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BLACK MUSIC MONTH: "THRILLER" AND
SOME "PUNISHING QUESTIONS" FOR MTV

In 1983, in the midst of promoting his album Let's Dance, British rock icon David Bowie decided to take MTV to task with some "punishing questions." In an interview with veejay Mark Goodman, Bowie asked why the network had largely neglected to play videos by black artists.

Goodman's attempt to navigate this uncomfortable terrain is telling, and serves as a prelude to the story of how things changed at the video network—and in pop culture at large—after Michael Jackson's Thriller. (Even so, every gatekeeper should reflect on the rationales offered nearly four decades ago and consider how much progress remains to be made.)

In the midst of an industry slump, CBS label head Walter Yetnikoff turned to Jackson, the former Motown child prodigy who had performed a minor miracle in 1979 by selling 8m copies of his solo Epic debut, Off the Wall. Yetnikoff begged Jackson and producer Quincy Jones to deliver a follow-up album before Christmas of 1982. That meant turning in the final mixes of the Thriller album by Thanksgiving. What happened next would become the stuff of legend. But first, a little backstory.

In 1981, as fledgling cable TV networks angled for subscribers, a few white former media and entertainment execs managed to convince some venture capitalists and a handful of major labels to support the idea of a 24/7 music-video station as a novel way to promote their artists. Music Television, aka MTV, kept its studios in New York, but first beamed content into rural and suburban heartland areas, where paying for cable channels was a way to improve general TV reception. The channel wouldn’t be accessible in New York or L.A. until 1982. 

Between 1981 and 1982, MTV wasn’t playing videos by black performers; artists from Miles Davis to Rick James complained publicly. Ralph McDaniels and Lionel C. Martin jumped into the breach in 1983 with the black-music-focused Video Music Box, via public station WNYC-TV. MTV wouldn’t establish its own hip-hop show until 1987, when it launched Yo! MTV Raps!

In 1983,Yetnikoff forced MTV to put Jackson on the air, threatening to cease all other business with the network if they refused. The big-budget “Thriller,” of course, would become the high-water mark for pop videos, with other clips from the album (notably the stunning “Billie Jean”) also dominating the network.

The floodgates then opened. Once Michael was on, it wasn’t long before Prince, Janet Jackson, and other moneymakers of color began to appear. There were still plenty of black videos rejected ostensibly for poor content or quality control, but it appeared that the final battle against “apartheid marketing” had been fought and won. 

Potential crossover records made by R&B artists could now fulfill their potential. The combination of MTV and Michael Jackson was not only the one-two commercial punch that began the resuscitation of the record industry, it effectively elevated all sufficiently popular black music into the Pop category for promotional purposes. Free at last.

It’s difficult to adequately convey how massive Michael Jackson became after the explosion of Thriller—until very recently the top-selling album of all time. But even the staggering sales, airplay stats and ticket revenues don’t sufficiently tell the story of his cultural domination. His songs, his videos, his moonwalk and his single-gloved style set the pace for the decade—and black music performed by black people would be recognized on sales and airplay charts as “pop music.” Jackson, meanwhile, would be crowned The King of Pop.

Stay tuned for much more BMM backstory

 

 

 

 

 

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