The History of MTV's Influence on Rock and Roll: A Timeline
If you follow the music industry, you know that MTV has had a profound effect on the tastes of their target audience. While this may not seem like a big deal, consider this: before MTV came along, most people cared very little about music videos. Sure, they might have caught one or two while channel surfing, but they weren’t something people sat down and watched. Once MTV launched in 1981, this all changed. Suddenly the primary way young people learned about new music was through watching short music videos on TV. Since that time, we’ve seen countless bands rise to stardom thanks in large part to their visual appeal and ability to put together an appealing music video for their latest single. This article takes a brief look at some of the most influential moments in rock history as it pertains to the impact of MTV and its flagship show "Unplugged."
1981: The Year That Changed Everything
1981 was a big year in the history of music. Apart from the release of Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall, it was also the year that the first music video was broadcast on MTV. This was a big deal for a few reasons. First, it meant that music would become a lot more accessible to people. Before MTV, music fans would go to concerts, buy albums, and listen to the radio. Now they could also see the music that they loved come to life right in their living room. The launch of MTV also meant that music videos became a big business. Before this, bands who wanted to make a music video had to pay for it out of their own pockets. Now, the networks who had signed them to contracts were footing the bill.
1983: MTV Launches “Unplugged”
While the origins of MTV lie in a quest to play music videos, their Unplugged series is all about musicians performing acoustic versions of their songs without the use of electricity. The first episode of Unplugged aired on July 29, 1993 and featured Irish folk musician Sinead O’Connor performing a cover of “Nothing Compares 2 U.” The song was written by Prince, who had originally recorded it as a soundtrack for the film “Moment by Moment.” The episode of Unplugged featuring O’Connor went on to become the most-watched show in MTV’s history. It is also credited with reviving O’Connor’s career after a public meltdown and obscenity-laced performance at a different MTV show.
1993: Nirvana Performs Unplugged and Changes Everything
Nirvana’s appearance on Unplugged made a huge impact on the music industry and the way people think about music. For one thing, the band’s choice of cover songs was incredible. They performed their own version of “Lake of Fire,” a song originally written for the “Dead Man Walking” soundtrack. They also performed a version of the “Unplugged” classic “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?”, which was originally written and performed by folk singer Leadbelly. The real impact of Nirvana’s Unplugged performance, however, came from the fact that a band so closely associated with loud, aggressive rock ‘n’ roll performed a set of songs that were so mellow. The album went on to become one of the best-selling albums of all time, and the show’s success helped make the “Unplugged” format so popular.
1996: Shania Twain Performs Unplugged and Becomes a Superstar
Even though she had already released two albums before performing on Unplugged, Shania Twain became a bona fide superstar after her life-changing performance on the show. Her episode of Unplugged aired on February 1, 1996, and featured Twain performing acoustic versions of her songs “You’re Still the One,” “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!”, and “From This Moment On.” Twain’s performance helped boost sales of her albums, and her albums went on to sell a total of 68 million copies. More importantly, it also helped to boost her popularity in the UK and Europe, which had previously overlooked her.
2000-2005: Rock Doesn't Matter, But MTV Does
The period between 2000 and 2005 was a strange one for TV and the music industry, particularly MTV. Back then, MTV was still showing videos and reruns of “The Real World.” However, it was also during this time that music videos started to fall out of favour in favour of reality shows, like “The Real World,” and unscripted dramas. This is perhaps best exemplified by MTV’s decision to put “Total Request Live” (TRL) in the same time slot as “Unplugged.” While this would seem like a death knell for a show like “Unplugged,” it actually helped to bring the show back into the public consciousness.
The history of MTV and the history of rock and roll are inextricably linked. While music videos first became popular during the 1980s, they continued to play a very important role in music throughout the following decades. And while MTV started off playing music videos, they also branched into reality shows and documentaries. The network is still around today, but it has changed and evolved considerably since it first aired. There’s no question that MTV has had a profound impact on the tastes of their target audience. While this may not seem like a big deal, consider this: before MTV came along, most people cared very little about music videos. Sure, they might have caught one or two while channel surfing, but they weren’t something people sat down and watched. Once MTV launched in 1981, this all changed. Suddenly the primary way young people learned about new music was through watching short music videos on TV. Since that time, we’ve seen countless bands rise to stardom thanks in large part to their visual appeal and ability to put together an appealing music video for their latest single.