*The year was 1983.
David Bowie, who’d just released Let’s Dance, his fifteenth studio album, was being interviewed by Music Television (MTV) “Video Jockey” (VJ) Mark Goodman.
MTV had launched two years earlier, in 1981, and found a steadily increasing national viewing audience by playing the music videos of, almost exclusively, white rock artists and bands.
After the interview officially ended, Bowie, with cameras still recording a conversation that never aired, out of the blue asked Goodman why MTV didn’t play the videos of more Black artists. Listening to Goodman dance through his answers—both towing the company line and apparently espousing personal views—is as entertaining as it is disparaging.
Did I say 1983? Goodman’s explanation for why MTV didn’t play black music videos sounds more like 1943. Listen to the VJ say how he thinks a segment of the channel’s audience (read: white) perceives Prince.
I’m not saying there weren’t more major artists of the day asking MTV the pointed questions Bowie did; until this videotape unearthed in the wake of his succumbing to cancer this past Sunday (Jan 10th) at age 69, I didn’t know Bowie himself took this stance. However I do know that back in ’83, I never heard any white artists publicly denounce MTV’s double standard.
Black artists, on the other hand, complained loudly…among themselves. Most didn’t dare protest to MTV individually for fear of not ever getting on MTV. Rick James was the exception. When “Super Freak” didn’t make MTV’s playlist, he took his anger to the press.
James’s clip was turned down by Carolyn Baker, then MTV’s original head of Talent and Acquisition, who happens to be Black. According to Baker, who acknowledged playlist inequities at the channel, Motown could have done better than Rick’s cheaply produced video, which included scantily-clad Black women. If Baker had anything to do with it, the “Super Freak” clip was not going to be the first video on MTV representing Black people.
For his part, David Bowie was more than just a fan of Black music. His post-Ziggy Stardust forays into R&B/pop were real. Albums such as Young Americans—which featured a fledgling Luther Vandross on background vocals and as a co-writer with Bowie on the track “Fascination”–Station to Station, including the single “Golden Years” and Let’s Dance, produced by Chic’s Nile Rodgers, took Bowie’s music career to new commercial heights, introducing him to a demographic of all backgrounds that previously didn’t know him.
Bowie was one of the few white artists to perform on “Soul Train”. “Fame”, his funky 1975 hit, inspired none other than James Brown’s “Hot (I Need To Be Loved, Loved, Loved),” released later that same year (trivia: guitarist Carlos Alomar, who co-wrote “Fame” with Bowie and John Lennon and played on the track, also played with James Brown for a minute in the late ‘60s).
Despite his R&B-based successes, Bowie never stuck his chest out. In fact, it was he who labeled his funky efforts “plastic soul,” a depreciating reference to R&B-flavored pop made by whites. Bowie didn’t have anything to gain by calling MTV out on not playing the videos of Black artists; a rock god, they were going to play his work regardless.
It is ridiculous to suggest, as some have, that Bowie’s involvement with Somali-born Iman impacted his point of view with MTV, as he and the supermodel wouldn’t meet until almost a decade later.
Apparently Bowie grilled Goodman because of his love for Black music and respect for its artists, and because of what he viewed as an obvious injustice–a wrong that would only begin to be righted with the release of another video released in 1983: Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.”
MTV initially refused to air it, too, relenting–though the men who ran the channel back then continue to deny this–only when CBS Records (now Sony) threatened to pull all of its music videos from the channel. The popularity of “Billie Jean” and other black music clips would defy the pile of hooey Goodman sought to sell Bowie that day—-obviously MTV audiences dug watching all kinds of videos, not just those representing white rock.
During the MTV interview, note that Bowie is cool, collected and dynamic in his querying on the subject. The more he asks, the deeper the hole a flustered Goodman digs for himself. Bowie’s response at the end of the conversation is classic.
One of the hallmarks of martial arts is the use of an adversary’s own weight against him. Bowie’s conversation with Goodman is the verbal version of that.
Steven Ivory, veteran journalist, essayist and author, writes about popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio, TV and the Internet. Respond to him via [email protected]