From its beginnings in the early 1980s, it was clear that MTV, the Music Television Network, would have a dramatic effect on the way pop stars marketed their music and themselves. While radio remained a necessary engine to drive the sales and chart rankings of singles and albums, the rise of new artists like Duran Duran and the further ascent of established stars like Michael Jackson showed that creativity and esthetic appeal on MTV could make a direct and undeniable contribution to a musical performer’s commercial success. But if ever a case existed in which MTV did more than just contribute to an act’s success, it was the case of the Norwegian band a-Ha, who went from total unknowns to chart-topping pop stars almost solely on the strength of the groundbreaking video for the song “Take On Me,” which hit #1 on the Billboard pop chart on October 19, 1985.
By 1985 the medium was established enough that it took a unique angle to achieve music video stardom. Enter a-Ha, a synth-pop group that caught a late ride on the dying New Wave thanks to the video for “Take On Me,” in which lead singer Morten Harket was transformed using a decades-old technology called Rotoscoping. The creators of the “Take On Me” video painted portions or sometimes the entirety of individual frames to create the effect of a dashingly handsome comic-book motorcycle racer (Harket) romancing a pretty girl from the real world, fighting off a gang of angry pursuers in a pipe-wrench fight before bursting out of the comic-book world as a dashingly handsome real boy.
The wildly popular video was an esthetic marvel at the moment of its unveiling, and it propelled a-Ha not only to the top spot on the pop charts, but to a still-unbeaten record of eight wins at the 1986 MTV Video Music Awards. Predictably enough, the F/X gimmick that seemed so fresh in “Take On Me” soon became something of a cliché, showing up in ads for everything from minivans to maxi-pads. As for a-Ha, they may be thought of by many Americans as one-hit wonders—or two-hit wonders for those who remember “The Sun Always Shines On T.V.”—but internationally they have enjoyed a tremendously successful recording career without any further help from MTV.