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1984: The Year MTV Peaked – U2, Prince, The Police, Madonna and Michael Jackson

…this is the opening salvo in our new :]FuturePast[: series: a look at the past through the eyes of future generations, re-immersion in events and feelings of other times and other worlds.



(editor’s note: this is the opening salvo in our new :]FuturePast[: series: a look at the past through the eyes of future generations, re-immersion in events and feelings of other times and other worlds.)

George Orwell, author of “1984” – Montage / Lynxotic / Medium

Setting the Stage: 1983

It’s 1983. Cable TV is in it’s infancy. The Macintosh is still barely a glint in Steve Jobs’ eye. MTV is one-and-a-half years into it’s lifespan. FM Radio is the well established “4k of audio” and signals are received on home stereo systems (and in cars)…

Video of the original MTV countdown to launch from 1981. NASA public domain footage was used, partially for budgetary considerations…

A music video is in heavy rotation on the known but not yet omnipresent 24 hour “video jukebox”. Four odd scruffy characters buried under overcoats ride on horseback through a barren winter landscape as if on some 19th century scouting mission in a Scandinavian war. This is U2 1983, still not well known in the USA. That will change, as will so much else in the next 18 Months.

The clip played heavily on MTV in January, 1983 – U2: New Year’s Day

MTV began, in essence, as a way to produce low budget content, “promo videos clips”, paid for by record labels, and broadcast them to create the first ever TV-Radio fusion station.

In keeping with the FM Radio vibe, VJ’s like Nina Blackwell, Mark Goodman and Martha Quinn would introduce each clip, radio style, and each came mainly with a Radio-DJ background and experience.

Although the station was primarily oriented towards Hard Rock initially, which was also an FM Radio staple, things began to change drastically in 1983. For example, the video for Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”, already a radio hit since its release in January, was also added into heavy rotation in late March 1983 on MTV.

Followed by “Beat It” which conveniently (for MTV audiences) featured a guitar solo from Eddie Van Halen, and the crossover into a broader music mix began.

“Every Breath You Take” from The Police was also in heavy rotation in 1983 leading the commercial wing of the post punk “New Wave”.

Prince’s “Little Red Corvette” along with videos from Eddy Grant (“Electric Avenue”), Donna Summer (“She Works Hard For The Money”) and Herbie Hancock (“Rock-it”) solidified the initial transition to a more inclusive music / video mix:


By the beginning of 1984 MTV had already achieved a status of major music industry influence toward making and breaking the hits. Among the general public the station’s output was consumed almost as a first “National Radio Station” for the USA. A radio station that just happened to broadcast from your cable TV and included video clips along with the tracks.

More often than not, going to a party at that time meant MTV blasting at high volume from a stereo system (cleverly attached to the cable box’s output) with the videos unwatched somewhere on a connected TV. Although flat screens were still a distant future dream, projection TV could increase the screen size (though not the resolution) of the signal.

FM Radio playlists mirrored that of MTV and vice versa. From the peak in 1984 MTV maintained a video clip heavy playlist until 1995 when videos were gradually pushed out by “reality shows” and other programming.

After the success, in both unit sales and radio / MTV airplay, of Prince’s LP “1999”, released on October 27, 1982, his next project would fully integrate video and film with his songs and performances.

Price was about to explode onto the world stage in 1984. In collaboration with Albert Magnoli (director for the feature film “Purple Rain”), and even taking directing credits himself for his “When Doves Cry” video, a barrage of both traditional radio hits, a feature film and multiple music video promos were released in well timed succession.

At the peak in the summer of 1984, price had the #1 Movie (“Purple Rain”), #1 Single, (“When Doves Cry”) and #1 LP, (“Purple Rain”), simultaneously. A feat that no one has replicated before or since. His income that year was rumored to be in the fifty million dollar range.

By the end of 1984 three twenty-six year olds, Madonna, Prince and Michael Jackson had established themselves at the top of pop, in large part due to MTV exposure and hit videos.

Coming in the next :]FuturePast[: installment: On January 22nd, 1984 this little TV commercial was shown at Super Bowl XVIII, announcing an odd little machine with big ambitions:

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