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. Then again, in 2021, as the anniversary of the Starman’s death reached five years, it was again time to see plentiful clips of the great man. Most of those clips involved Bowie’s incredible style or musicianship, his nuanced performances and his extravagant enthusiasm for art—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 (what an odd time the eighties were) 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 and one that, at the time, was almost unthinkable for a White artist to make, especially in the face of the growing behemoth that MTV was.
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. While it was certainly uncomfortable for Goodman, the fact that Bowie risked his own platform to share such thoughts speaks to his integrity.
Bowie was in full promotion mode, trying to sell his landmark pop album Let’s Dance, when he sat across from Goodman in 1983. The bottle blonde Bowie presents himself with ease and comfort and perhaps suggested that Goodman had your run of the mill, press junket answers already in the can and waiting to be poured on the airwaves with just a little tap from his interviewer. 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 and hold them to account.
“Having watched MTV over the past few months, it’s a solid enterprise with a lot going for it,” Bowie said with the cut-throat potency of a man in control. “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 his paycheques 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 and not really holding much value in whatever the answer may be. Notably, however, Bowie listens to the answer and remains unimpressed and unmoved from his position: “The only few black artists one does see are on in about 2:30 in the morning until 6:00,” Bowie claimed. “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, in all his diminutive glory, 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 as well as being wholly false, it also places Goodman as an ignorant complier 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.