MTV also reflected the worst about the ’80s. Throughout the early parts of the doc, MTV is clearly defined in its early years as a rock ’n’ roll music station. While that meant healthy doses of Guns N’ Roses and David Bowie, it also meant very little Earth, Wind & Fire or Rick James. The latter’s complaints about the lack of racial diversity on MTV are included in the documentary. But present-day MTV execs in the doc still attribute James’s frustrations to his having a personal gripe with MTV for choosing not to play his videos, even though other black entertainers had similar gripes.
One of MTV’s earliest personalities, Fab 5 Freddy, describes the racial disparity on MTV as “television apartheid” in the documentary. The very MTV show that made him famous—Yo! MTV Raps—was relegated to the zombie hour of 2 a.m. when it debuted in August 1988, because the channel didn’t believe in hip-hop. It was through the show’sdefying the odds and gaining immense popularity, even in the face of its obstacles, that MTV was almost forced to recognize hip-hop as worthy of attention.
This is a dark spot in MTV’s history, one the documentary doesn’t do the best job of fully explaining. The doc highlights David Bowie’s famous 1983 interview with MTV VJ Mark Goodman in which the artist flips the table and asks Goodman why more black artists aren’t played on MTV. A flabbergasted Goodman responded that MTV had to think about the kid in Poughkeepsie, New York, who may be “scared to death to see black faces like Prince.” That’s when the documentary goes into its most racially tone-deaf segment in which the execs break down how MTV somewhat helped finance and make Michael Jackson’s epochal “Thriller” music video, the first TV event for a music video, before completely leaving the topic of MTV’s racially biased beginnings.
The doc, as well as the MTV execs interviewed, tries to use the inclusion of legendary hip-hop group Run-DMC’s music videos for their 1985 single “King of Rock” and their epic 1986 “Walk This Way” collaboration with Aerosmith as proof of a lack of racial bias. But there is no montage or dissection of a multitude of black artists featured on MTV, just Run-DMC and Michael Jackson, almost tokenizing if you compare them to the obscure white artists like REO Speedwagon they delve into. Not every black artist felt that way, though.
“The racism thing was… The only reason why Run-DMC got on MTV in the first place was because they had rock guitars on it. But Michael Jackson was already on there,” Darryl “DMC” McDaniels said during the post-screening discussion. “People don’t realize that the real pioneers, before rap records were made… Inside the typical crate of a DJ in the South Bronx were rock records. ‘Walk This Way’ was in there. Queen was in there. The Rolling Stones were in there.”
After a short segment on the issue of racism, the doc goes back to the glory days of MTV, highlighting the documentary’s biggest problem: brevity. An 86-minute run time doesn’t feel long enough to tell the story of MTV, and the doc completely skips over a key time in the channel’s history. The documentary paints MTV’s being acquired by Viacom in 1985 as losing its inherent essence and being almost a death of the original MTV. It doesn’t explore the TRL era, which, no matter how you view MTV, is as integral to its lasting legacy as any part.
So if you’re looking to see Carson Daly again or Eminem shut down Times Square by simply looking out the window in 2002, tough luck. However, if you want a fun yet flawed crash course on how the most disruptive TV channel in cable television history was born and nurtured, then I Want My MTV is required viewing whenever it is released.