A pop star in a red jacket slowly morphs into a werewolf. A young woman writhes on the floor against an all-white background. A striking-looking woman with orange hair sings about how “Sweet dreams are made of these.” Or was it “this”? These are indelible images from the 1980s that I am sure most people can identify for me, they comprise my music video origin story.
My history with cable television is spotty (and my relationship with Comcast’s customer service is contentious), and I’ve beaten the “I didn’t have cable as a kid” horse enough but here it actually applies because during the late 1980s and early to mid 1990s, I didn’t have cable. So when my friends were getting their musical education through 120 Minutes and Headbangers Ball, I was finding other sources, mostly radio stations, which explains my musical tastes were way more mainstream than a number of my friends and tended to skew towards older music at times (I mean, was anyone else listening to The Stranger and Born to Run as much as I was in 1994?). But that is not to say that I was completely in the dark and didn’t see a music video until 1996 when my parents finally got cable. I had friends, they had cable, and when we had nothing better to do, we would watch MTV for hours. But prior to even that, I saw some of the vanguard of early 1980s videos because of syndication.
MTV launched on August 1, 1981 but was not available nationwide; in fact, it was not carried in New York City where segments were taped, so the veejays had to watch their debut in a bar in New Jersey that had the channel. And up until about 1983-1984, the channel would remain relatively obscure, slowly building an audience before rocketing to the forefront of popular culture because of the stars it was making (or that made it) and its famous “I want my MTV!” marketing blitz. By the time my friend Tom got cable in 1986-1987, MTV was pretty much the only source for videos (with VH-1 running adult contemporary videos right next to it) at any time of the day.
But in 1984, when the New York Times published the article “Music Video is Here With a Vengeance,” that wasn’t the case. MTV wasn’t as ubiquitous but some TV stations were picking up on the fact that the music video was becoming important for teenaged consumers of pop music. The article is clearly written for an older audience but makes an apt comparison to The Ed Sullivan Show, saying that this is this generation’s version of that. It mentions MTV but also mentions a slew of locally syndicated or network-produced video shows: Hot! on WNEW 5 at 4:30 p.m.; Great Record Album Collections on WOR 9 at 5:30 p.m.; Solid Gold Hits on WPIX at 6:00 p.m.; Friday Night Videos on NBC; and ABC Rocks, which also aired on Friday night.
Friday Night Videos is probably the most famous of these and wast he longest lasting, as it technically ran until 2002, even though its format had completely changed by the mid 1990s to a more traditional variety show. I never actually watched it because it was on way past my bedtime–although I know people who were either allowed to watch it or had older siblings who did (and in hindsight, I probably could have taped the show). In the very early 1990s, NBC would air a spinoff show called Saturday Morning Videos that was on right after Saved By the Bell and lasted until 1992 when the network decided to focus on mining the teen audience and began airing shows like California Dreams, which had its own “music videos” within the shwo. I did watch this when I got the chance and specifically remember it’s where I first saw the video to George Michael’s “Freedom ’90,” which remains one of my all-time favorites to this day.
But in 1984, I was seven years old and would rush home to watch He-Man and the Masters of the Universe on WNEW Channel 5 (which would later become WNYW Fox 5) and at some point, the video show Hot! began airing at 4:30 and for whatever reason, I didn’t change the channel. Hot! (which sounds like a title thought up by someone who was marketing neon-colored trinkets to teenage girls) was a bare bones production counting down the … well, the hottest videos of the week.
While this clip only shows bits and pieces of videos, there is enough from the introductions from Claude Mann to let you know what the show was like. And he was enough of a “generic 1980s white guy” to be the type of host of this show–all he had to do was give a little bit of information and then play the videos because that’s what the kids watching after school were there to see. There were a few segments with interviews from artists, such as the one with Ray Parker Jr. about the “Ghostbusters” video (a song that even I was hip to in 1984) in this clip:
One other aspect of the show was its viewer contributions. People could write in with their favorite videos and send a picture of themselves and the producers might put that picture on the air–I can imagine that seeing your picture and name was kind of like waiting around for the end of Romper Room when the host would hold up the magic mirror and you were dying to hear your first name (I rarely did). That took some effort, too, when you think about it, because people like Scott Womack of Burbank, California, had to take the time to figure out what Van Halen video he thought should be at number one, then write a letter, get his picture taken, take it to Fotomat, wait a few days, get the pictures from Fotomat, put everything in an envelope, take it to the post office, and hope that by the time Hot! got his letter, that Van Halen song was still cool. Oh, who am I kidding? Scott knew that Van Halen song was still cool.
Anyway, MTV would perfect this viewer voting technique in 1986 with Dial MTV, their own daily countdown show, which had viewers call 1-800-DIAL-MTV to vote on their favorite videos. That number, of course, would be used to much bigger success in the late 1990s when Total Request Live took over the channel, and that particular show had its own huge impact on popular culture, which included the use of online voting in a huge way.
But in 1984, there was Hot! and whatever else kids could get their hands on, and with the exception of the “Thriller” video, which my parents taped off of Showtime before they cut the cord on that, this was the only place I saw music videos, at least for a few months. Hot! didn’t last very long on WNEW–another cartoon, probably Voltron or She-Ra, replaced the show and Channel 5 would air Diff’rent Strokes and The Facts of Life at 5:00 and 5:30 for most of the rest of the decade. So while I went back to my cartoons, toys, and other things that dominated the life of a second/third grader, the small amount of time I spent watching Hot! was enough of a glimpse into the culture of older kids, something I clearly wasn’t ready for at seven, but would be sooner than I realized.