I didn’t grow up in middle America, I grew up right on the border of Glendora and Covina, California in an area that is now called Charter Oak – named after the school district and high school for the area, I guess. My house on Payson Street was my address up until the time I graduated from high school. I think it was your basic not-quite-comfortable middle class area. We didn’t have new cars, and none of my friends ever went on lavish vacations. This was an area where kids got drivers licenses and borrowed parents cars on special occasion. I lived in a small 1200 square foot house (I am not joking – there were three bedrooms and two very tiny bathrooms. My own bedroom was 11ft x 11 ft.) – my dad mowed our lawn and washed our cars on his own each weekend. Gardeners and car washes were a thing for the “rich”…until my dad finally got too sick to do it himself just a few months before he died. My point being that we lived paycheck to paycheck like nearly everyone else. Each extra expense was discussed as a family, typically over our family dinner table, and usually – extra expenses were met with the same response from my dad: “I don’t. have. the money!” Extra emphasis on the “don’t” and “have”, please…and then rush through “the money”. Yep, that was it. Guess how many times I heard that sentence as a teenager??
I can’t tell you the exact date my father finally agreed to get cable TV. I only remember it being a hotly debated topic, somewhat like the one that took place before we finally got a VHS player. (as opposed to Beta, of course.) I can remember neighbors having things called “On TV” or “Z channel” and coming home to speak of their glory, usually to the somewhat deaf ears of my parents…and somewhere along the line, my dad finally agreed to cable. Miraculous. I could not believe our luck! I remember not long after the cable installation that I saw something about MTV, and the ability to watch…all…day…long. And I did.
My life was sheltered to a large extent. I’ve mentioned before that unlike the UK and other places – we really did not and still do not have good public transportation. My mom was not the kind of parent to let me roam the city on my bike (I still joke that my mom walked me across the street by the hand until I was 11 years old…), and as such, my world was very small – especially by California standards. I don’t even think I ever saw someone with brightly dyed hair or technicolor make-up until MTV came along. I mean, aside from seeing Nick Rhodes or John Taylor in magazines, anyway. MTV, along with my favorite Video One with Richard Blade in the afternoons (I would run like a crazy person home from Sunflower Intermediate School – on Sunflower Boulevard of course – in time to get there before it started), were my refuge from my nerdy reality. My parents were fairly strict with me. (and to some extent my mom still is – just the other day she announced that she doesn’t like the candy apple red streaks in my hair and wants me to get them dyed back “to normal”.) Haircuts were to be kept utterly boring and “normal”…meaning my mom told the lady how to cut my hair (take pity!!), and my clothes were suspect to my father’s standards, meaning my skirts (keep in mind this is the 80s) were to be at or below the knee. Miniskirts? Are you kidding me?? Pumps with cute little lacy socks? “Rhonda, you are only twelve years old. You may not wear heels!” So as you can see, MTV was my fantasy life in many ways that went way beyond imagining Roger Taylor coming to my front door. Videos were magical for me. They transported me beyond the lyrics into this fantasy world where the music came to life. I was able to “see” one version of what the lyrics may have meant in some respects – and in others I was able to see the bands who were performing the songs. Mostly, I was able to escape being my awkward teenage self, and vanish into the videos. I loved MTV.
In reading the books I’ve read on MTV, one thing is crystal clear: the VJs were never to be the “stars” of the network. Just as I suppose it is on radio – their job was simply to introduce the next video. I think that had the MTV execs had it their way, the audience was never meant to really know them. They weren’t meant to be a personality, per se. They were just the engine…the avenue…of getting the videos announced. What I believe the execs got wrong (among many, many other things), is that for me and probably thousands of other teenagers just like me, the VJs WERE MTV. They helped make that channel. They mattered. I listened to what they said, and I really did learn from them. I wanted to BE one of them. I don’t know about all of you readers out there – but I wanted to be Martha Quinn. (Ok, just between you and me I really wanted to be Nina Blackwood but I was never that blatantly sexy. Yes, I know she says she’s really shy and I have no doubt she tells the truth about that…but I still secretly wished I could be like her. Still do, and I still can’t!)
I think that’s kind of the point though – we all thought there was a possibility that we could be one of those VJs because they were so much like us. They weren’t already celebrities when the station started (at least not most of them, and I’m very sorry Mark Goodman but I didn’t know who you were until MTV came along…to me you were just like one of the rest of them…as was J.J. Jackson, to be honest. But I loved all of you anyway.), and they never looked so glamorous that I thought it was impossible to be one of them. They seemed normal. At least to this nerdy clarinet player from Glendora California, they did.
That’s why when I read the book (which I wholeheartedly recommend), I found myself grinning and almost in tears at times, because when it came down to it – they were like us. Dear Martha Quinn really WAS one of us…although her fangirl moments were more for Paul McCartney than John Taylor. (Which is really fine, because let’s face it – there are more than enough John-girls out there, aren’t there?!?) “During our interview, Paul sat drinking a cup of tea. When the interview was over and autographs gotten, he and Linda said goodbye and left. While packing up my gear,I looked down and saw Paul’s teacup – still half full. I froze, staring at that tea. Paul McCartney’s tea. The tea Paul himself had actually been drinking. I picked up the cup and drank the rest of Paul McCartney’s tea – I didn’t care if got a bacterial infection, if I got it from Paul. I looked around, saw nobody was looking, and put the spoon, the saucer, and the teacup into my bag. Today, it sits behind glass in my dining room – and has never been washed.” (page 388)
Come on now. Who doesn’t love Martha Quinn just a little bit more after that confession?? Bless you AND your Boy Scout shirt, Martha Quinn.
I’ve read a few MTV books now. For me, MTV has an important place in my personal history. It’s like knowing all about the California Missions, or my Sicilian heritage. MTV is truly a part of what makes me…well, me. Having read a few books on MTV, I was surprised to see some of the reviews for this one. A fair amount of reviews called this a lackluster book, saying that the VJs downplayed the real story, or glossed over a lot. To be fair I don’t know what they glossed over – I was young at the time anyway, and I didn’t get the book to read the juicy gossip crap To call this book lackluster though? I disagree.
Here’s the real deal: this is the book from the point(s) of view I cared about most – straight from the VJs. Yeah, I think it’s fantastic that all of the executives had their say in a book, and to be sure – it’s valuable, even though it seems to me as though most of them were wasted all the way through about 1995. I think its marvelous that so many musicians even remember that much of the 80s, given all of the cocaine that everyone seemed to have done along the way. However, I think it’s time to inject a little honesty into the equation: the VJs mattered to me all the way up until the time of Downtown Julie Brown…and I suppose to some degree I cared just a little bit following. I really did want to know what those first VJs thought. I wanted to know if they really got along, and I wanted to know if hindsight provided clarity for them. I didn’t care about reading whether or not they like Duran Duran, or whether or not they thought the hair bands were really all that wild – I just wanted to know what they thought of the network historically speaking. They were a part of something supremely special that will never, ever be duplicated. That’s amazing. I guess I really wanted to know what being a VJ was like. This book did all of that, and then some. The book has real heart, and that alone made it a much better and more interesting read than some of the other books I’ve read on the subject (that may or may not have been written by some rather famous Rolling Stone columnists…and I don’t apologize for my opinion on that).
I would have loved to read more about MTV incorporating more R&B, Rap and other “black music” (as the book calls it) into the rotation. I would have also loved to read more of the decision making behind going from being MTV to whatever they think they’re doing now. (because I can’t really tell for sure) Naturally – none of that is within the scope of this VJ book (but boy would I loved to have been a fly on the wall if they had ever gotten into such a discussion about things like that), and that makes complete sense. I’m just saying that someone should write books about those things, because I’d read them!
In some respects, I felt as though the VJs really wondered if they made a difference to people out there. I almost thought that they felt like they didn’t matter, and perhaps going through some of the experiences they did made them feel that way. It is in these kinds of moments where I wish this blog could reach a larger audience, because if I could say anything to them it would honestly be two words: Thank you. Sure, MTV would have probably done very well with any number of people as VJs. The thing is, the universe put these wonderful five people there for a reason, and I’m very glad they were there. I loved Nina’s vamp-ness; Martha’s bright eyed innocence, J.J’s coolness, Mark’s knowledge and Alan flat out made me laugh. They were all the things I wanted to be at 14 or 15…and when I think back on being a teenager, it is these faces I recall, right alongside those of Duran Duran. Yes, I know all of that and $3.50 might buy you a cup of coffee these days, but I hope they know they mattered to kids like me.
Bottom line: if you were an MTV kid – get the book. I think you’ll like it and you might even learn something. Besides, they do mention Duran Duran in there from time to time…and there’s even a chapter using a familiar line from a song we should all know.
Long blog…I hope you had refreshments before reading!! Sorry!