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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12 comments
Epac
Epac

Seriously...who cares??? The Dead Kennedy's said it best..."MTV, GET OFF THE AIR!!!!!!"

Nicole K.
Nicole K.

Obviously you cared enough to reply, juicebox.

Innajunglestylee
Innajunglestylee

You really should have invoked "Seen Your Video" to be cool, referencing Dead Kennedys like they matter is just sad.

Epac
Epac

I wasn't trying to be "cool" (whatever that means). I a) love the DK's (as well the 'Mats) and b) hate MTV. (BTW, the Dead Kennedys may not "matter" anymore, but there was a time when they did, and fortunately, that time was the peak of MTV's popularity).

Fun Fun Fun in the fluffy chairFlame up the herbWoof down the beerHiI'm your video DJI always talk like I'm wigged out on quaaludesI wear a satin baseball jacket everywhere I goMy job is to help destroyWhat's left of your imaginationBy feeding you endless dosesOf sugar-coated mindless garbageSo don't createBe sedateBe a vegetable at homeAnd thwack on that dialIf we have our way even you will believeThis is the future of rock and rollHow far will you goHow low will you stoopTo tranquilize our minds with your sugar-coated swillYou've turned rock and roll rebellionInto Pat Boone sedationMaking sure nothing's left to the imaginationM.T.V. Get off the M.T.V. Get off the M.T.V. Get off the airGet off the airSee the latest rejects from the muppet showWag their tits and their dicksAs they lip-synch on screen There's something I don't likeAbout a band who always smilesAnother tax write-offFor some schmuck who doesn't careM.T.V. Get off the air And so it wasOur beloved corporate godsClaimed they created rock videoAllowing it to sink as low in one yearAs commercial TV has in 25 "It's the new frontier," they sayIt's wide open, anything can happenBut you've got a lot of nerveTo call yourself a pioneerWhen you're too god-damn conservativeTo take real chances.Tin-earedGraph-paper brained accountantsInstead of music fansCall all the shots at giant record companies now The lowest common denominator rulesForget honestyForget creativityThe dumbest buy the mostestThat's the name of the gameBut sales are slumpingAnd no one will say whyCould it be they put out one too many lousy records?!?M.T.V.-Get off the air! NOW

Seen your videoThe Phony Rock 'n RollWe don't want to knowSeen your videoYour Phony Rock 'n RollWe don't want to knowWe don't want to knowWe don't want to know

maura
maura

Thanks for clicking!

Edkollin
Edkollin

The article is spot on. Prior to 1982 once you left "downtown" you were considered really weird  if you liked "New Wave". That seems very strange now when a lot of today's music and the music of the last decade is influenced or direct copy of the genre. New Wave was really a fringe genre in mainstream America prior to 1982. In a lot of the world it was had been big for 5 years by then. Sure there were a few hits here and there but most of them such as The Clash, The Pretenders, The Police were still very much "rock" acts. It was a weird feeling when it became mainstream. By the way in the UK those MTV synthpop  acts are considered a totally different genre then New Wave because they were glam and disco influenced not so much punk influenced. Also if my memory serves me correct the we called those acts  technopop not synthpop.  

Chris Molanphy
Chris Molanphy

Thanks for the comments. I definitely heard "synthpop" back then, but in general my junior-high-school peers and I stuck with "new wave" a lot of the time. (Which I realize is confusing, because that's a very broad category that stretches back to certain postpunk musics of the late '70s.) As for the disco and glam influences, I think that's what the U.K. cultural gatekeepers meant when they coined the phrase "New Romantic" for bands like Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet.

Ed Kollin
Ed Kollin

New Wave was always the biggest followed by techopop/synthpop/electropop(2011's preferred term)  which was a subgenre which then became synonymous with New Wave, Radio like WLIR preferred  "New Music" so they could throw Prince, Madonna and MJ in there and synthpop/techno.. The Brit gatekeepers used "New Pop" for less frilly acts like Men at Work and ABC. But I never knew about all of that that until decades later thanks to the internet .  And then one day we woke up it was 1990 and it was all part of Alternative(and now "Classic Alternative" Yikes)

Maritess
Maritess

Thanks for those information being shared about music video era. For me, this post serves as an eye opener. Why? Simply because it gives history and updates.

Maritess from Best Online Guitar Lessons

Jeremy Gilbert
Jeremy Gilbert

The essence of quality music depends on melody and lyrics, which are combined making use of the different frequencies to produce the classic songs that do not have any age. These immortal creations can be enjoyed by all those people of various ages and nationalities, who are looking for the food for their souls.

Al Shipley
Al Shipley

Awesome column, one of my favorites yet. I've been curious to figure out what the biggest songs of the past few years that have absolutely no official video are -- I was going to say the only recent-ish #1 I can think of without a video is Eminem's "Crack A Bottle," although apparently there was some kind of animated video that belatedly leaked online. 

JensenLee
JensenLee

 Bill Haley and His Comets' "Rock Around the Clock" was also the first rock song to appear in a major film: "Blackboard Jungle." Originally recorded by novelty group Sonny Dae and the Knights, the song went nowhere. Rockaeology at http://bit.ly/gd83tr explains how Haley’s version made it to the opening credits of “Blackboard Jungle." The song was chosen by director Richard Brooks from the record collection of a music-crazy fifth-grader who loved Bill Haley's sound... star Glenn Ford's son Peter.

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