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TODAY

Saturday, February 23

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This week, I discovered this gem online. It's three hours of MTV, commercials included, from fall 1983. It's a perfect time capsule showcasing the difference between Music Television — and pop culture itself — then and now. Remember when MTV played videos? And those videos (aside from "Thriller") were either cheap looking and/or had plots and stories? No? Well, warm up the wayback machine, Sherman, and take a trip 25 years (yes, really) into the past. Trust me, it's worth it for the fashions alone.

The first reel opens with VJ Mark Goodman — sporting a dove gray jacket with plenty of snaps and epaulettes over a pink t-shirt, one of the trendiest color combinations of the time — reading some news and announcing concert dates by The Police, including a November 28 stop in Champaign. The tour was sponsored by Cambridge Men's Cologne. Who? A commercial for the fragrance follows, the first in a set that includes 1-800-Hot Rock, a music service that promises to deliver the hottest records and tapes to your home "in less than one week." The latest albums from Asia, Black Sabbath and ZZ Top are only $6.99! Ah, the days when one couldn't instantly download the latest music from the Internet. Not to mention records... and tapes!

The first video is Night Ranger's "Don't Tell Me You Love Me," which is a perfect example of its time. Seriously, all videos were like this for a while. The mulleted musicians rock out on a soundstage that has fake train tracks running through the center. During the guitar solo, the scenery changes briefly to imply the band is in a train car thinking of birthdays and women; note that the "car" doesn't shake at all. The stock footage of real trains only underscores the crappiness of the sets. It's wonderful. Today, the band would lip sync on a real train on location with some sort of high-concept and lots of jump cuts, and there would be women draped over everything, including the musicians. We segue into "Heart and Soul" by Huey Lewis and The News, a quintessential '80s band. Can you think of another decade in which this group would hit it big? Huey sings directly to the camera, as do various extras "dancing" at a party. In the end, Huey leaves with his dream girl.

The second set of commercials brings us a three-LP (or two 8-track or cassette tapes!), 40-song contemporary collection called The Greatest Hits Album. That's an ambitious title. You, too, could get Dr. Hook, Anne Murray, Little River Band, ABBA and Air Supply in one set! Luckily, and perhaps sadly to some of you, I already have most of these songs in my iTunes. Credit card and C.O.D. (!) customers can score this mixed anthology for $14.98, plus $1 shipping and handling. It's no Now That's What I Call Music 358, or even a K-Tel album, but who can resist the lure of 8-tracks?

The next block has videos from The Tubes, Prince, George Thoroughgood and The Police. Sammy Hagar and the Steve Miller Band soon follow, as well as Kansas, Michael Bolton and Quiet Riot with the classic "Cum on Feel the Noize." Ads urge the audience to tune in for Friday Night Video Fights, buy the Mountain King video game, and live it to the limit in Wrangler. And that's the first hour: More than 10 videos, with about 15 minutes of VJ/news and advertising. I haven't watched an uninterrupted hour of MTV since the early 1990s, but I know that today's Music Television no longer dedicates 75 percent of its time to, well, music. One peek at tomorrow's (Monday, Feb. 4) schedule reveals that in a 24-hour block, only one hour is dedicated to music videos. As far as I know — TRL plays them, right? That show hit the airwaves long after my time. I remember when Remote Control premiered, as well as the first season of The Real World, in the days before original programming drove out the music from MTV.

Music isn't and shouldn't be exclusively about videos, but the entire point of Music Television — at least in the beginning — was to merge aural with visual. Video did indeed kill many radio stars who, like some actors from silent movies during the switch to "talkies," were unable to make a smooth transition from one medium to the other. (Case in point: Billy Squier. His "Rock Me Tonite" video is incredibly silly, from the satin sheets in the opening shot to Billy "dancing" — it's really more of flailing — and rolling around on the bedroom floor only to tear off his sleeveless T shirt. It didn't help his "rocker" image.) Not to get too Grumpy Old Man on y'all, but in my day, video premieres were big deals. VJs would tease viewers for several days before finally unveiling the latest from Madonna or Duran Duran. It was usually on a Friday or Saturday night, and I distinctly recall impatiently sitting through the first airing of Queen's "Radio Gaga" before getting to see "New Moon on Monday." Now MTV viewers can watch P. Diddy building a band or Johnny Knoxville being a Jackass several years ago or various fame whores being "real." Videos are available elsewhere online or on cable and digital TV, but not so much on Music Television.

Another visible difference is how white the channel was back then. Aside from Prince's "Little Red Corvette," the only other African-American artist shown in the entire three hours is Michael Jackson, and that barely counts because A) Jackson had the biggest-selling album ever at the time, so he was an exception to the rule and B) it's "Say, Say, Say," his duet with Paul McCartney. Of course, rap and hip hop didn't hit mainstream status for several more years, but it's jarring to see such a lack of diversity. Not to mention the oddness of Jackson pre–hair straightening, pre–skin lightening and pre–plastic surgery having.

I heartily enjoyed this trip down memory lane, and I was surprised by how many of the videos and commercials that I remembered. I hadn't seen most of them for at least two decades, yet I could sing along or recite slogans when prompted. Scary! The most jaw-dropping ad was for Coty Wild Musk, which features two slicked up, scantily young cave people tentatively eying each other as the voiceover hilariously compares them to animals and uses the words "essence" and "quivers." It climaxes (ahem) with the tagline: "Coty Wild Musk: Use It Before You Stalk." Yikes! Don't forget to watch the second 90 minutes as well. I won't spoil it too much, other than to say it begins with a classic from ZZ Top and ends with Joe Walsh. Oh, and there's a live concert offering of Squier's "Lonely Is the Night" in there as well. If only he had made more videos like Night Ranger and less like an installment of Red Shoe Diaries

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About the Author(s)

As a child, Dee Stiffler was only allowed to watch one hour of television a day. She usually chose Sesame Street. Today, she overcompensates by knowing far too much about the WB's lineup as well as pop culture in general. Email her at pop@gapersblock.com.

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