Television

Present at the Creation

Reliving MTV’s first moments on earth.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

As every pop-cultist, trivia geek, and hip person knows, the first music clip to air on MTV was “Video Killed the Radio Star” by the Buggles. Yesterday, on VH1 Classic’s 24-hour replay of the mother ship’s launch, MTV Day One (which repeats on Saturday at 9 a.m. EST), the video still slayed: An intro where the moon’s reflection shimmers on a latex sea, a firm command of irony, the capable theft of Devo’s aesthetic, the restrained deployment of both youth-revolt iconography and explosives. … It still looks like a Flash Gordon future.

But what of the clips that immediately followed “Video Killed the Radio Star”? Have they aged well? Which now wear an aura of innovation? Do ya think Rod Stewart’s sexy?

MTV’s second video was “You Better Run,” wherein Pat Benatar wears a black-and-white striped shirt of the sort that was quite fashionable the last time I went outside. Benatar, yet to create the epic “Love Is a Battlefield,” carries herself as if she’s wearing a pint of blush, which she is. The third video was Stewart’s distinctly primitive “She Won’t Dance.” Stewart shakes his bottom like a naughty schoolboy and splays his legs when he leaps, the better to leapingly hump his guitarists. He accomplishes all this while wearing a jumpsuit the color of medical scrubs. The suit’s asymmetrical neckline dares to venture down near Rod’s right hipbone. It’s all too plausible that some hipster in northern Brooklyn will slip into such an outfit this Saturday evening.

If you watched MTV on Aug. 1, 1981, you would have seen Stewart leaping and humping quite a bit. Perhaps the only artists in heavier rotation were the Who—whose operatic instincts led them to outclass their peers at the dawn of the video age—and a trio of arena rockers: REO Speedwagon, .38 Special, and Styx. It is somehow comforting to know that Stewart, a 35-year-old in girly pants, was MTV’s first pretty boy.

MTV’s fourth video, an excursion deeper into its art-school side, was Ph.D’s “Little Susie’s on the Up.” Rigorously nonsensical, it features pigs in a butcher shop and poodles in tutus, and it looks like the work of a film-school student assigned to make a film that looks like a documentary on ballroom-dancing competitions directed by Luis Buñuel.

As demonstrated by Todd Rundgren in “Time Heals”—No. 6, just behind “Brass in Pocket,” where Chrissie Hynde gives it a little Lily Tomlin when playing a diner waitress—you shouldn’t go around talking about Modernist art just because you think you like it. Rundgren’s crudely trippy clip, which inserts the singer into paintings by the likes of Magritte and Chirico, is a tribute to Surrealism made by someone with a brazenly superficial knowledge of it. (Meanwhile, one side effect of MTV’s early embrace of absurdity and aggressive dream logic is that nobody pays any mind when a video that’s maybe supposed to make sense is sloppy with narrative disjunctions.)

For the record, MTV’s first bit of programming—the appetizer for the Buggles that stands as its real moment of self-definition—was a tremendous bit of found art, an approximate quarter-hour of documentary footage of the countdown to a space shuttle launch. Nothing happens until blast-off, when the shuttle film switches to footage of an Apollo rocket and an astronaut plants MTV’s flag on the moon; it’s just tape of mission control and the launch pad and the chase planes that’s narrated in an engineer’s nasal Midwestern drone. You will zone out, but you won’t leave your seat: No one turns away from an exploding rocket.