“Video Killed the Radio Star” is not just a song. Popular belief holds that it’s also a rock history lesson. On August 1, 1981, the single by British new wave band the Buggles became the first video ever to air on MTV, and many feel that the title perfectly sums up the network’s impact: that MTV and the video revolution created a cultural purge whereby virtually every musician who had been popular up until then was suddenly swept aside in favor of new artists possessing questionable (if any) talent who just happened to have the right “look.”
Yet an actual look at the music climate of the Eighties and beyond tells a very different story, as countless artists who were already established continued to do just as well, or in many cases got bigger. Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen both rose to god-like status. Hall & Oates, Prince, Van Halen, the Police and Dire Straits also reached career pinnacles. Bands who’d had been dismissed as dinosaurs – Chicago, Yes, Heart, ZZ Top – made their most commercially successful album. Tina Turner, John Fogerty, Steve Winwood, and Paul Simon all experienced major comebacks. The Rolling Stones, Billy Joel, Fleetwood Mac, Kool & the Gang, the Cars and others continued to do just fine. Even the Grateful Dead took a short, strange trip to the Top Ten for the first time in their career. These are just a few examples. The fact of the matter is that once MTV had been on the air for a short time, they sought to increase their viewership by featuring more artists that people already knew and liked. In other words, radio stars.
Admittedly, a few were left behind. Christopher Cross is typically held up as the poster boy for “MTV killed my career”. His 1980 debut album sold five million copies, produced four hit singles , and swept the Grammys. Cross even won an Oscar. In the aftermath of MTV, however, he managed to eke out one more Top Ten hit (“Think of Laura”) and then it was pretty much the end of line for him. With the music video craze now in full swing, his appearance was largely blamed for his downfall, since the chubby and goateed singer probably wasn’t anybody’s idea of a pin-up. However, it’s safe to say that neither was Phil Collins, but that didn’t seem to stop the balding, perpetually middle-aged-looking, veteran progressive rock drummer from becoming one of MTV’s biggest stars.
Still, many cling to the idea that essentially MTV was the first glimpse of the physical appearance of most popular musicians that the public ever had, and that every pre-MTV hit-maker had essentially been Goddard, or as Twisted Sister vocalist Dee Snider writes in his memoir: “When people got a good look at artists such as Joe Jackson and Supertramp, their careers were over.” (Actually, Jackson had his most successful album Night & Day during MTV’s apex, and his 2019 release Fool just became his highest-charting album in thirty-five years).
No one is questioning MTV made an artist’s image more important than ever. But the notion that MTV was the stroke of midnight at an eighteenth-century masquerade ball, where all the guests were suddenly unmasked, is greatly overstated. In just the decade or so preceding MTV, bands appeared weekly on popular shows like The Midnight Special and Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert. There were magazines like Creem, Hit Parader and Circus, which featured large glossy photos of the musicians. And of course images of the artists appeared on their album covers (at least the back cover or the inner sleeve), not to mention there being such a thing as live concerts. So if before MTV you were a fan of an artist (even Supertramp or Joe Jackson), chances were you already knew what they looked like.
This even goes for artists like Journey, Foreigner, and REO Speedwagon, whom in 1981 Rolling Stone tagged “faceless bands.” One might assume that these acts would have ended up being the greatest casualty of the video revolution. However, REO and Foreigner both had number one singles in 1985. Journey may have been a closer call, particularly after the video for “Separate Ways (Worlds Apart),” an embarrassment even before Beavis and Butthead tore it a new one. However, the song still went Top Ten, the band continued to sell out arenas, and went multi-platinum with their follow-up release (appropriately titled Raised on Radio).
And then there was the case of Boston – arguably the most faceless band of all – who in 1986 topped the charts with their album Third Stage, despite an eight-year absence and – wait for it – not doing any videos. So just how did these artists who were less photogenic and/or declined to even make videos at all still thrive? The answer is very simple: radio. During the time far more people listened to the radio than even having access to MTV, let alone watched it. Even Michael Jackson’s Thriller – often considered the ultimate MTV-fueled success story – produced four singles for which no video was made, all of which went Top Ten. So while we can continue to debate the impact of MTV – positive and negative – on music and popular culture, one thing is certain: video did not kill the radio star, at least not in the way many people like to believe.
WRITTEN BY RICHARD JOHN CUMMINS