MTV turns 40: Iconic music videos we watched on the network that brought music to TV

·4 min read

It's hard to imagine how revolutionary MTV was when it launched Aug. 1, 1981.

Forty years before we could summon music videos on demand, MTV was the destination for the latest, coolest and best of music on TV.

The premise was simple: Be television’s version of radio. In the early days, the network played music videos round-the-clock hosted by video jockeys (VJs). What was the first music video shown on MTV? The Buggles' "Video Killed the Radio Star."

Of course the channel evolved over the decades, both in the genres of music videos it promoted (moving from the early days of rock to pop and hip-hop) and the programming it offered (who can forget “Beavis and Butt-Head” and “The Real World”?)

As MTV marks 40 years, we look back at the iconic music videos we remember watching on the radical network.

Michael Jackson, 'Billie Jean'

MTV was still in its relative infancy when this single from Jackson’s “Thriller” was released in 1983 and helped define the cable network, which had quickly gained traction as a revolutionary new form of television that I watched constantly. Featuring a trenchcoat-clad paparazzo stalking Jackson as he dances his way to a hotel, the choreographed video was among the first by a Black artist to win heavy rotation on MTV, and was followed by the more cinematic video for the album’s title track. – Gary Levin

Duran Duran, ‘Rio’

They were the poster boys of MTV. But being suave and dashing wasn’t enough, because they had to flaunt their coolness by jetting off to Antigua and pretending to sing while not falling off of a yacht. Who cared if no one understood what the lyrics meant when it all looked this good? – Melissa Ruggieri

Frida, 'I Know There’s Something Going On'

I was 13 when MTV launched but unfortunately my house did not have cable TV. Eventually my best friend’s family did. I went over to her house and we turned on MTV. Frida, with her haunting voice and feathered hair, languidly walking her way through the video, appeared on the screen. It made an impression. It was, after all, the first music video I had seen. EVER. While it might not have been iconic, but it made an impression. When it comes to being introduced to a brand new visual medium, you always remember your first. – Mary Cadden

Duran Duran, ‘A View to a Kill’

“Get in, sit down and shut up,” my college bestie ordered when I showed up seconds before the worldwide premiere, the first of countless times we’d watch the video for this James Bond theme song. Sure, Simon Le Bond, er, Bon’s bomb-detonating Walkman hasn’t aged well, nor has John Taylor’s sexily tousled mullet. But it’s still a hoot and a half to see Andy Taylor gleefully off Nick Rhodes (who’s never looked lovelier) with a killer accordion button. – Kim Willis

Radiohead, 'Paranoid Android'

I was a teenage insomniac and would stay up until dawn mainlining MTV. Deep in the night was when they’d let the weird stuff rip, and in particularly heavy rotation was this hypnotically strange animated video. When I finally heard this song performed live, Thom Yorke’s theremin-like voice slicing through my psyche like a laser, even then I couldn’t get the image of a nearly naked cartoon man chopping his own limbs off with a hatchet out of my head. – Barbara VanDenburgh

Missy Elliott, 'Get Ur Freak On'

I was the youngest child in a house full of teenagers so MTV was always the background noise to accompany the sibling bickering. However, Missy Elliott’s “Get Ur Freak On” music video would quiet the chaos and grab everyone’s attention. The pings of the sitar were like a warning call for a video that was compelling every time MTV ran it. To this day I can remember how the spit take would make my stomach turn but I could never look away. – Elise Brisco

Britney Spears, ‘Toxic’

I loved MTV's Making the Video (I guess I liked feeling in-the-know about music even as a teen) and Britney’s ‘Toxic’ is the series standout for me. At a whopping $1 million price tag, the video’s femme fatale aesthetic, cutting-edge choreography and pulsating sound pretty much blew my mind. – Jennifer McClellan

Justin Timberlake, 'Cry Me a River'

I watched “Total Request Live” every day after school so Britney, Christina and Justin all come to mind when I talk about iconic music videos. But it’s JT’s “River,” from his debut solo album, that I remember most vividly, probably because of all the drama surrounding his breakup with Britney Spears. Did the actress look like Spears? Was there cheating? GASP! I also had a huge crush on Timberlake. Still do. So that explains it. – Amy Haneline

Rihanna, ‘Shut Up and Drive’

Has anyone in a music video ever looked better? Rihanna is the epitome of cool in this drag racing-themed, innuendo-filled clip for her 2007 “Good Girl Gone Bad” single. This sizzling video briefly convinced my 15-year-old self that I liked cars, and I still want her iconic green pants. – Patrick Ryan

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: MTV's 40th anniversary: Remember these iconic music videos?

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