Watch David Bowie Take MTV to Task for Failing to Play Music Videos by Black Artists (1983)

The old vaude­ville phrase “Will it play in Peo­ria?” has its roots in the late 19th cen­tu­ry, specif­i­cal­ly in Hor­a­tio Alger’s nov­el Five Hun­dred Dol­lars; Or Jacob Marlowe’s SecretLike all of the books Alger wrote extolling the virtues of thrift, study, groom­ing, indus­try, etc., this one artic­u­lates a mid­dle Amer­i­can boot­straps phi­los­o­phy and rags-to-rich­es mythol­o­gy, while giv­ing the enter­tain­ment indus­try a col­or­ful way to sum up the small-town audi­ences who embraced Alger’s straight-laced eth­ic, and who need­ed to be pan­dered to or they wouldn’t get all those big city jokes and ref­er­ences.

Peo­ria has been many places in the U.S.—from Tul­sa to Boise—but what­ev­er the test mar­ket, the assump­tions have always been the same: the Amer­i­can main­stream is insu­lar, mid­dle class or aspir­ing to it, cul­tur­al­ly con­ser­v­a­tive, unfail­ing­ly white, and fear­ful of every­one who isn’t. Such demo­graph­ic dog­ma has per­sist­ed for over a hun­dred years. Even when it is shown to be out­mod­ed or plain wrong, broad­cast­ers and jour­nal­ists con­tin­ue to play to Peo­ria, gen­u­flect­ing to a sta­t­ic, pop­ulist ver­sion of the U.S. that ignores large, rapid­ly chang­ing seg­ments of the pop­u­la­tion.

In the ear­ly eight­ies it took an Eng­lish­man with a very high pro­file to inter­ro­gate this state of affairs on the air. You may have seen the inter­view mak­ing the rounds in 2016, after David Bowie passed away and social media began sev­er­al months of mourn­ing and memo­ri­al­iz­ing. One thread that got a lot of atten­tion involved the tran­script of a 1983 inter­view Bowie gave the fledg­ling MTV, in which he “turns the tables on reporter Mark Good­man,” writes Takepart’s Jen­nifer Swann, “to grill him about the youth-ori­ent­ed network’s lack of eth­nic diver­si­ty.”

“It’s a sol­id enter­prise, and it’s got a lot going for it,” says Bowie. “I’m just floored by the fact there’s so few black artists fea­tured in it. Why is that?” On the spot, Good­man reach­es for a mar­ket­ing term, “nar­row­cast­ing,” to sug­gest that the net­work is delib­er­ate­ly tar­get­ing a niche. But when Bowie keeps push­ing, Good­man admits that the “nar­row” demo­graph­ic is the very same sup­posed mass mar­ket that exist­ed in Alger’s day, when the only rep­re­sen­ta­tions of black enter­tain­ers most white audi­ences in Peo­ria (or wher­ev­er) saw were in black­face.

We have to try and do what we think not only New York and Los Ange­les will appre­ci­ate, but also Pough­keep­sie or the Mid­west. Pick some town in the Mid­west that would be scared to death by Prince, which we’re play­ing, or a string of oth­er black faces, or black music. We have to play music we think an entire coun­try is going to like, and cer­tain­ly we’re a rock and roll sta­tion.

What does the Isley broth­ers, asks Good­man, mean to a sev­en­teen year old? To which Bowie replies, “I’ll tell you what the Isley Broth­ers means to a black sev­en­teen year old, and sure­ly he’s part of Amer­i­ca as well.” To the defense that it’s just way things are, espe­cial­ly in radio, he gives a reply that might be derid­ed by many in the ready­made terms that rou­tine­ly pop up in such dis­cus­sions these days. Bowie, who suc­cess­ful­ly crossed over into play­ing for black audi­ences on Soul Train in the mid-sev­en­ties, would have sneered at phras­es like “SJW.” As he says in response to one young fan who rant­ed in a let­ter about “what he did­n’t want to see” on MTV: “Well that’s his prob­lem.”

The Peo­ria effect, says Bowie, “does seem to be ram­pant through Amer­i­can media. Should it not be a chal­lenge to make the media far more inte­grat­ed, espe­cial­ly, if any­thing, in musi­cal terms?” The “lines are begin­ning to blur,” Good­man admits. At the end of that year, Michael Jackson’s John Lan­dis-direct­ed “Thriller” video debuted and “changed music videos for ever,” break­ing the prime­time bar­ri­ers for black artists on MTV, trans­form­ing the net­work “into a cul­tur­al behe­moth,” as Swann writes, and giv­ing the lie to the Peo­ria myth, one Bowie knew had lit­tle to do in actu­al­i­ty with the country’s cul­ture or its tastes but with a nar­row, archa­ic view of who the media should serve.

See Good­man’s full inter­view with Bowie just above.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

David Bowie Sings “Fame” & “Gold­en Years” on Soul Train (1975)

David Bowie and Cher Sing Duet of “Young Amer­i­cans” and Oth­er Songs on 1975 Vari­ety Show

David Bowie Becomes a DJ on BBC Radio in 1979; Intro­duces Lis­ten­ers to The Vel­vet Under­ground, Talk­ing Heads, Blondie & More

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (3) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (3)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Bill W. says:

    Bowie’s effort was in vain. MTV does­n’t play music videos any­more, regard­less of the artist’s skin-color…instead, they now ped­dle unwatch­able garbage!

  • Inky_beast says:

    Bowie was per­cep­tive and spot on, as usu­al. Too bad the media, and this coun­try as a whole, is still stuck on pan­der­ing to fright­ened yokels, just like Bowie points out here.

  • Roger Green says:

    I miss Bowie. He would have been 72 next month.
    Michael Jack­son broke MTV for black per­form­ers, in part, because Colum­bia Records said if you don’t play MJ, you don’t get any of our artists. It was not any enlight­en­ment by MTV.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.