David Bowie tears into MTV for its lack of diversity back in 1983
After the passing of the late, great David Bowie in 2016, a host of video clips began to resurface online. Many of them highlighting Bowie’s incredible style or musicianship—but one piece of footage showcased his impeccable moral character and thirst for justice.
In this clip from 1983, Bowie is sitting across from MTV Video Jockey Mark Goodman and pointedly asks him to defend the network’s lack of ethnic diversity, particularly the fact there were so few black artists on the channel. It’s a comment that still feels incredibly relevant today.
Many videos circle the internet with Bowie offering a piece of advice or heralding a moment of the future his interviewers have yet to realise was possible. However, in this footage shared by MTV themselves, the iconic Starman takes aim at the network’s lack of diversity and asks VJ Goodman to explain on their behalf.
Bowie was in full promotion of his album Let’s Dance when he sat across from Goodman in 1983. The bottle blonde Bowie is sat with ease and comfort and perhaps suggested that Goodman had your run of the mill press junket answers already in the can. But instead of the usual notions of being excited about a new album, Bowie decided that now would be a good time to take on the newly formed network.
“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?” It’s a stunning question to fire back at an interviewer and perhaps more impressively during the promotion of your new pop record.
It’s a tight spot for Goodman to get out of but he tries to defend those who write the cheques nevertheless: “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.”
Again, this may have been enough to sate most artists, they may have walked away patting themselves on the back for asking the question. Notably, however, Bowie listens to the answer and remains unimpressed: “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.”
It only got worse for Goodman as he tried to navigate his way out of the situation while still keeping his employers happy: “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 naturally smirks at the idea that Prince could scare a Midwesterner to death and is further bemused by the suggestion that kids of 1983 wouldn’t care for iconic black artists like The Isley Brothers, “I’ll tell you what, maybe the Isley Brothers or Marvin Gaye means something 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 situation then seems to deteriorate with Goodman clearly on the ropes.
The VJ continues to try and explain away the question posed and somehow ends up suggesting that white kids won’t want to listen to black music in 1983 as they did in 1967. It’s an unfathomably obtuse retort and places Goodman as ignorant at best. Cooly and calmly, knowing that Goodman has done his own damage, Bowie smirks and says: “Interesting. Thank you very much…I understand your point of view.”
Bowie, during a time where he should’ve been sucking up to the establishment, instead chose to take a stand and speak up for those who didn’t have a platform. It’s not the grandest moment in David Bowie’s career but it is another shining moment of moral integrity, the likes of which were not around in the 1980s, and should be an example to artists today.