The stunning news of David Bowie’s death earlier this week has led people all over the world to tearfully dig out their old Bowie records and re-live the countless amazing moments from his five-decade career. One of the most interesting clips to emerge comes from MTV, who posted this interview that Bowie did in 1983 with original VJ Mark Goodman – even though it doesn’t paint the network in a very flattering light. While promoting Let’s Dance, Bowie takes the then two-year-old network to task for playing virtually no videos by black artists. “Having watched MTV over the past few months, it’s a solid enterprise with a lot going for it,” Bowie said. “I’m just floored that by the fact that there’s so few black artists featured on it. Why is that?”
This put Goodman in a pretty awkward position, and he attempted to defend his employers. “I think we’re trying to move in that direction,” he said. “We want to play artists that seem to be doing music that fits into what we want to play on MTV. The company is thinking in terms of narrow-casting.” This half-hearted response did little to address Bowie’s points. “The only few black artists one does see are on in about 2:30 in the morning until 6:00,” Bowie said. “Very few are featured prominently during the day. I’ll see that over the last couple of weeks things have been changing, but it’s been a slow process.”
In a move that Goodman probably regrets today, he tried to explain the decision in terms of geography: “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.We have to play the type of music the entire country would like.”
Bowie couldn’t help put smirk at the idea of Prince’s black face somehow scaring people in the Midwest, and he had a pretty good counterpoint when Goodman suggested that the teenagers of 1983 wouldn’t appreciate artists like the Isley Brothers. “I’ll tell you what maybe the Isley Brothers or Marvin Gaye means to a black 17-year-old,” Bowie said. “And surely he’s part of America as well. Do you not find that it’s a frightening predicament to be in? Is it not possible it should be a conviction of the station to be fair? It does seem to be rampant through American media. Should it not be a challenge to make the media far more integrated?”
The camera zooms tight into Bowie’s stunned face near the end as Goodman meekly explains that some white kids don’t want to hear black music, unlike in 1967, and therefore the network needs to tread carefully. “Interesting,” he says. “Thank you very much…I understand your point of view.”
Michael Jackson’s name wasn’t brought up a single time in this interview, but this was the year he released videos for “Thriller” and “Billie Jean.” They appealed to kids in New York, Los Angeles, Poughkeepsie, the Midwest and all over the world, and their popularity forced MTV to reconsider their policy on black music. But before that happened, David Bowie was one of the few white voices in rock brave enough to take MTV on directly. It’s a small moment in his amazing legacy, but it’s fascinating to watch over three decades later.