The thing about Club MTV is you had to be there. Not necessarily there there, at the legendary New York nightclub the Palladium, where the show filmed in the late ’80s and early ’90s, but at least there on your couch watching a low-key revolution take place in American pop music.
You can’t go back in time, but you can revisit Club MTV, now out of context, via a YouTube channel that has uploaded hundreds of clips (and some full episodes) of a show that time has forgotten. Allow me to explain why what might seem like mindless indulgence that watered down and commodified the New York club scene of the time was actually groundbreaking pop culture.
What was special about Club MTV was its inherent idea that dance music constituted a format distinct from but within the realm of pop music of the late ’80s. When it debuted, it was the latest (and hippest) in a long line of TV dance shows, which cheaply forged entertainment out of merely turning cameras on a bunch of young people dancing in an enclosed space. Certainly, American Bandstand, Soul Train, and Dance Party USA/Dancin’ on Air had playlists full of danceable music, and Top 40 radio did have its disparate dance hits throughout the ’80s. But it was only in the second half of the ’80s that dance music was free to cohere into a cultural force for the masses.
To mainstream audiences not tuned in to R&B radio, disco died rather publicly in 1979 (via the racist and homophobic Disco Demolition Night organized by Chicago DJ Steve Dahl). As the ’80s stretched on, the low end practically dropped out of pop—a song like Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)” moved people with barely a bass line and just a pitter-patter of percussion. For a time, dance music and upbeat pop were synonymous. (Tom Breihan rightly describing Dirty Dancing’s “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” as a “dance song” in his Stereogum column The Number Ones, really hits this home.) It wasn’t until house music crossed the Atlantic from its Chicago origins and became a mainstream sensation in the U.K. (Steve “Silk” Hurley’s “Jack Your Body” was the first house record to hit No. 1 in England, in 1987) that a legitimate thump resumed on U.S. pop music’s door. This combined with Latin freestyle’s bubbling-under popularity paved the way for the genre-fication of dance music. Club MTV’s perpetually perky host, “Downtown” Julie Brown, led the format’s sermons.
In the time leading up to the four-on-the-floor beat’s reemergence onto U.S. airwaves, MTV was expanding its horizons beyond round-the-clock videos. A July 14, 1988, piece in The Oregonian described Club MTV as “the spearhead of a campaign to revitalize and reshape MTV.” It was part of a wave of programming that also included the movie news magazine The Big Picture and MTV’s Half Hour Comedy Hour. “MTV needs to change to keep it fresh,” MTV senior vice president of programming Doug Herzog told Newsweek.
So while MTV was making dance music a thing in front of the eyes and ears of American consumers, those behind the scenes in the music industry were building up house. Virgin signed techno pioneer Kevin Saunderson (specifically, his techno-soul project Inner City) as well as house godfather Frankie Knuckles, Hurley signed to Atlantic, Capitol signed U.K. acid house team S-Express. Production duo Robert Clivillés and David Cole parlayed their remixing success into a deal with Columbia—their C & C Music Factory project was among the era’s biggest dance-music smashes. Their 1990 album Gonna Make You Sweat went five-times platinum, and Clivillés and Cole would go on to co-write and produce Mariah Carey’s No. 1 single “Emotions.”
“It looks like the major labels are about to launch some of kind of house assault, because they’re scooping up everybody out in Chicago,” said early house producer Marshall Jefferson, probably best known for “The House Music Anthem (Move Your Body),” to the Los Angeles Times in a May 28, 1989, story. Jefferson’s own soulful house project Ten City crossed over to R&B radio with “That’s the Way Love Is” in 1989.
“It’s like signing a farm team for future talent,” Bruce Carbone, then director of dance music at Mercury/PolyGram, told Billboard in a January 1991 article about the corporatization of dance music. “It’s a great way to test out new singers and rappers as well as benefit from the talent of guys like [Mercury/PolyGram signee David Morales], who have a sound that creates an instant buzz.”
The cumulative effect provided mainstream access to a type of music that had been driven “underground” about a decade prior. As housey dance music started to cross over more frequently in the early ’90s, the Club MTV playlist functioned primarily as a fairly obvious curation of the day’s uptempo hits. But it did sneak in lower-charting stuff that was big in clubs but missed certain regional pockets of pop radio, like Jomanda’s titanic “Got a Love for You” or Sabrina Johnston’s “Peace (In the Valley),” which was a Club MTV staple for a period.
Club MTV represented an idealized club experience that remained unparalleled even after I began experiencing clubbing firsthand. Unlike many of its dance-show predecessors, it was shot at an actual club and not a sterile TV studio. The Palladium was authentically cavernous, its giant screens (actually, clusters of smaller screens together projecting one big image as was the style at the time) imbuing it all with the sense that the future had arrived. Well lit, with controllable volume and happy vibes, all of which could be consumed from the comfort of my couch, Club MTV presented club culture as consumable in 30-minute nibbles. I’ve never felt particularly comfortable in clubs, certainly not without drugs (whose use Club MTV never even hinted at, thus it took me years to understand their connection with electronic music), certainly not while pummeling music with no vocals and one-note bass lines made the notion of a conversation impossible. In keeping me naive to what awaited, Club MTV spoiled me. Looking back, it did it in the best way possible, priming me for nostalgia for a place and time I never actually visited and giving me a fantasy to hold through life.
It is to the Club MTV dancers’ credit that they made it look like they were having so much fun. In 1988 the Chicago Tribune reported that they were paid nothing for their services, though in a piece the following year the paper reported that dancers were receiving $25 a day. Those days were long ones—15 episodes would shoot over the course of two days every six weeks. “They dance eight hours a day, two days in a row, and tonight in-between, they’ll go out dancing,” casting director Rob Fox told The Oregonian in 1988. Fox also said that for every 120 or so dancers people saw in an episode, he’d auditioned 5,000. “Most are aspiring dancers, actors and models otherwise waiting on tables, bombing out at auditions or going to school,” reported the Tribune.
Though we can infer that many saw Club MTV as their potential launching pad, few would even make it close to the stratosphere. One exception was the then-mononymic Camille, a featured dancer who appeared in the show’s promos and was regularly featured in between-song chats with Brown. She went on to model, appear in softcore sex flicks and then some “legit” mainstream movies, and finally The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills as Camille Grammer.
Besides reinforcing the power of dance music, launching Camille Grammer was about Club MTV’s biggest addition to culture. It was certainly responsible for a mar, though. There was also an MTV-sponsored tour under the Club MTV name for a few summers during the heyday of lip-syncing controversies: It was during a Club MTV concert that Milli Vanilli were caught with their larynxes immobile, as the track playing their vocals skipped resulting in the notorious “Girl you know it’s, girl you know it’s, girl you know it’s...” moment that marked the beginning of the end for the Grammy winners. In reports on underwhelming ticket sales for the concert tours of 1991, the Club MTV tour was highlighted as one of the year’s biggest flops. Dance music wasn’t over per se, but in light of the aforementioned lip-sync scandals pop pivoted to a more “authentic” flavor that favored unassailable vocal chops via tight harmony and a capella showboating. By the end of the ’90s, dance music’s mainstream presence in the U.S. could be found in the form of remixes (like the Thunderpuss remix of Whitney Houston’s “It’s Not Right But It’s Okay”) or watered down and de-thumped in boy band approximations of new jack swing. It would, by the end of the aughts, come roaring back via the festival-facilitated EDM explosion and the culture-shattering success of Lady Gaga.
Club MTV itself wrapped in 1992. The March 21, 1992, issue of Billboard reported the show had stopped production for redeveloping. “The alternative music genre is strong right now, and dance music seems to be taking a back seat,” Herzog told the Los Angeles Times in an article that ran in May of that year. He explained that while Club MTV ratings at the point of its cancellation weren’t terrible, MTV wanted to kill it before viewer apathy did.
“Club MTV was like a product of the ‘80s in terms of its glitziness. There was a fantasy aspect to it. What you can feel out there these days is a desire for things of substance, a more organic feel,” said Herzog.
Within months, MTV rebooted the show with virtually the same format but a different host—the breakout beefcake of the first season of The Real World Eric Nies was tapped to host The Grind, which ran until 1997. It was very much the same, and yet not quite. Innocence is not something that can so easily be reattained.
P.S. The Palladium, where Club MTV shot, is now an NYU dorm.