Tipping Point on MTV: The Beginnings of Pop and the Michael Jackson Story

How the channel went from ignoring African Americans to promoting their contribution to popular music is a brief history of the channel's "racial evolution".

How Michael Jackson became the first black artist to turn the tide on MTV

When the MTV network began broadcasting back in 1981, viewers tried to find at least one black person on the air. MTV showed African Americans so sparingly in its early days that it was criticized by David Bowie and Rick James. Now the network positions itself as a channel of popular music, absolutely international and tolerant. The air is occupied by popular musicians and performers Jay-Z, Beyoncé, Kanye West. However, let's remember what happened in the early 80s ...

Did MTV exclude videos of black artists?

On August 1, 1981, MTV made its debut. The lucky one to have air time on the channel was popular VJ JJ Jackson. The only native black American in the list of famous VJs (as the DJs working on television music channels were then called). JJ Jackson is an iconic figure in the US pop industry in the 80s of the last century. Therefore, his hit on the air of the network was understandable.

This state of affairs persisted for quite some time until, in 1986, a whole PR campaign was launched in relation to racism on MTV. Although the cause was by no means the famous vijay himself. Accusations of racial discrimination against performers simply rained down on the channel. The accusations were massive in order to save the reputation, the channel's management was forced to comment on them.

Here is what former director of music broadcasting Buzz Brindle later said:

"Initially conceived as a rock music channel, MTV found it difficult to find African-American artists whose music would fit the channel's original rock-oriented format."

These comments were made much later in 2006, but even in the distant 80s of the last century, the channel categorically denied racial overtones, claiming the absence of colored performers in the rock direction.

Les Garland, co-founder of the channel, said that with a small number of African-American rockers, finding works worthy of top spots on the air was incredibly difficult. “We didn’t have much to choose from,” Garland explained. However, all fans of popular music will remember the story when Michael Jackson's record company presented MTV with the video "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" from the 1979 album Off the Wall. The video clip never appeared on the channel at the time.

The king of popular music is changing MTV

The second attempt to break into the air of the channel also belongs to the king of the industry, Michael Jackson. Back in 1982, the singer's album Thriller was released. The second track of the album quickly became popular. But MTV still refused to air the musician. Economic interests and business intervened. CBS Records Group President Walter Yetnikoff threatened to remove all CBS-owned videos from the channel if "Billie Jean" did not air on MTV.

The composition appeared on the channel on January 2, 1983. The success was overwhelming. The single stayed at the top of the chart for seven weeks.

Naturally, the leadership of the network denied the fact of confrontation of economic interests, giving out their own version to the masses. Les Garland assured that he made the decision to broadcast the single on the channel as soon as he watched it. Nevertheless, both the fact itself and the interpretations associated with it have become the property of the mass public. Whatever the channel's management position during this period, it became more difficult to enforce the old policy on performers of color. Therefore, already in the same 1983, Michael Jackson's second Thriller video appeared on MTV. The clip was a 14-minute music video. Thriller's success exceeded all expectations. For a long time, the video became the most expensive in history, and its popularity was such that, released in video format separately, it became a bestseller in the United States with a record circulation and sales.

Change of landmarks

It is always easier for kings to break stereotypes. And what about other performers? In the US popular music industry in the 80s of the last century, among African-American musicians, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Prince dominated. They were also the first black artists to record. MTV's management can rule out conflicts of interest, one thing is for sure, all the recording studios in America were behind these musicians. For other singers of color, the channel has been slow to open its doors. Therefore, the network in the 80s broadcast the works of only top African Americans until the change of generations and landmarks came.

A revolution in the mass consciousness of Americans was made by the films "Beat Street" in 1984 and "Crush Grove", which was released in the US in 1985. Hip-hop has firmly entered the life of every American, leaving no one indifferent. The change in viewer preferences at MTV was noticed much later. The first release of the Yo! MTV Raps, a hip-hop oriented album, was released on August 6, 1988.

However, it was the first hip-hop show in the entire United States. It appeared a year before the debut of the urban rap program on Black Entertainment Television. Hip-hop in the US has become so popular that Yo! MTV Raps" was broadcast by the channel until 1996. And this year there was a program dedicated to urban music.

The emergence of new directions, their massive popularity forced the channel's management to reconsider the policy of music broadcasting. The end of the last century is the time of the decline of rock music and the emergence of new boy band performers. So in the United States they began to call the popular actors of children's films of the Disney film studio. As adults, they came to the pop industry as already popular figures, with their audience, who watched films with them in roles from childhood, cheered for them in a good way, rejoiced at their success. The channel could not ignore a wide group of performers with their own audience. Therefore, it is time for MTV to reconsider formats and directions, diversify playlists.

What is the result?

The question of racism on MTV at the beginning of ours is déjà vu compared to when the channel debuted. Just like in the 80s, the channel was criticized for racism at the very beginning of its existence. JJ Jackson no longer works on the channel, but African Americans and people of color are constantly present in the lists of his VJs: Daisy Fuentes, Ananda Lewis, and others. In 2006, a serious scandal broke out on the topic of racism on the channel, but the reason for this, as in the 80s, was by no means VJs of the network. The scandal was caused by the cartoon shown by the channel, which exposed African-American women in a negative light. In the cartoon, they were shown squatting on a collared chain and defecate. Probably, according to the idea of the creators, they were supposed to personify dogs.

The show of the cartoon caused a huge public outcry and accusations of the channel of misogyny and racism. Even the president of the company, Christina Norman, had to respond to criticism. She held this post in 2006-2008. Christina Norman called the picture a parody of the image created by Snoop Dogg. The rapper used in his image two dark-skinned women with chains and collars.

Snoop Dog with his companions

snoop dog
snoop dog

The response of the president of the channel was clearly not what social activists wanted. However, further attempts to escalate the conflict crashed against an indisputable fact. Christina Norman is a black woman, so the accusations of misogyny and racism in a discussion with an African American looked far-fetched.

It should be noted that at the very beginning of our century, the channel tried to present the entire palette of images of a modern performer. The heroes of the program were not the most famous musicians, including those of African American origin. But the images broadcast on the channel looked stereotypical.

The story with the MTV president and the network's attempts to present images of a different musical America can be considered as a desire to become more multi-ethnic and tolerant.

In the fight against racial prejudice.

In 2015, the channel announced the creation of a program designed to change racial prejudice in America. On July 22 of the same year, the premiere of the film "White People" took place on the air of the network. A very interesting project for Americans about the lives of Americans was led by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas. He traveled the country and interviewed millennials (generation 2000s) about their racial views, social privileges. MTV President of Public Affairs Ronnie Cho said the channel would sponsor programs designed to change racial prejudice. One successful example of such collaborative projects is the Look Different website, which brings together young people who want to fight for racial equality in society.

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