MTV at 40: Our Memories of Music Television

“Ladies and Gentlemen, rock and roll.” Those were the first words spoken by creator John Lack as Music Television aka MTV launched on Saturday, August 1, 1981, at 12:01 a.m. eastern time. The first images were public domain footage of the launch and moon landing of Apollo 11 and the launch countdown of Space Shuttle Columbia.

The music video era began with The Buggles “Video Killed the Radio Star” as MTV’s first on-air personalities or “Veejays” started their first shifts. Nina Blackwood, Mark Goodman, Alan Hunter, J.J. Jackson and Martha Quinn introduced cable television viewers to the latest music through the lens of “promotional videos” which records companies used to elevate music artists internationally. Early music videos were compromised mainly of concert and studio footage, but as MTV exploded in popularity, they became more entertaining short films.

In the first ten years, MTV would incorporate their own entertainment through the MTV Video Music Awards, spring break coverage, and concerts. Specialized programming was also developed like the hip hop and rap centric Yo! MTV Raps, the heavy metal Headbangers Ball, fashion and design show House of Style, the Club MTV dance party, the countdown show Dial MTV, and the game show Remote Control.

By the mid to late ’80s, MTV was more than a television channel. It had created its own culture that impacted a young generation and is still remembered fondly today. As we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the launch of MTV, we present a roundtable of memories from those who were impacted by it.

Karen Flieger

One of my earliest memories of watching MTV happened at my grandparents’ house. My aunt and uncle, who were both in their early twenties, came in and told me my show was over. I didn’t see much reason to argue with them. It was their parents’ house, they were both bigger than I was, and my aunt took me fun places and bought me things like Purple Pieman dolls. I would also dance to whatever song was playing and that amused them. 

For some reason, I have it in my head that the video that came on when they changed the channel was “Karma Chameleon” by Culture Club. I’m not sure if that’s a real memory or a “Mandela Effect” situation, but it’s definitely the first video that pops into my head when the early days of MTV come up. 

I was fascinated with all the people wearing brightly colored costumes. It didn’t bother me one bit that Boy George was wearing make up. He looked beautiful and it was nice to be able to put a face to the voice I heard on the radio as well as a setting. 

I also knew what a chameleon was because there were a lot of them outside the house we were renting while we were staying in Florida. I didn’t know the word “karma” back then either, so I thought Boy George was singing “I’m a chameleon.” 

After we moved to Georgia, my parents made friends with people from our church and we would go over to their houses sometimes. There was one couple from Boston who had a son in his twenties and a daughter in her late teens. Both of them were big MTV viewers. I think the only time MTV wasn’t on in their house was when their mother was watching the Beauty and the Beast television series. 

I remember seeing Sting’s “We’ll Be Together” and Eurythmics’ “Missionary Man” for the first time at their house. The daughter also introduced me to George Michael and Duran Duran. I remember “Hungry Like the Wolf” being one of my early favorites. Of course, there was also “Money for Nothing” by Dire Straits. Sting even sings “I want my MTV”. 

Speaking of “I Want my MTV”, the commercials featuring various rock and pop stars telling fans to call their cable company and say, “I want my MTV” were iconic in of themselves. So were the bumpers featuring the MTV logo and its distinctive instrumental stinger. I saw this ornament on a fellow retro lover’s Twitter feed and had to have one. I don’t think I’m going to put it on my tree though. It’s going to stay on one of my retro shelves so I can enjoy it all year round. 

Since Viacom owned both MTV and Nickelodeon, sometimes Nickelodeon would air what they considered to be kid-safe videos in half hour blocks on Nickelodeon. This was where I saw first saw videos like The Bangles’ “Walk Like an Egyptian”, Madonna’s “Material Girl”, Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al”, Ray Parker Jr’s “Ghostbusters”, and “I Can’t Wait” by Nu Shooz. Nick Rocks definitely did its job as a gateway to MTV. If not for my aunt and uncle, it probably would have been my first exposure to music videos. 

There was at least an hour a day after school and homework, (usually while we waited for dinner) where we would watch either Nickelodeon, MTV, or VH-1 depending on which one had the best programming going on at the time. 

I also remember the first year I was old enough to stay up for the Video Music Awards. MTV used to air them on Friday nights, which was the perfect excuse for a slumber party. It was 1987, the big year for Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer”, but I was also fascinated with Madonna’s video for “Who’s That Girl” and my friend had the cassette of the movie soundtrack. I remember listening to it with my friend before her other guests arrived. 

I also remember watching reruns of The Monkees on Nickelodeon and the NBC fall cartoon preview special that night. I think that may have been the one where “Blair” from The Facts of Life played a Fairy Godmother-type character. Fortunately, the kids’ specials ended just in time for the main event: the MTV Music Video Awards. 

My brother was also getting to the point where he was ready for MTV as well, so there were times we flipped back and forth between Double Dare on Nickelodeon and MTV. These were the years we saw videos like J. Geils Band’s “Angel is a Centerfold” and the late, great Tawny Kitaen in Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again”. 

Another favorite was when “Weird Al” Yankovic acted as guest VJ and we were treated to a block of “Al TV”. I want to say in those days, it seemed like we would get a new Weird Al album every two to three years.

Eric Vardeman

We didn’t have cable when MTV first debuted. But I do remember the first time I spent the night with a friend who DID have cable and we happened to watch 5 minutes of MTV. Which turned into 5 hours. It started with “Abracadabra” by Steve Miller band. Most of the other songs and bands we had NEVER heard of but we were hypnotized by this channel. I had heard other kids talking about MTV but I finally understood what all the hype was about.

I basically grew up with the Veejays. They were my friends at least that’s how I thought of them. I saw them every day just like all my other friends. Alan was my favorite. JJ was the absolute coolest. Mark seemed like he was an absolute font of musical information. As they left the network, one by one, I felt like I was losing a friend. We didn’t have the internet then so when they were gone, they were gone. I remember seeing Martha Quinn in an LL Cool J video after she had left MTV and almost lost my damn mind. Not long after, she was back on MTV.

Old School Tim

With MTV celebrating its 40th birthday, I have so many wonderful memories of its first 10 years or so. MTV has to be considered one of the predominant inventions of the ’80s decade. From “I Want My MTV” to watching Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” (and the Making Of documentary) countless times to witnessing Live Aid as it happened to innovative videos like “Take On Me” and “Sledgehammer” to ground-breaking shows like Yo! MTV Raps, MTV certainly made a profound impact on me personally as well as pop culture as a whole. That distinctive guitar riff, the animated bumpers, the original VJ’s and, yes, the channel actually played music videos back in the day. MTV didn’t just allow us to hear our favorite music but also to see our favorite music.


If you grew up in the ’80s, MTV was often intertwined in your daily life. I have so many great memories of outstanding music videos and iconic moments from MTV back then, but I also have some memories that I wouldn’t necessarily describe as outstanding or iconic by any means. One of those lesser impressive recollections that is unfortunately still completely engrained in my brain was a result of Thursday, October 30, 1986. This day was known as “Blue Thursday” on MTV because they ran a marathon of every entrant into the “Make My Video” contest held for Madonna’s “True Blue”. A winner was chosen which won a $25,000 grand prize and became the official video for the song in the U.S. There ended up being about 3,000 amateur entries, so that is what the marathon consisted of.

Now I wouldn’t consider myself necessarily a fan of Madonna nor this particular song, but I must’ve not had anything better going on that night because I remember watching this “True Blue” marathon for hours. To put that into perspective, what I subjected myself to that night would be the equivalent listening to the same song on repeat over and over about 100 consecutive times. Whether I like it or not, Madonna’s “True Blue” has been burned deep into all corners of my cerebral matter. It might have put me in some sort of trance because I still do not comprehend why I didn’t change the channel at some point. As I said, this isn’t one of my favorite memories, but it’s certainly just one tiny example of the power MTV wielded back in the ’80s and one of the countless ways it influenced that awesome decade.

Jason Gross

I’m not quite old enough to remember the launch of MTV. I was almost 5 years old when it launched but just a few years later it had a large impact of my TV viewing. I was always flipping over to see what music video was playing and when I visited my neighborhood friends, we would watch as well.

One night in 1987, I remember my neighborhood friend Tim came over and spent the night. We stayed up late to watch MTV after my parents had went to bed. We somehow had the giggles and had been warned at least once about the noise. Funny because one of the videos that put us in the giggly mood was Art of Noise “Close (to the Edit)”. Then MTV gave us the music video to Midnight Oil’s “Beds Are Burning”. A great song with a great message, but at this time, we could only focus on lead singer Peter Garrett. His gyrating maneuvers and shadowy screams during the video were just too much for our adolescent minds to handle. Needless to say, we woke my parents again after several jovial outbursts and MTV was taken “off-the-air” for the rest of the night.

What are your fondest memories of the MTV era? Leave a comment so we can hear it from your perspective!

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