Book Review: MTV at 15
April 26, 2000
MTV: The Making of a Revolution (Running Press)In 1981, when a bunch of young cable industry whippersnappers dreamed up the idea for MTV, a channel devoted solely to promoting music through visual means, not one of them ever imagined it would turn into the arbiter of commercial cool that it is today.For all the media attention lavished upon the channel over its 15 year history (Aug.1 marks its birthday) it's astounding that no mass-market book has ever addressed the influence MTV exerts over music, fashion, culture and even politics. That is, until now, no mass-market book has attempted to address the influence.Pennsylvania journalist Tom McGrath (we're told in his bio that he's worked as an editor at New Jersey Monthly and Delaware Valley Magazine) has achieved what no other writer has been able to: publish a smart-looking book about MTV.That's where the accolades stop. McGrath's business-case-study masquerading as a coffee-table-book masquerading as a post-1981 history-of-pop-culture is about as far from what the public deserves in a book about MTV as can be imagined.MTV: The Making of a Revolution spends its first 164 of 205 pages talking about the business dealings and employee shuffling that marked the channel's first six years. It then tries to encapsulate the ensuing nine years -- arguably some of the channel's most successful -- into 41 pages. The business going on behind the scenes at MTV Networks was rarely as exciting as what was being beamed into millions of homes every day, but that's what McGrath chooses to focus his attention on. It would make for an interesting cover story in Inc. or Forbes, but the way his publisher dresses the book up makes it seem like something it's not (literally half of the photos lining the pages are of past and present MTV executives).Where is the chapter on how journalist Kurt Loder (and his producers at MTV News: Linda Corradina and Dave Sirulnick) gave respect to a previously laughable "news" division? MTV News has consistently bucked network broadcasting trends, showing among other things: some of the best reporting on far-right hate groups, religious cults and sexual issues, uncensored Gulf War footage and some of the most incisive political reporting in a generally tepid journalistic pool.References to pop-culture landmarks like Beavis and Butt-head and The Real World are relegated to a two-page section late in the book, while mention of landmark projects that would have had little success were it not for the channel -- Band Aid and USA For Africa come to mind -- were completely absent.McGrath is a literary journalist. He skillfully makes the reader feel as though they are sitting there during some of the most important decision-making sessions in the history of MTV. But in writing this book he seems to have completely lost sight of the audience that MTV services. Out of more than 630 indexed references at the back of McGrath's woefully short book, less than 50 refer to musicians. And you wanna hear who some of those indexed musicians are? The Beatles, Elton John, Marvin Gaye, Olivia Newton John and Pete Townsend. MTV pioneers, each and every one of them.Nowhere in McGrath's book are some of the hottest video artists of those 15 years even mentioned including U2, Aerosmith, Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, Nirvana, Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg. McGrath can't even spell some of their names right, get the name of the artist's song right, or put the right musician with the right band (It's MC Lyte, not Lite, John Cougar Mellencamp's "Pink Houses," not "Little Pink Houses" and Dave Mustaine plays with Megadeth, not Metallica).And when he recreates some of the social occasions that mark the channel's history -- farewell, birthday and anniversary parties -- he almost always makes some veiled, neo-humorous reference to the drug use that went on along with all the boozing. Lines like "They all downed plenty of tequila and champagne and maybe even a few other substances" and "A few even put some illegal substances into their systems," are completely irrelevant unless the writer wants to elaborate. It was the '80s, people did drugs. Enough said.McGrath is an able writer, and obviously did a lot of research to complete this book. But for nearly as long as MTV has been around, it's been notorious in journalism circles for its impenetrable employee core - the channel's offices have been likened to a hermetically sealed tank for which journalists are denied entry. So if you decide to read this book, remember, the only thing you're paying for is a lot of research and some fairly good writing; there's no information here that hasn't been written before or that you couldn't probably track down yourself.