Words By Marky Mark
For those of you old enough to remember when MTV used to play music videos, there’s another group of you who remember when those videos didn’t include any black artists. Prince and Michael Jackson were the first to break through, but it wasn’t nearly as fast as it should’ve been nor was it as consistent. David Bowie, who was already legendary status in 1983, used his stature to put the channel on blast. Right on their own network. I’ll let former VJ Mark Goodman set it up, as told in the book VJ: The Unplugged Adventures of MTV’s First Wave, published in 2013:
Before “Let’s Dance” came out, David Bowie did a press junket in a hotel room. It was one of those deals where interviewers file in one at a time. I had interviewed him before, on the radio, but I’m sure he didn’t remember me.
I said, “I have some tough questions for you, David — I hope you’re ready.”
And he said, “Ha, great, because at the end I’d like to ask you some punishing questions as well.”
Yeah, I’m sure he didn’t expect it to be as punishing as the video shows. Bowie, so eloquently and so politely, asks the simple question about MTV, “Why are there so few black artists featured on it?”
Goodman gives him the standard answer that they’re looking into it and that it’s changing, but they’re looking more to “narrowcasting.” Bowie simply smiles and gives this response: “That’s evident as the ones that are played are only in the morning from around 2 to 6. Very few are featured predominantly during the day. There seem to be a lot of black artists making very good videos and I’m surprised aren’t being used on MTV.”
After a mostly polite back and forth that got into regionalism and playing artists with “black faces” that wouldn’t scare Middle America, Bowie gets glib again and asks, “Don’t you think it’s a frightening predicament to be in?”
Goodman, clearly on the defensive, tries to pass the buck and say that radio is in the same predicament and they have to play by the same rules. Bowie saw his opening and went on the attack. “Don’t say, ‘Well, it’s not me, it’s them,” Bowie said. “Is it not possible it should be a conviction of the station and of the radio stations to be fair…to make the media more integrated?”
The conversation continues after Goodman gets verbally embarrassed, with both men proclaiming their love for the Isley Brothers and Marvin Gaye, but Goodman says that, to a white teenager, they may not mean much. Bowie has a simple retort, one that it’s safe to assume was not said much in the MTV offices during their initial days: “Well, I’ll tell you what maybe the Isley Brothers or Marvin Gaye means to a black 17-year-old, and surely he must be part of America, as well.”
Goodman responds, basically burying himself and the network the more he talks, while Bowie looks on intently with a wry look on his face. It’s the look of a person who knew exactly what he was doing and got exactly what he wanted. He knows these answers before they’re given, he understands the politics, but he doesn’t like them. And he used his celebrity and his status to speak for a group of people who weren’t allowed to speak for themselves.
When Goodman finally finishes speaking about demographics, and attitudes, and MTV’s lack of ability to change things, but having to play by the rules, he asks Bowie if it makes sense and if it’s a valid point. “I understand your point of view.” Then with a nod and a smile, the interview is over. Years later, Goodman had this to say:
“What irritated me was that I felt like a pawn. I had no say over what MTV played — I wasn’t an executive. And Bowie knew what the situation was. He knew (MTV executive) John Sykes, and he knew a lot of the other principals. He was just using me to bring this issue into the forefront. I felt like an idiot, and I felt used, and I felt insignificant to David Bowie — which I probably was, anyway.”
A few years after this, it would be unfathomable for MTV to not play black artists. But, it took one of the world’s biggest musicians to point out how silly it was that they didn’t play Rick James, that they only played Michael Jackson after he became the biggest star in the world without their help, or that they were ignoring a bubbling hip-hop scene right outside their door. Well played, David Bowie. Well played indeed.