Every few months, an infamous clip of legendary pop star David Bowie resurfaces showing him going after MTV for their racism during the '80s, when they largely refused to play Black music videos in an effort to appeal to white audiences.
The clip went viral again this weekend, reminding everyone of how openly bigoted the music channel was in its early days after launching in 1981.
In the 1983 interview, Bowie criticized MTV for refusing to play popular Black music while MTV host Mark Goodman defended the channel with his own brand of bigotry, claiming MTV couldn't just appeal to people in "New York and Los Angeles," and instead must try to appeal to people in Poughkeepsie and the Midwest.
"It occurred to me, having watched MTV over the past few months, that it's a solid enterprise and it's got a lot going for it. I'm just floored by the fact that so few Black artists are featured on it. Why is that," Bowie asked Goodman.
Goodman said the company was trying to "narrowcast" the music it was playing for a specific audience.
"That's evident," Bowie shot back. "It's evident in the fact that the only few Black artists that one does see are on about 2:30 in the morning to about six. Very few are featured predominantly during the day. I'll say that over the last couple of weeks these things have been changing but it's a slow process."
Goodman and an unseen producer denied Bowie's claim and said people's perceptions of the channel were only based on the few hours each day that they tuned in. Goodman denied that the channel was keeping Black artists off the air at certain times of the day.
But Bowie didn't back down, saying that on other Black stations he'd seen groundbreaking videos from Black artists.
"There seem to be a lot of Black artists making very good videos that I'm surprised aren't used on MTV," Bowie said.
"We have to try and do what we think not only New York and Los Angeles will appreciate but also Poughkeepsie or some town in the Midwest that will be scared to death by Prince, which we're playing, or a string of other Black faces and Black music," Goodman responded. "We have to play the music that we think an entire country will like."
Bowie immediately clocked the suggested racism in that statement, but Goodman continued, saying white teenagers wouldn't respond well to Black bands like The Isley Brothers or The Spinners and that Black music wouldn't mean as much to them.
"I'll tell you what maybe The Isley Brothers or Marvin Gaye mean to a Black 17-year-old, and surely he's part of America as well. Do you not find that it's a frightening predicament to be in?" Bowie asked.
Goodman then tried to shift blame to radio stations, which were also segregating music at the time.
"Is it not possible that it should be a conviction of the station and of other radio stations to be fair? It does seem to be rampant through American media. Should it not be a challenge to try and make the media far more integrated? Especially of anything in music," Bowie said.
Goodman responded by saying more white artists were starting to play Black music, which would allow MTV to start to mix in more Black music as genres melded together.
Then Goodman referenced a letter from a white teenager who said he didn't want to see Black music on MTV.
"Well that's his problem," Bowie said.
In 1983, when David Bowie got MTV together and asked them why weren't they playing Black artists >>>>> pic.twitter.com/rHavzF6kqA
— Morgan Jerkins (@MorganJerkins) January 4, 2021
People were surprised to see Bowie speak so candidly to and about MTV.
What’s crazy is MTV dude mentions Prince and not wanting to scare (the white is silent)people in Midwestern towns, as if Prince wasn’t a Black man from a Midwestern town. Also, that in the 80s he was still comfortable saying a bunch of Black faces on TV would scare white people.
— Ida Bae Wells (@nhannahjones) January 4, 2021
What I most appreciated is Bowie didn’t do what is so common, which is fold at the first excuse given. He kept pushing and it was amazing.
— Ida Bae Wells (@nhannahjones) January 4, 2021
Many online noted that Black people live all over the country, making Goodman's statements not only racist but wrong.
Midwesterners would be “scared to death by Prince” who was… a Midwesterner??
— ???????????????????? ???? (@Jezebirb) January 4, 2021
“Scared to death by…a string of other Black faces.”
I can’t even begin to dissect how racist that statement was. Also, he claims MTV was concerned about appealing to the “entire country” as a reason for excluding Black artists as if black viewers aren’t…part of the country. pic.twitter.com/7AuRqgp93B
— JC Chasez’s Thug Appeal (@Robert_Leon_90) January 4, 2021
“We don’t discriminate, we just won’t play black artists because they scare white America.”
— Sounds About Right ???? (@Soundsaboutrig4) January 4, 2021
Others noted that Goodman's comments were things people still say in dozens of industries.
These are the very same conversations happening behind closed doors in book publishing. This is the exact phrasing used to justify every publishing decision that has to do with diversification. This clip is wild.
— jon. (@jonreyes) January 4, 2021
"…pick some town in the Midwest that will be scared to death by Prince, which we’re playing…"
*blinks from the town in the Midwest that Prince was from*
— jt (@absurdities) January 4, 2021
MTV's official explanation at the time for refusing to play popular hits like Rick James "Superfreak" was because they wanted to focus on rock music. Because Toni Basil and Oliva Newton-John totally rocked hard or whatever.
— I'm a Dog???? I'm a Cat???? I'm a cat dog dog cat ???????? (@Iowamutt) January 4, 2021
Black artists and record labels spent years fighting for air time on MTV, even while topping the pop charts and producing music adored by white and Black fans alike.
Rick James made waves in 1983 when he bashed MTV for refusing to play "Super Freak" in an interview with Jet Magazine.
"A lot of Black asses are going to come together and explode on MTV. There are no Blacks on MTV's program list except Tina Turner, and she stopped being Black about 10 years ago. MTV puts on little white punk groups who don't even have record deals. Blacks are missing exposure and sales," James said at the time.
Michael Jackson has been largely credited with being the artist that broke the floodgates open at MTV in 1983, with the now-iconic music videos that have become legendary pieces of global pop culture.
Jackson had long complained about the fact that MTV refused to air his music videos even though he was pioneering a new age where music videos became an indelible part of the release of music.
According to longtime music review site Blender, more than 50 million people watched Jackson's moonwalk during a groundbreaking performance on the "Motown 25" television special. The music video for "Bille Jean" came out shortly after, and millions of fans were eager to watch Jackson dance in the video, but MTV refused to play it.
CBS Records President Walter Yetnikoff eventually had to threaten MTV after they repeatedly said they would not put it on the channel, something which MTV executives now deny.
“I said to MTV, ‘I’m pulling everything we have off the air, all our product. I’m not going to give you any more videos. And I’m going to go public and fucking tell them about the fact you don’t want to play music by a Black guy,’” Yetnikoff told Blender.
Ironically, it was MTV's decision to play Jackson's "Billie Jean" and "Beat It," as well as Prince's "Little Red Corvette," that saved the channel and brought millions of viewers to it, according to USA Today.
The 14-minute video for Jackson's third single, "Thriller" ended up literally changing music history. "Thriller" is widely regarded as the greatest music video ever and forced the entire music industry to change release strategies for all music, forcing every artist to put out music videos with any major release.
The video was so popular with fans that MTV had to play it twice an hour to accommodate interest in seeing it, according to Randy Taraborrelli's book The Magic and the Madness.