100 & Single: The Dawning Of The MTV Era And How It Rocket-Fueled The Hot 100

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What was the first rock and roll song? Ask music historians and you'll get a range of '40s and early '50 candidates, from "Good Rockin' Tonight" to "Rocket 88."

Ah, but when did the Rock Era begin? That's easier. Everybody knows that Bill Haley and His Comets' rendition of "Rock Around the Clock" was America's first-ever No. 1 rock and roll song, topping the Billboard charts in the summer of 1955 and launching the Rock Era as we know it. Occasionally, musical epochs can be demarcated easily, with a bright temporal line.

So it goes with the era of the music video. The promotional-music-clip format is more than a half-century old, dating to the 1940s and raised to a high-pop-art form by such pre-'80s acts as the Beatles and Queen, among others.

But the music video era, better known as the MTV Era, began unequivocally 30 years ago this weekend—on August 1, 1981, the day Music Television went live on cable TV. The No. 1 song on Billboard's Hot 100 that week was "Jessie's Girl," by a guy so telegenic he was crossing over from a soap opera: General Hospital's Rick Springfield. Appropriately, "Jessie's Girl" came packaged with a fairly slick (for its day) music video.

Here's the thing about musical eras: the music doesn't change instantly. In 1955, the second No. 1 hit of the so-called Rock Era was by a guy who loathed rock and roll—Mitch Miller, with "The Yellow Rose of Texas." He was followed in the top slot by that hard-rockin' classic, "Love Is a Many Splendored Thing" by the Four Aces. Arguably, there wasn't another rock and roll chart-topper for nearly a year after Bill Haley—not until one Elvis Aaron Presley topped Billboard's chart with his 1956 smash "Heartbreak Hotel."

Similarly, after Rick Springfield, the second No. 1 hit of the MTV Era came with no music video at all: Lionel Richie and Diana Ross's megaballad "Endless Love." (Check for it on YouTube, and the clip you'll find is actually a Richie-Ross live performance from the 1982 Academy Awards.) Never mind the fact that in its first year, the rock-oriented MTV wouldn't play clips by current black artists—"Endless Love" didn't need a music video to be a smash. Neither, really, did the song that followed Lionel and Diana at No. 1: the similarly movie-driven "Arthur's Theme (Best That You Can Do)," by quite possibly the least telegenic pop star ever, Christopher Cross.

Let's take a look at the 10 songs that followed "Jessie's Girl" into the penthouse of the Hot 100 in 1981-82. See if you can spot the moment where the MTV Era fulfills its promise, "Heartbreak Hotel"-style:


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