Saturday, January 17, 2015

MTV and Me

Author's note: This piece was originally published in the 2014 edition of Quills and Pixels, a peer-reviewed, student publication of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock Writers' Network.

I burst through the front door, threw my books into the doorway of my bedroom, grabbed a snack in the kitchen, and ran down the hall to the den. Settling cross-legged on the blue-shag carpet in front of the television, I grabbed the silver knob and pulled. First a click, then a hum, then static electricity crackled across the screen. I had arrived at my house a few minutes earlier after an emotionally-grueling day of sixth grade. But now that the faint image on the screen was growing vibrant, I was truly home.

Music Television had debuted the summer before my fifth-grade year, but I hadn’t become aware of it until later. Living in tiny Lovington, New Mexico, limited—or at least, delayed—my knowledge of pop culture. Our little one-screen theater showed movies months after they were released. While the kids in Lubbock, a two-hour drive away, were getting tired of E.T. and moving on, we Lovington kids were just seeing it for the first time.

So I didn’t find out about MTV because kids were talking about it at school. They weren’t. I just stumbled across it one day. It took me a while to piece together what this thing was. All day and all night, MTV showed mini-movies set to popular music. One day, I made this life-altering observation: “Oh! It’s like radio, but you can see it!”

From then on, I was hooked. I filled my afternoons with INXS, Joan Jett, The Human League, The Cars, David Bowie, A Flock of Seagulls, Talking Heads, The Psychedelic Furs, The Pretenders, Pat Benatar, and the Go-Go’s. I watched Michael Jackson invent pop music. Then I watched Madonna redefine it on her own terms. I watched The Police reinvent themselves with “Every Breath You Take” from their ground-breaking “Synchronicity” album. I watched for hours every day and never got enough.

I came to realize that not everyone shared my joy at this discovery. I had a friend over one day, and I turned on MTV to show her this daring new frontier. Def Leppard was crunching through “Rock of Ages,” and the lead guitarist, wearing tight white pants, was swaying his backside in front of the camera. My friend stared at it for a minute. Then she said, “My mom says rock music is from the devil,” and left the room. I kept watching as lead singer Joe Elliott swung a large, glowing Excalibur-like sword over his head as he launched into the second verse.

“If this is from the devil,” I thought, “he has pretty good taste.”

My friend’s mother wasn’t alone. As MTV’s popularity grew, so did conservative disapproval.

“MTV is destroying the very souls of our children!” I heard one pulpit-pounding preacher exclaim.

But MTV did not make me feel as though my soul were being destroyed. It actually put my soul back together. While my peers seemed to be sailing through puberty effortlessly, I remained physically and socially awkward. I was either picked on or ignored at school. I couldn’t decide which was worse. Sixth grade had not been kind to me so far.

But at home, I found solace in the flickering light that illuminated the den. Those music videos told stories that I understood. I knew the band members would never know who I was, but I knew them. Sting wasn’t just gazing into the camera in “Every Breath You Take;” he was staring straight into my soul. I might have felt powerless at school, but women like Madonna and Chrissie Hynde and Annie Lennox and all five of the Go-Go’s—an all-female band, for heaven’s sake—oozed empowerment and influence. When Martha Davis of The Motels sauntered through a nightclub and purred the lyrics to “Only the Lonely,” I knew she understood the isolation I walked around in every day. In this refuge glowing out of my TV, these people became my friends. School was destroying my soul. But MTV, this gateway to a new world, was where I was accepted and understood. If MTV wanted my soul, MTV could have it.

I was intrigued by Boy George’s shocking androgyny. I was mesmerized by Talking Heads’ quirky profundity. I admired Pat Benatar’s tough femininity, and I loved the way each of Duran Duran’s videos seemed to have been designed to send adolescent female hormones into a frenzy. And I could not get enough. If I uttered “Just one more video” enough times, my MTV-watching sessions could go for hours.

My parents realized how much MTV I was watching and pulled the plug by cancelling our cable subscription. I tried to land sleepovers at the houses of friends who had cable, but I missed having MTV around all the time. After my parents bought our first VCR, I discovered VHS tapes of music videos at the video store. I gleefully checked out Duran Duran’s “Girls on Film” and took it home and, in an attempt to demonstrate what this medium meant to me, watched it with my dad. I didn’t realize the video shown on MTV was the “clean” version, and the one I brought home was not. This did not help my case.

But then a miracle happened. My brother was playing with the buttons on the VCR one day, and MTV suddenly illuminated the screen. We didn’t know how he had done it, but we were pretty sure we were getting MTV illegally. I didn’t care. MTV was back! And now I could fill VHS tapes with it!

For a lot of people, MTV provided entertainment. But it gave me a connection and a sense of significance. Popular music had become visual, and I felt I was more than a witness to this monumental transition in pop culture. I was a part of it. Eventually, I would go on to find meaning in things other than a music video network, and MTV would replace its 24-hour video programming with a parade of increasingly meaningless reality shows. But for 14-year-old me, curled up in front of the flickering TV set late into the night, MTV welcomed me into its world with unwavering acceptance—until I would finally turn it off and go to bed. But first, just one more video.


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