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I want my MTV and the videos that defined dance music for a generation

“I want my MTV” croons the emaciated voice of Sting on the back of the 1985 Dire Straits single “Money for Nothing.” It was an iconic moment not just for the Dire Straits, who had cleaned up in the charts that year with the song, but also the television channel which birthed the phrase. “I want my MTV” was the original slogan for MTV when it was launched some four years earlier and by the time Sting had wrapped his lips around the phrase it had become the ubiquitous chant of a generation that were changing the face of how we consumed music. 

By 1985 the Buggels’ prophetic words that launched the channel had become a reality when  “video killed the radio star” and a whole generation stowed their radios in some dank corner of an unused closet and glued themselves to a screen for most of their waking adolescent life. “You would never look at music in the same way again” proclaimed MTV and they were right… at least for a while. 

From the iconic videos like Michael Jackson’s Thriller (yes the video is still iconic if the man might not be) to original programming like Beavis and Butthead, MTV played a fundamental role in the cultural development of its youthful audience, all based solely on the new media music, the music video… and some key catch phrases like “I am conrholio!”

Through the pre-reality tv life of MTV, the music video has become an artform in itself and from the avant garde Talking Heads videos to the urban documentaries of Hip Hop artists like Snoop Dog and NWA, the music video was so integral to the music, that for the longest time the one couldn’t seem to exist without the other.  

Originally intended exclusively for rock music, MTV couldn’t resist the trappings and commercial success of pop music and very early on reformatted to include all forms of music, much to the future generations’ benefit in fact. Eventually their programming forked off into dedicated shows for certain genres of music like Headbangers Ball and Yo MTV, before becoming their own fully fledged channels like MTV 2 and MTV Base. 

 

We didn’t start the fire  

By the time the mid-nineties rolled over and the doom of Y2K loomed ever closer a new kind of music started bubbling to the surface from somewhere deep beyond a subculture. House, Techno, Trance, Electro et al, which had been the preserve of dark dingy nightclubs at the base of sprawling metropoles, had already started making an impact on clandestine pirate stations and late-night radio programmes, but by the mid nineties it had started to inform popular culture. MTV was one of the first to document the strange phenomenon called rave interviewing the likes of West Bam and Moby well before any mainstream audience had even heard of the term Rave.

By the mid nineties we needed a catch all term for this new form of music and electronic dance music had been coined. The term had a pragmatic beauty and refined logic to it that not only described the music, but eventually become a genre in itself (although it would be slightly bastardised version of it). Back in the mid nineties however, electronic dance music would be used to describe any form of electronic music made from drum machines and synthesisers for the sake of dancing and would incorporate everything from Drum n Bass to Acid Techno, but it would be all these elements converged where this new form of music would reach the height of its popularity and for this writer it’s all down to one group, one song and one mesmerising video. 

For every artist and DJ of my generation I speak to there is one catalyst, one crucial point of reference that binds us in our musical history and that is Prodigy’s Firestarter. But it’s not just the group the track or even the LP, Fat of the Land that connects us, but its music video. Firestsarter will always be impregnated on our collective psyche as the nexus for a passion for electronic beat music that has endured ever since, and it’s all down to that video.   

From the moment the image of Keith Flint blurs into focus, drunkenly swaying in some underground dungeon, formerly the Aldwych tube station, there was something about the music and imagery that immediately resonated with an alternative kind of music fan. Jaunty guitars, big brauling beats, punkish vocals, and a lysergic bass movement all played perfectly against the monochrome underground dystopia of the video, making the music video as iconic as the song and its central figure, Keith Flint ,the music icon he was always meant to be. 

With elements of Drum n Bass, Rock, Acid and Jungle all informing the Prodigy’s sound at that time, it’s music that spoke to a wide audience as something familiar, but also incredibly unique. It was provocative and edgy, the type of thing that would send your parents into a spiral when it came on, but for reasons unknown to them. There was no cursing or anything inflammatory (pun intended) about the song in itself and the video was just a guy dancing in tunnel, but it’s the implications of it that put your parents at edge, so it also became a special torture mechanism for the know-it-all teenager looking for catalyst to rebel – and for those daring amongst us a Keith Flint hairstyle might just have completely pushed them over the edge.

You could tell at the time that even MTV were perplexed as to where to schedule Firestarter. At first it would only be shown well after the watershed on some late night programming and then later it would also appear in the middle of the day, when kids returned home from school. It could also be in one of the chart shows, at the same time as being on one of the alternative channels and I vaguely remember it appearing out of context on one of the rock shows, sandwiched between Metallica and Foo Fighters. Later even mom and dad would be chiming along in some bad conckey drawl of the main refrain. 

It opened up a doorway into electronic music for an entire generation, that first saw us digging back to the Prodigy experience, and then further left into acts like KLF and Orbital before eventually arriving at Jeff Mills and Frankie Knuckles. 

 

This is going to make you Freak

Before the Prodigy, in the early to mid nineties Rock and especially Grunge dominated MTV’s programming giving birth to the lauded MTV unplugged show which went on to memorialise Kurt Cobain and Nirvana, and probably in some way laid the groundwork for MTV’s alternative programming that led to a track to Firestarter’s broad appeal. 

At that point House was being picked up by major labels and went a little too pedestrian for the likes of MTV’s “edgy” programming. Techno like always was enjoying an underground success through the second wave of Detroit producers, but still a little too obscure for the likes of popular tv. It was only when Firestarter came to MTV that electronic music really started to make a true impact on the programming.

For a young teenager growing up in suburban South Africa where electronic music had been ubiquitous for a long time – even the drive-time jocks had their own Formula1-inspired Techno track (I kid you not) on the charts – it wasn’t particularly a new development but it did introduce me to a world of electronic music I would remain ignorant to if it had not been for MTV. 

The SABC (South Africa’s national broadcasting coeporation) with its conservative nationalist agenda, both before and after apartheid, controlled the radio airwaves and very rarely siphoned music from the outer fringes of popular culture into their programming. When the very real, and sometimes imagined, perils of life outside of the house is ingrained into the fabric of your society, the TV becomes your closest friend and by the time MTV came into our homes, some 15 years on from when it was launched, any local TV or radio just wouldn’t suffice. 

In places like Africa and post-soviet era Eastern Europe at that time, only one MTV channel existed while the UK and USA and most of Europe already enjoyed at least MTV2. Some of MTV 2’s programming however would spill off into the late night programming for the African region and this is where we would first come face to face with Aphex Twin. Richard D James’ visage, superimposed on a small army of delinquent nymphs causing havoc on a council estate in the UK would forever keep a generation of us awake at night.  

Aphex Twin’s “Come to Daddy” and the video, directed by Chris Cunnigham, had set a new precedent in music videos. It was something we’d never seen before and accompanying music that was completely new and exciting for an adolescent mind craving something on the edge of provocation. Unlike “Firestarter” this would never attract the same kind of mainstream success but for a naïve young music nerd, it opened up a world to the avant garde of electronic music I and my generation didn’t even know existed before then, and we realised there is electronic dance music and then there is good electronic dance music.  

 

The puppet masters

Eventually the entire world of electronic music came knocking at MTV’s offices and what Aphex Twin and the Prodigy laid bare for electronic music videos, would inspire, encourage and in some way assist a few nascent electronic icons. Chris Cunnigham and Walter Stern’s DIY, punkish creative vision for Aphex Twin and Prodigy respectively became a visual contrast to slick music videos that would follow in their wake, but their existence was almost certainly the creative fertiliser for a new wave of artistic minds.

Shortly after the advent of music television, MTV would usher in a new era for the music video. Gone were the days of lip-syching in mock performance in front of a camera. The new format quickly demanded a more engaging form of entertainment and we entered an age of music videos as cinematic vignettes through the lens of future legendary auteurs. After the Buggles and Dire Straits’ stale performance-based videos, bold pieces like “Thriller,” “November Rain” and “Like a Prayer” set a new precedent or music videos, with narrative and cinematic visuals encapsulating the drama and intrigue that the music often failed to capture by itself. 

It set a visual precedent that would lead to MTV listing the name of the director in the title blurb, laying as much importance on the person behind the lens as in front of it. Coming into their own into this world, future household names like Hype Williams, Spike Jonze and Michael Bay would emerge through the music video medium with Hollywood beckoning just beyond that. 

One of the more exciting directors that would come out of this camp was Michel Gondry whose  filmography today includes Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Be Kind Rewind, but who had his start as a music video director and whose videos include that very famous lego block interpretation of “Fell in Love with a girl” from the White Stripes. There was one particular video however that would always enshrine the name Michel Gondry in the electronic music lexicon, and that was Daft Punk’s “Around the world.” 

Although Michel Gondry had already produced music videos for the likes of Björk ,the inherent charm and funkiness of “Around the World” as a song and a music video had gripped a generation. The faceless nature of electronic music and its artists who like Daft Punk tended to hide behind virtual and real masks in the introspective way of the music had given directors like Gondry complete creative license and they delivered some of the most stimulating and effective visuals for this very repetitive music. 

Robots and skeletons climbing staircases to nowhere, dancing around a central disc of mummies, made some literal connection to the title of the song, but also reflected the mesmerising effect of staring at a record on a deck. It was absolutely transfixing and it set a high artistic standard for music videos that would follow in its footsteps. In that rare anomaly that contains a director and musician, Mr. Ozio would arrive in that French filter House world shortly after, pulling at the strings of Flat Eric for his now iconic video and track, Flat Beat.

Quentin Dupieux (aka Mr. Ozio) had initially created the puppet, Eric for a famous Levis advertising campaign, but it would be the image Flat Eric head-banging in his office chair that would live on in infamy through the video for “Flat Beat.” Would Mr. Ozio or “Flat Beat” ever be as popular were it not for his yellow hand-puppet creation? That’s a question mulled very often and always leans tentatively to … no. You can buy a Flat Eric puppet today for your infant or your own adolescent whims and I daresay it probably sells better than the recent re-issue of the original record, but the two would go hand in hand in making the song “Flat Beat” the icon it remains to be today. 

There really weren’t any rules during this time for how a music video should look or act. From Groove Armada’s Superstylin’ aliens looking for a venue for their party, to Benny Benassi’s ridiculous, but satisfying DIY building  routine, electronic music was making for some entertaining TV, and even though the music would get a bit cheesy, you would still watch it merely for the entertainment value of the video itself. You could always flick the mute button on Benassi’s saw tooth cacophony…

 

Superstar DJ, here we go  

While artists like Daft Punk would have certainly made a severe impact on the electronic music scene regardless, MTV played some integral part in making them stars and household names. Even your Dad who scurried for the remote every time Firestarter came on, was now awkwardly trying to mimic Christopher Walken in Fatboy’s Slim’s Weapon of Choice or getting the lyrics completely wrong to Moby’s Natural Blues. 

When electronic dance music went mainstream and in the age of the superstar DJ, inflated egos and big budgets had made serious claims on MTV’s daily programming to a point where it would almost be dominated either by the stone-faced Christopher Walken, dancing through a hotel lobby or an angelic Christina Ricci floating around an empty hospital corridor with an incapacitated, ageing Moby in her arms. 

But as MTV drifted further into the banality of the “real world” and reality tv programming started to dominate and then completely do away with the music video, even these big budget pompous affairs would be a welcomed addition in our daily media intake. You can still watch these videos on YouTube of course, but new electronic music very rarely produces the same standard of videos, and as such the music videos impact has waned, and the music has to do all the heavy lifting now. 

Very often their little more than a looping gif intended to take you to the digital record store that sells them, and they don’t hold much of your attention for the duration of the track. While a lot of electronic music has certainly improved since MTV’s golden era for electronic dance music and there is certainly more music accessible through social media and the Internet, it’s something we don’t see much of today, which makes the era of electronic music on music television such an important time and place for a lot of music enthusiasts of my generation. It was our doorway to this music and don’t think we’ll ever see the likes of it again.