20 MTV and the 1980s


Black and white MTV logo.
Figure 20.1 MTV Logo.

Listening Examples 20.1

MTV (Music Television) began as a TV channel devoted entirely to music. It has its origins in the dance shows and variety shows such as American Bandstand and the Ed Sullivan Show. Many performers were able to boost sales of their records by making appearances on television. The first program on MTV was aired in August 1981 and began showing music videos, live concerts, and interviews with artists and bands. Artists appearing on MTV saw their record sales expand dramatically as a result, and MTV became the new venue for music promotion. The channel catered to the popular tastes of Americans, and artists such as Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, and Prince greatly expanded their careers through appearances and videos on MTV.

Michael Jackson

Photographic image of Michael Jackson holding up his hand wearing a sparkly suit, white gloves, a yellow sash, and sunglasses.
Figure 20.2 Michael Jackson in 1984.

Michael Jackson (1958-2009) was a member of the Jackson 5 at Motown Records as a child. By the early 1980s he had established himself as a successful solo artist. With his album Thriller he appeared in numerous music videos which were broadcast on MTV. The video for the song “Thriller” (Ch. 20 Listening Examples) is one of the most memorable and successful videos from the early years of MTV. It is 13 minutes long, with the music only taking up part while the rest plays out like a miniature scary movie. The song itself features simple bass lines, danceable rhythms, and gospel0influenced vocals. With the aid of MTV success, Jackson became an even bigger star. His album Thriller went on to become the biggest selling album of all time. It was No. 1 for 37 weeks spawned multiple No. 1 singles.

The song “Bille Jean” was the second single from Thriller and spent 7 weeks at No. 1 on the pop charts. Using a simple and danceable beat and a familiar form, the song was catchy and memorable. Formally, the song uses a standard song form with a twist. It’s verse-chorus form with an extra section between the verse and the chorus called  a “prechorus” that serves to build the tension up, resolving the tension as we arrive in the chorus. Notice in the audio excerpts below, the effect the prechorus has on building musical and lyrical tension. This is resolved once we reach the chorus. The version with the prechorus removed has a distinct lack of tension and release, illustrating the importance of its place in the song.

Below: Excerpt of the first verse, prechorus, and chorus (follow along with the lyrics below)

Below: same excerpt with the prechorus removed (the prechorus normally happens at :45 into the excerpt)

She was more like a beauty queen from a movie scene
I said don’t mind, but what do you mean, I am the one
Who will dance on the floor in the round?
She said I am the one, who will dance on the floor in the round
She told me her name was Billie Jean, as she caused a scene
Then every head turned with eyes that dreamed of being the one
Who will dance on the floor in the round
People always told me be careful of what you do
And don’t go around breaking young girls’ hearts
And mother always told me be careful of who you love
And be careful of what you do ’cause the lie becomes the truth
Billie Jean is not my lover
She’s just a girl who claims that I am the one
But the kid is not my son
She says I am the one, but the kid is not my son

With the release of Bad (1987) Jackson broke his own record by having five No. 1 singles. By the early 1990s, Jackson’s career began to suffer due to allegations of child abuse. None of the allegations were proven in a court of law nor was he ever convicted, and the cases were settled out of court. As a result of these allegations and a lack of conclusive evidence either way, his career and the public’s perception of him were considerably affected. His appearance was consistently changing, speculated to be due to plastic surgeries. He may have also had problems with anorexia and drug addictions, which likely contributed to his early death in 2009. Whatever personal problems he had, Michael Jackson was always a highly respected and influential performer and member of the popular music world. Throughout his career he was honored with numerous music awards including 13 Grammy awards.

Listening Examples 20.2

Michael Jackson:


Photographic image of Prince performing.
Figure 20.3 Prince.

Prince Rogers Nelson (1958-2016) was an artist whose career and art featured a blend of styles, multi-faceted talents, and was greatly helped by airplay on MTV. His brand of popular music involved the melding of soul and funk with more commercial elements. His music combines funk, rock, rap, disco, and new wave, and much of it toys with eroticism. His album Dirty Mind was too explicit to receive radio airplay, yet his music managed to attract a large audience. Prince’s first top ten album was 1999 (1982) which reached No. 6 on the pop charts. The project Purple Rain (1984) included an album, a film, and a concert tour and it established Prince as a major star. Five hit singles were released, it won three Grammy awards, and won an Oscar for best original score. In the 1990s Prince changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol, but by 2000 had gone back to Prince. He passed away in 2016.

The opening song from Purple Rain is a prime example of Prince’s blend of danceable rhythm, catchy melody, and standard song form (compare it to “Billie Jean” above). There is a brief exclamatory section where Prince sings “Are we gonna let the elevator bring us down? Oh no let’s go!”, that can either be seen as a “prechorus” or as the final segment of the verse. Lyrically, it’s less controversial than some of his music.

If you don’t like the world you’re living in
Take a look around you
At least you got friends

You see I called my old lady
For a friendly word
She picked up the phone
Dropped it on the floor
“Uh! uh!” was all I heard

Are we gonna let the elevator
Bring us down
Oh, no Let’s Go!

Let’s go crazy!
Let’s get nuts!
Let’s look for the purple banana
‘Til they put us in the truck, let’s go!

Listening Examples 20.3



Madonna wearing a bright red dress.
Figure 20.4 Madonna

Madonna (Born Madonna Louise Ciccone, 1958) became one of the most popular performers of the 1980s with much of her success a result of MTV video exposure. With a background in dance, much of her music was dance oriented, but also prone to controversy either from her challenge to sexual taboos through eroticism (similar to Prince) or her social commentary (see “Papa Don’t Preach” below). Her debut album Madonna (1983) included a number of hit singles including some “Lucky Star” and “Holiday” (featured in Listening Examples 20.4). “Holiday” contains similar musical features as we’ve seen with Michael Jackson and Prince: danceable beats, polished productions, and standard song forms. This song in particular is longer than the average radio hit. This perhaps relates to disco as many disco recordings were longer and were meant to be heard in dance clubs.  Madonna’s debut album was followed by a succession of hit albums and singles. She also began a career as a movie star with her lead role in Desperately Seeking Susan (1985). Much of her music uses synthesizers and synthesized orchestras, and electronic drumbeats. Like Prince, Madonna employed eroticism with her music and especially the dancing in her performances. She consistently created controversy, sparking criticism among conservative and religious Americans.

The music video for “Papa Don’t Preach” (Ch. 20 Listening Examples) follows the form of the song, which happens to be Verse-Chorus form. From her 3rd album True Blue (1986) the song was a No. 1 single. The verse section which is the primary source of the narrative, shows Madonna as a daughter of a conservative father and meeting a young man, while the chorus (the “Papa don’t preach” section) switches to a stark black set with Madonna dancing and singing, removed from the narrative. Lyrically, the song addresses teen pregnancy and the asserting of a young woman’s independence form a male authority figure. Some critics said the song encouraged teen pregnancy though if you listen to the lyrics beyond the surface details this accusation doesn’t quite hold up.

Bruce Springsteen

Black and white photo of Bruce Springsteen (center) and the E Street Band (behind him).
Figure 20.5 Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.

Bruce Springsteen (Born 1949) began his career in the 1970s but he gained worldwide fame when his music videos were shown on MTV. Springsteen’s music developed out of experimenting with many different rock styles, using rockabilly, rhythm and blues, folk rock, garage rock, and more. Lyrically, much of his music displays compassion for the underprivileged and for the working class, average American. Signed to Columbia records in 1972, he released his first album in 1973 in a folk rock style. His second album featured some of the members of what would become Springsteen’s backing band, the E Street Band.





Listening Examples 20.4


Bruce Springsteen:


R.E.M. formed in Atlanta, Georgia in 1980 by Michael Stipe (vocals), Peter Buck (guitar), Mike Mills (bass) and Bill Berry (drums). They combined punk, new wave, southern rock, the minimal textures and drones of the Velvet Underground, and other genres. The resulting sound is noted as one of the earliest examples of “alternative rock”. The band’s early sound was unique; the four instrumentalists blended into a very homogenous sound where the vocals mix with the instruments instead of sound separate from them (See “radio Free Europe, Ch. 20 Listening Examples). Peter Buck’s guitar style is a distinctive “jangly” sound, influenced by the sounds of the Beatles and the Byrds.

Later on Stipe’s vocals became more central and the band expanded their use of instruments to things such as the mellotron, mandolin, pedal steel guitar, and horns (See “Losing My Religion, Ch. 20 Listening Examples). Drummer Bill Berry left the group in 1997, and R.E.M. brought in new members to add to the sound. They broke up in 2011.


Color photo of U2 performing live.
Figure 20.6 U2.

U2 formed in Dublin, Ireland in 1976 while the members were teenagers. The members are Bono (vocals), the Edge (guitar), Adam Clayton (bass), and Larry Mullin (drums). They grew up listening to New York punk groups, but also incorporated the rhythm and blues style of Irishman Van Morrison, the social concerns of Bruce Springsteen, and the use of electronics to fill out their sound. They emerged in the 1980s as spokespersons for “peace and optimism” in their music and lyrics. Many of their songs called for peace both personal and political. The guitar style of the Edge is highly distinctive through his use of delay effects that help fill out the sound with a unique ambiance.

As mentioned above, part of the unique sound of U2 is the atmospheric guitar playing of The Edge. One element to his sound is the double delay sound in which he employs two electronic delay units, both of which echo each note he plays. These two units are synchronized to create interesting rhythmic patterns that help drive the music and fill out the sound. In Ch. 20 Listening Examples, I demonstrate this in a video, playing with one delay unit first, then two. Then, I improvise with the 2 delay units for a while.

The Police

Color photo of the Police performing live.
Figure 20.7 The Police.

The Police formed in 1977 in London with Sting (bass, vocals), Andy Summer (guitar) and Stewart Copeland (drums). Their music combined the beats and bass lines of reggae and ska with punk and new wave influences and pop as well. The unique vocal style of Sting was influenced by reggae. Andy Summer created a unique atmospheric guitar style influenced by jazz and the drumming of Stewart Copeland was highly sophisticated, being influenced by “world music” styles such as African drumming. They paid homage to their reggae influence with the title of their second album released in 1979, Reggatta de Blanc which means “white reggae”. With their final album Synchronicity (1983) they left behind much of the reggae influence in favor of a more produced sound, more liberal use of synthesizers, and touches of world music. The group broke up 1986 and Sting had a highly successful solo career. They reunited in 2007-2008 for a tour.

One of the group’s most powerful songs, “King of Pain”, is essentially a meditation on depression and despair. With interesting rhythmic lines from the guitar, bass and drums, the backdrop is polyrhythmic. Formally the song features a typical song form (try to ID it) with the inclusion of a “Bridge” section (in green text) to break up the feel.


There’s a little black spot on the sun today
It’s the same old thing as yesterday
There’s a black hat caught in the high tree top
There’s a flag pole rag and the wind won’t stop
I have stood here before inside the pouring rain
With the world turning circles running ’round my brain
I guess I’m always hoping that you’ll end this reign
But it’s my destiny to be the king of pain
There’s a little black spot on the sun today, that’s my soul up there
It’s the same old thing as yesterday, that’s my soul up there
There’s a black hat caught in a high tree top, that’s my soul up there
There’s a flag pole rag and the wind won’t stop, that’s my soul up there
I have stood here before inside the pouring rain
With the world turning circles running ’round my brain
I guess I’m always hoping that you’ll end this reign
But it’s my destiny to be the king of pain
There’s a fossil that’s trapped in a high cliff wall, that’s my soul up there
There’s a dead salmon frozen in a waterfall, that’s my soul up there
There’s a blue whale beached by a springtide’s ebb, that’s my soul up there
There’s a butterfly trapped in a spider’s web, that’s my soul up there
I have stood here before inside the pouring rain
With the world turning circles running ’round my brain
I guess I’m always hoping that you’ll end this reign
But it’s my destiny to be the king of pain
There’s a king on a throne with his eyes torn out
There’s a blind man looking for a shadow of doubt
There’s a rich man sleeping on a golden bed
There’s a skeleton choking on a crust of bread
There’s a red fox torn by a huntmen’s pack, that’s my soul up there
There’s a black winged gull with a broken back, that’s my soul up there
There’s a little black spot on the sun today
It’s the same old thing as yesterday
I have stood here before inside the pouring rain
With the world turning circles running ’round my brain
I guess I’m always hoping that you’ll end this reign
But it’s my destiny to be the king of pain
King of pain
King of pain, king of pain, I always be king of pain


Glam Metal and “Hair Bands”

Color photo of Poison performing live.
Figure 20.8 Poison.

The androgynous hairdos and makeup of glitter rock began appearing in heavy metal with groups such as Motley Crue, Poison, Twisted Sister, and others. These groups were primarily located in Los Angeles. In contrast to other heavy metal, the songs were often about drinking, partying, and girls which gave the heavy sound a lighter image. Additionally these groups became known as “hair bands” because of their extravagant hair styles. Poison’s drummer was actually their hairdresser.

Poison had numerous hits in the 1980s with songs like “Nothin‘ But a Good Time” and the ballad “Every Rose Has It’s Thorns”. The group’s music was a mixture of the heavy sounds of metal bands like Iron Maiden and Judas Priest with lyrics about girls, parties, and other “joyful” topics. Motley Crue was another glam metal group that sang of their hedonistic lifestyles (which they truly lived) and had a party image. These bands were the most popular in rock music throughout the second half of the 1980s. However, once grunge music began gaining popularity in the early 1990s, the decadent and happy glam metal began losing it’s popularity. 

Examine the lyrical excerpt to “Nothin’ But a Good Time” below and try to identify the form based on what we’ve seen with regard to song form in the 1980s.

Not a dime, I can’t pay my rent
I can barely make it through the week
Saturday night I’d like to make my girl
But right now I can’t make ends meet
I’m always workin’ slavin’ every day
Gotta get a break from that same old same old
I need a chance just to get away
If you could hear me think this is what I’d say
Don’t need nothin’ but a good time
How can I resist
Ain’t lookin’ for nothin’ but a good time
And it don’t get better than this
They say I spend my money on women and wine
But I couldn’t tell you where I spent last night
I’m really sorry about the shape I’m in
I just like my fun every now and then
I’m always workin’ slavin’ every day
Gotta get a break from that same old same old
I need a chance just to get away
If you could hear me think this is what I’d say
Don’t need nothin’ but a good time
How can I resist
Ain’t lookin’ for nothin’ but a good time
And it don’t get better than this


Listening Examples 20.5


The Police: “Roxanne” by The Police. Notice the influence of reggae on the music through the use of hesitation beats accented in the guitar. Sting’s voice has a light and airy quality to it, with the pronunciation of words influenced by Jamaican artists.

Poison: The video for “Nothin’ But a Good Time” by Poison. The music is heavy, but lacks the type of aggression of other types of hard rock or heavy metal such as Metallica, with catchy, upbeat vocal hooks and lyrics. The tempo is slower than other heavy musical styles of the 1980s like Metallica or Slayer, making the music more suitable for dancing. The video is typical for hair metal bands with a variety of outlandish outfits and hairdos, lots of flashing colored lights, and sudden, quick camera changes.

Digital Delay or Echo


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