Thursday, June 13, 2013

VJ: The Unplugged Adventures of MTV's First Wave

An advanced review copy was provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

When MTV joined the Cablevision lineup, it was the first stop I scrolled to on our cable box, that magical beige rectangle that increased our TV viewing options from six to FORTY-TWO channels. Oh, we were living large. MTV introduced me to music and bands that I rarely, if ever, heard on Jacksonville radio. Even in its infancy, MTV scooped radio by introducing us to artists who would eventually conquer several media. That girl with half her head shaved, leading a conga line through New York City? That Australian band playing in their underwear? I didn't hear them on the radio first.

To hear my parents tell it, you would have thought Satan purchased a TV network and started broadcasting on cable. Of course they hated it - I still remember the stunned, WTF expression on my father's face when Motley Crue's "Looks That Kill" aired one Saturday morning, and we couldn't switch to the next channel fast enough when my mother entered the den. They didn't want us watching MTV; they believed some videos with questionable content were too racy and/or violent for us impressionable youths. In the network's defense, I disagreed (but it's not like a ten-year-old had a vote in this situation). Early on, many videos amounted to footage from concert films and appearances elsewhere on television. Other promotional videos may have simply featured the band in a studio or on a stage with no bells, whistles, or whores (pretty much every video Rush filmed). Also, none of us kids ended up as juvenile delinquents or criminals as a result of prolonged exposure to MTV. One of us is a vice-president of something.

Today, I couldn't tell you on which channel you'll find MTV, or MTV 2 and whatever else has spawned. It's mostly crap now, and while I'm partial to good crap I go elsewhere for it. When I want to ride my mid-life crisis, I cruise through my YouTube playlists. One might argue we don't really need MTV anymore - it's no different from half the networks dependent on reality shows for ratings - and some may feel we might have done just fine without it. I personally wouldn't mind a rebirth - not necessarily to feed my appetite for nostalgia, but for an artistic marriage of video and music.

When I saw VJ: The Unplugged Adventures of MTV's First Wave available, I knew I had to review it for the blog. In defending my desire to watch MTV, I had placed the original five VJs as Exhibits A through E - they looked like normal people you'd have over for dinner. There were no visible skull tattoos or piercings. You'd think between perky Martha Quinn and boyish-next-door goofball Alan Hunter I'd have a good argument for MTV not spearheading the decline of Western civilization. Thirty years later, I open to the first chapter and Alan and Mark recall doing blow with various rock stars. I wonder if my mother would allow me to watch MTV now.

VJ, like Starting Over, is presented as an oral history, in that the four surviving VJ pioneers (the fifth, J.J. Jackson, is sadly no longer with us) round-robin their memories of the network's genesis and first half-decade. Of the quintet, Jackson and Goodman came to the network with the strongest backgrounds in radio and music knowledge, while Hunter, Blackwood, and Quinn were likely recruited to appeal to specific viewer demographics. Talk of money quickly establishes that this operation didn't work like Friends - it wasn't "all for one, one for all" when it came to salaries or perks. In fact, it surprised me to read how bare-bones the first VJs had it. Everybody learned on the air through trial and error, whether it was ad-libbing to fill space or appeasing a record label in order to broadcast videos. In my memory MTV seemed to run seamlessly from VJ intro to video, and back again. Bear in mind, it has been many years, and likely the VJs didn't get as much air time as I recall.

If you enjoy rock gossip without having to decipher blind items, you'll find plenty to like in VJ. You'll live vicariously through four voices regaling us with tales of sex (and failed attempts at it), drugs, and awkward interviews. Want to know which of your idols was an asshole, and which Top 10 ballad Nina Blackwood inspired? There are answers within. In between the juicy bits and personal vignettes, VJ provides a nice history of the network itself and its evolution from 24/7 music to a major influence on the entertainment industry. I especially found the chapter on MTV's coverage of Live Aid interesting, since for years I had been angered by how the VJs monopolized camera time during such an event. I could see Martha Quinn on TV every damn day...why would I want to watch her dancing while Paul Frickin' McCartney was playing "Let It Be" during the London finale? It's some comfort to know that cutting to her wasn't her call.

That said, I was also disappointed not to see any information on how MTV revived The Monkees. It did happen toward the end of Quinn's and Hunter's tenures, and how MTV handled the band following a FTA at an event (covered in Monkee Business) spoke volumes of the network's power to make and break musicians at the time. I am still interested in their perception of MTV as a music influence and if any other artists suffered due to the network's neglect. In the book there's mention of how MTV likely nurtured a short-attention span mentality, something that became evident personally when certain VJs left the network. Despite our general tendencies to find distraction, my memory of MTV's glory years remain strong. VJ is a fun reminder of the days video killed the radio stars...though I wonder if video is looking over its shoulder now.

Rating: B

Kathryn Lively is the author of the Rock and Roll Mysteries featuring Lerxst Johnston: Rock Deadly and Rock Til You Drop, and of the collection of short stories, The Girl With the Monkee Tattoo.