In celebration of MTV’s 40th anniversary, this is a snapshot of significant dates and videos in the network’s early years. This page covers from MTV’s beginnings on August 1, 1981 to the point when the network started to shift away from music and more toward general youth programming in 1992.
Check out the Dave’s Music Database podcast episode The Birth of MTV which celebrated the 40th anniversary of the cable network by showcasing some of the videos that were instrumental in establishing the format. It debuted August 3, 2021.
August 1, 1981: The Launch of MTVThe first video to air on the brand new network was “Video Killed the Radio Star” by the Buggles. You can see a full list of all the videos which aired during the first 24 hours here.
1982: Duran Duran “Hungry Like the Wolf”Duran Duran were one of the first bands to become stars because of their videos. The early days of MTV were marked by a lot of videos from British new wave bands. Duran Duran were photogenic, had catchy songs, and grasped the power of video. “Hungry Like the Wolf” was shot in Sri Lanka and captured the atmosphere of the movie The Raiders of the Lost Ark.
March 10, 1983: “Billie Jean” Breaks the Color BarrierMichael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” had already hit the top of the Billboard Hot 100 when MTV aired the video for the first time. The video has been credited with breaking the network’s color barrier, which isn’t entirely accurate. The network was dominated by white, album-oriented artists, but they did play some black artists. However, “Billie Jean” was considered the video to knock down the doors, a move largely attributed to the president of CBS Records threatening to pull all the label’s videos from the network if they didn’t air “Billie Jean.” That year, Prince, Eddy Grant, Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, and Lionel Richie followed with videos in heavy rotation.
December 2, 1983: “Thriller” premieredBy the end of 1983, Michael Jackson was the biggest music star on the planet, making the premiere of his epic video for “Thriller” a monumental event. The $900,000 budget was the biggest ever for a music video at the time. John Landis, who’d done An American Werewolf in London, directed the nearly-fourteen-minute, zombie-themed mini-movie and it transformed music videos into a serious art form. It ranks #1 on the Dave’s Music Database list of the Top 100 Videos of All Time.
March 9, 1984: First Top 20 Video CountdownFour of the videos featured on the first countdown rank in the Dave’s Music Database list of the Top 100 Videos of All Time – the aforementioned “Thriller” at #14, “You Might Think” at #9, “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” at #7, and “Jump” at #2. The #1 video that week was Kenny Loggins’ “Footloose.” You can see the full top 20 here.
“You Might Think” had just premiered on MTV that week. It would go on to be the first Video of the Year winner.
September 14, 1984: First Video Music AwardsDan Aykroyd and Bette Midler served as hosts for MTV’s first annual Music Video Awards (often abbreviated as VMAs) ceremony, held at New York’s Radio City Music Hall. Among the awards given out were Video of the Year to the aforementioned “You Might Think” by the Cars, Female Video to Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” Male Video to David Bowie’s “China Girl,” Group Video to ZZ Top’s “Legs,” and Best New Artist Video to Eurythmics for “Sweet Dreams Are Made of This.”
The most memorable point of the night came not from an award winner, but a performance. Madonna debuted her song “Like a Virgin” dressed in a bridal gown and making waves by writhing around on the floor. One of the comments on the YouTube post said it “was the equivalent of breaking the Internet in the 80s.”
Check out the links below to see annual winners for various MTV video awards:
1985: aha “Take on Me”“Take on Me” was first released in October 1984 and was a hit in a-ha’s native Norway, but didn’t gain an international audience. They re-recorded the song and shot a new video with director Steve Barron, who’d also directed Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” and the Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me?.” The combination of live action and pencil-sketch animation took 16 weeks to finish. It won six awards at the 1986 MTV Video Music Awards and ranks at #3 on the DMDB’s top 100 videos list.
1985: Dire Straits “Money for Nothing”Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler was inspired to write “Money for Nothing” after overhearing a delivery man in an appliance store lamenting how easy musicians had it. The video played up the same idea with computer-animated versions of two working-class guys commenting on music videos. It ranks at #7 on the DMDB’s top 100 videos list and won Video of the Year in 1986.
March 10, 1986: 120 Minutes PremieredThe show focused on alternative rock and underground videos. One of the most celebrated videos of all time, Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit (1991),” made its debut on the network during the program. The classic which is largely credited as the quintessential grunge song ranks #4 on the DMDB’s top 100 videos list.
1986: Peter Gabriel “Sledgehammer”The groundbreaking video combined claymation, pixilation, and stop-motion animation. Gabriel had to lay under a sheet of glass for 16 hours while the video was filmed one frame at a time. Although MTV didn’t say how many plays it had received, they revealed in 2000 that “Sledgehammer” was the most played video in their history. Nine of the top 10 were from the 1980s. See the article here. The video ranks at #2 on the DMDB’s top 100 videos list, and won the Video of the Year in 1987 as well as eight other awards.
April 18, 1987: The Headbangers’ Ball PremieredThe show focused on heavy metal music. Guns N’ Roses first appeared on the show in October to promote their Appetite for Destruction album and trashed the set. Their single at the time, “Welcome to the Jungle,” became a top 10 hit on the pop charts in 1988 after the success of their #1 single “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” Both songs appear on the DMDB’s top 100 videos list.
August 6, 1988: Yo! MTV Raps PremieredThe show celebrated hip-hop music. Run-DMC became one of the most important rap acts of the 1980s. Their song “Rock Box,” from 1984, was the first rap video in rotation on MTV. Their 1986 remake of Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way” was the first top 10 rap hit on the Billboard Hot 100. The inventive video cheekily pitted Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and Joe Perry against the rap trio in a battle to see who could outdo the other with them covering together in the end. It appears at #17 on the DMDB’s top 100 videos list.
November 26, 1989: MTV Unplugged PremieredThe show featured artists performing their songs acoustically. Early episodes featured a variety of artists. The very first episode included Squeeze, Syd Straw, and Elliot Easton. Later episodes focused on big-name stars, including Tony Bennett, Mariah Carey, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Nirvana, Rod Stewart, and Neil Young. Many of the Unplugged performances were released as albums. Eric Clapton’s was the most successful, going ten times platinum and winning the Grammy for Album of the Year.
May 21, 1992: Real World PremieredThis unscripted TV show followed seven real people thrown into a house together and filmed to see how they interacted. Not only did it launch reality shows, but it marked a shift in MTV’s programming from exclusively music-based to more teen and young-adult programming. Many have since lamented the disappearance of “music” from “Music Television.” In fact, the network did eventually just go by “MTV” and did not refer to itself as Music Television anymore.
Resources and Related Links:
First posted 8/1/2021.