
MTV launched on August 1, 1981 at 12:01 am. The first video MTV played was The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star”, a sublime slice of cheese directed by the legendary Russell Mulcahy. Hardly anyone saw it, though; MTV wasn’t even available in Manhattan for its first year, so network employees gathered at a bar in New Jersey to watch the debut.
Since the network needed to air videos that had already been produced, the pickings were slim initially, and videos were often repeated throughout the day. But once the format caught on, music videos became de rigueur, and artists capitalized on the medium. Many artists of the time period had videos to thank – at least in large part – for their success. Video budgets grew and clips became slicker, with elaborate storylines, multiple costume changes and dance sequences. It also helped if you were ridiculously attractive.
Since I don’t have the space in a blog to cover every major artist of the MTV era, I’ve picked three artists who helped make MTV a monster – and MTV returned the favor by making them superstars.
One of the most popular artists of the time period – and a personal favorite of mine – typifies the way music videos defined the era: Duran Duran. The band was at the forefront of what is referred to as the second British invasion. Their good looks, New Romantic style and glam-synth music made them the perfect band at the perfect time. Their first video, for 1981’s “Planet Earth”, was directed by the aforementioned Russell Mulcahy, who would go on to direct many of the band’s clips. The video isn’t as polished as some of their later clips, but it established the template for what was to come – the frilly New Romantic fashion, the dancing, the close-ups of the group’s beautiful faces.
Duran Duran would make several more clips from their self-titled debut album, but wouldn’t really make a splash in the US until their second album, 1982’s Rio. And splash they did. Rio was a monster, with hit after hit, and the videos were a huge part of the equation.
Rio was so successful, Capitol Records re-released Duran Duran in the US in 1983, with the addition of a new song, “Is There Something I Should Know?” The video accompanying the song was their most polished yet, with bright colors, eye-popping visuals and yes, more close-ups of those gorgeous faces.
That same year, Duran Duran released their most highly anticipated album yet, Seven and the Ragged Tiger. I recall wanting my parents to take me to buy the album, but they wanted to be certain it was available before they drove me to the mall, so my little 14 year old self called the record store. I remember them answering the phone with a blurb about having the new Duran Duran album, so apparently I wasn’t the only 14 year old girl calling to ask. Anyway, you know the story – more videos, more gorgeousness.
In 1984, Duran Duran released a live album, Arena, with highlights from their “Sing Blue SIlver” tour (I saw them in concert for the first – and only – time on this tour, at Cobo Arena in Detroit. It was basically my dad and 12,000 screaming teenage girls. The date was 2/25/84, according to the band’s Fandom wiki). Arena contained one new studio track, “The Wild Boys”, and the clip for that single was made for a whopping $1 million, making it the most expensive video to date.
In 1985, Duran Duran was tapped to record the title song from the new James Bond movie, A View to a Kill. The video integrates clips of the movie and makes it appear that the band is part of the action. There’s a Walkman that’s actually a detonator, a telescope that’s actually a gun, and a cheeky reference to Bond’s signature catchphrase by lead singer Simon LeBon. It is gloriously, delightfully silly.
The second artist is another favorite of mine, and she and MTV loved each other from the start. One of the most successful female pop stars of all-time, Madonna saw her greatest success in the 80s, but continues to make music and tour to this day – in her fucking 60’s. The woman is an unstoppable force.
Madonna’s self-titled debut came out in 1983, and though it was not her first single, “Holiday” was her first hit. The single peaked at #16, but the simple video – just Madonna, her brother and her friend, performing a choreographed dance routine in a studio – failed to make an impression on MTV. Her next two videos, “Lucky Star” and “Borderline”, fared better. “Lucky Star” was essentially “Holiday 2.0” – Madonna, her brother and her friend, performing a choreographed dance routine, but on a set and with lighting! “Borderline” intercut a standard relationship storyline with black & white scenes of Madonna dancing, lip-syncing and generally being cool as shit.
When the title track from her 1984 album Like a Virgin was released, demand was high, and Madonna delivered. The single went to #1, the video was a smash and Madonna’s performance of the song at that year’s Video Music Awards was both legendary and controversial. Madonna never was one to leave much to the imagination, and I love her for it. Madonna’s next single, “Material Girl”, was her most elaborate to date, and featured a recreation of the “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” scene from the Marilyn Monroe movie Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. We couldn’t get enough.
Madonna’s next album, 1986’s True Blue, was her most popular yet, and it yielded three #1 hits – “Live to Tell”, “Papa Don’t Preach” and “Open Your Heart”. The videos were iconic, and solidified Madonna’s status as the Queen of MTV. That same year, Madonna was the recipient of the MTV Video Vanguard Award.
Madonna’s fourth album, Like a Prayer, dropped in 1989, and was her most accomplished record to date. The title track was also the first single and video – and the video caused quite a stir. The clip features, among other things, Madonna kissing a black saint, religious imagery like stigmata, and burning crosses. The video was condemned by the Vatican and family groups protested its broadcast. It was, of course, a massive hit, and the single reached #1 on the Billboard chart.
Madonna’s next video, “Express Yourself”, was also her first collaboration with David Fincher (my future favorite director) and it was the most expensive video to date at $5 million (that record would be broken by our third artist and his sister). Inspired by the movie Metropolis, the video features shots of machinery and half naked men, some BDSM and Madonna looking drop-dead gorgeous in a variety of outfits (the chartreuse gown and the pinstripe suit are my personal favorites). Was it worth $5 million? You be the judge.
Madonna welcomed the 90s with a bang – the single “Vogue”, from the soundtrack for Dick Tracy (Madonna played Breathless Mahoney in the film) was another smash. The video was shot by Fincher in breathtaking black and white. Her performance of the song at that year’s VMAs was another showstopper, with the singer and her backup dancers performing in Dangerous Liasons-style costumes.
Our third artist, unlike our first two, was already a star when MTV first started airing. But he and MTV made each other superstars. The MTV Video Vanguard award is named for him. His contributions to the art of music video are legendary. He is the undisputed King of Pop.
When MTV first started airing, it featured predominantly white artists, particularly during the daytime. Black artists were relegated to the overnight hours, or not played at all. This fact didn’t go unnoticed; watch David Bowie, in a 1983 interview, make VJ Mark Goodman squirm as he inquires why he doesn’t see enough black artists on the network.
In November, 1982, Michael Jackson released Thriller, an absolutely colossal record. The album sold 33 million copies in the US alone, spent 37 weeks at #1 and featured seven – SEVEN – top-10 hits. And almost overnight, MTV was assuaged of their fear of playing black artists.
The videos from Thriller were top of the line, generally featuring Jackson performing his signature dance moves. The video for the title track, however, was something altogether different. Conceived as a short film, shot by renowned film director John Landis, “Thriller” was an homage to horror films. Jackson chose Landis based on Landis’s most recent film at the time, An American Werewolf in London. With a budget of almost $1 million – a record at the time – and impeccably high production standards, including makeup by Rick Baker, “Thriller” wasn’t a video – it was an event. It premiered on MTV on December 2, 1983 to ten times the network’s typical ratings. A superstar and a supernetwork were born.
Bad, Jackson’s follow up to Thriller, was released in 1987, and while it wasn’t quite the monster that its predecessor was, it still sold 10 million copies and featured five #1 singles – “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You”, the title track, “The Way You Make Me Feel”, “Man in the Mirror” and “Dirty Diana” – and one more top ten hit (and my personal favorite), “Smooth Criminal”.
The video for “Bad” was another short film, this time written by Richard Price and directed by Martin Scorsese. “Man in the Mirror” was notable because Jackson didn’t even make an appearance in the video, aside from a brief clip toward the end of him donning his signature red jacket. “Smooth Criminal” features some truly badass choreography, including the impossible leaning effect that was accomplished using a hitching mechanism that Jackson co-patented.
Jackson’s next album, 1991’s Dangerous, featured only one #1 single, but it was a doozy, and the video featured what was then cutting-edge technology. “Black or White” reunited Jackson with John Landis, and it’s pretty silly, but watch the last minute for the morphing technology that had previously only been used in movies such as Terminator 2: Judgment Day. It’s pretty fucking cool, even thirty years later.
By the mid-90s, MTV was shifting its programming to reality and scripted shows like The Real World and Beavis and Butt-head, but Michael Jackson had one more trick up his sleeve. “Scream”, the lead single from Jackson’s 1995 album HIStory: Past, Present and Future, is a duet with his sister Janet, and the video, made for an astronomical $7 million, remains the most expensive video of all time. It features playful dancing and some pretty cool special effects; the two of them look fantastic.
By the 2000s, MTV essentially stopped showing videos altogether, and eventually dropped the “Music Television” from its moniker. But during that golden age, these three artists helped create a template for other musical artists to follow, creating not just videos, but musical pieces of art, and in the process, defining pop culture for a generation.
4 thoughts on “Talkin’ ’bout my g-g-g-generation (X)”
Such a great, fun read!! I was, despite being part of an “older feneration”, certainly not immune to the charms of Duran Duran. My favorite cheesy video of theirs (were there any that were NOT cheesy?) was Hungry Like the Wolf.
Madonna was a revolution, and I remember well that MTV performance, and how empowering she was. As beautiful as she always was in the videos, that first picture of her is just breathtaking. MJ, man he could dance, like his legs were made of elastic. He was, as Pheobe would say, very bendy.
That interview with Bowie was remarkable, Goodmans discomfort was palpable, and his last statement “Now I understand your point of view” was damning.
Really enjoyed reading this!