The main knock against the MTV Video Music Awards is that MTV “doesn’t even play videos,” but that argument is almost old enough to drink and not entirely reflective of a time when videos are everywhere (Vevo, YouTube, etc.) and nowhere on TV (save for a few offerings across the dial) at once. You get the frustration, though. MTV means so much to so many people for the role it played in their childhood and it looks so different from what it did back then.
Businesses grow or they die, and despite the nostalgic sheen, MTV is very much a business. That’s probably more evident now than it ever was when you were younger and you couldn’t make sense of why video blocks were being replaced by The Hills, but MTV itself has never been shy about its corporate underpinnings. That was never more apparent than it was back at the 1989 VMAs when the winner of the Video of the Year award, Neil Young for “This Note’s for You,” delivered a big “F.U.” to corporate rock.
An icon thanks to his work with Buffalo Springfield, CSNY, and his solo albums, Young had been through a rough time with his record label in the late ’80s and wasn’t enamored with the industry. He even went so far as to make a grand departure from his signature sound to record a rockabilly album out of left field, just to piss his label off and further fulfill his record contract. Sound familiar? With that in mind, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone that he decided to record a song that skewered what he felt was the overbearing hand of advertisers and commercialism in popular music.
“This Note’s for You” takes jabs at Pepsi, Coke, Budweiser, Miller, Calvin Klein, and pretty much any other big name corporate concern you can think of — this really was a referendum on touring sponsors, but it grew into something much larger. The song is clearly a parody, needling these companies as well as some of the musicians who took their money like Michael Jackson (whose body double catches on fire like in real life), Eric Clapton, and Whitney Houston. But despite this, MTV was not amused and banned the clip on the pretense of their “trademark infringement” clause which prevents advertising in videos (despite the fact that it was obviously a mockery of an advertisement). Rumors then eventually leaked that it was Jackson’s team that called and got the clip banned due to his unflattering portrayal in the clip.
Following the ban, Young penned an open letter to MTV that used the term “spineless twerps” to describe the network, accused them of banning the video because they were “afraid to offend” their sponsors, and asked whether the “M” in MTV stood for music or money.
While “This Note’s for You” failed to get a spot in the rotation on MTV, the clip garnered a ton of play in Young’s native Canada on Much Music. The groundswell behind the video (and the irony of its mysterious, if not draconian, ban) eventually became too much. The ban was ultimately lifted and, in a sweet twist, bested Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” video (which was also a purposefully provocative clip intended to annoy her corporate sponsor; in this case, Pepsi) to win the Video of the Year award.
Watching the video for “This Note’s for You” now, it doesn’t exactly have any subtlety to spare. He literally drinks a beer at the end of the clip that says “sponsored by nobody.” Yet, at the time, it was something revolutionary. Neil Young was an artist who was big enough, and had a long enough track record, that his successes didn’t hang on whether or not he was getting play on MTV. He saw that others after him would be dependent on the network and the larger corporatism that was on the horizon, however, and he acted.
More than 25 years later, it’s clear that some of Young’s fears came to fruition, but you wonder who could make the same kind of stand today and be heard, even if there’s no comparison for something as powerful and vital to the music industry as MTV circa 1988 now. (Or is there?) Overall, everything feels so democratized, but it is the big corporations who remain gatekeepers, with the ability to crush a rogue spirit at any moment. Hopefully we’ll still have a few artists willing to give them the kiss off they deserve.