(nb: I received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley)
To those of us who grew up in the early 1980’s, it’s impossible not to remember MTV. The videos’ quality was generally horrific–as was some of the music–but MTV was something fresh.
At the core of the MTV experience were the original five VJ’s: Nina Blackwood, Mark Goodman, Alan Hunter, J.J. Jackson, and Martha Quinn. My friends and I each had our favorites (Martha was one of my earliest loves), and I found tons of music I never would have heard on plain old radio.
(I should note that MTV actually played music videos at the time, unlike today)
“VJ: The Unplugged Adventures of MTV’s First Wave” is a group memoir. The four surviving First Wavers–J.J. Jackson died St Patrick’s Day, 2004–reminisce about being hired as the first VJ’s, early production hardships, and the channel’s rise to success. As the faces of MTV, they sometimes found themselves to be more famous than the acts whose videos they played.
Part of MTV’s early appeal was that it perpetrated the illusion that you weren’t just sitting there watching music videos by yourself. There was somebody there, 24/7, hanging out with you. Another result was that it forever changed the way music markets itself. No longer did record companies have to schmooze individual radio stations to get airplay. If a record executive could get an artist’s video into MTV’s heavy rotation, that would all but guarantee nationwide sales.
There is no doubt that these five hip people helped MTV become successful, even though they did nothing more than record four one-minute drop-ins per hour. Was MTV a hit because of them? Or was it simply a phenomenon whose time had come?
It’s hard to say.
At its best, “VJ” reveals wild artist stories, as well as tales of the internecine squabbles and genuine familial love the VJ’s felt for one-another.
Where “VJ” bogs down is when it delves too deeply into the VJs’ previous lives. In many ways, the VJ’s–at least to me–were like the videos themselves. Very few people knew before, nor have cared since, the origins of The Buggles. What mattered is that they had a one-off hit called “Video Killed The Radio Star,” and that it was the first video played on MTV. Deep background information on the VJs’ lives only feels relevant inasmuch as it led directly to them getting hired for MTV. Hearing about one VJ’s high school meth dealer? Not relevant.
Also, “VJ” seems to rehash certain things constantly. Okay, we get it: Mark Goodman thinks of himself and J.J. Jackson as “music guys,” while Alan Hunter, Nina Blackwood, and Martha Quinn are just entertainers.(When Bob Dylan specifically requested Martha Quinn do a story on his “Infidels” tour, Goodman hit the roof). Also, we understand that nearly everyone was doing cocaine in the 1980’s. It’s not necessary to mention every time artists and VJs were doing blow at an event.
Earlier this year, I read autobiographies by Gregg Allman and Eric Clapton, both of whom describe their pre-stardom lives as well as their substance-abuse adventures. I expected this information in their biographies, and I’d have been disappointed without it, but they are artists whose music I’ve loved for decades. There is a difference.
“VJ” shines, though, as a first-hand look into a new medium’s birth and evolution. Embraced by young people and bashed by critics, MTV started off humbly, and these five people dared put their face on a product that could’ve failed after six months. Instead, 30+ years later, those faces are still remembered by those of us who can remember the time when video actually killed the radio star.
Despite its flaws, “VJ” is worth the read, especially if you remember when these five were the collective face of MTV.
(I still call dibs on Martha Quinn, though)