Long before Snooki, there was music. It seems quaint to remember a time when Americans didn’t have cable TV, before music videos and reality stars, but the original MTV VJs describe the beginning of one of the most influential media experiments of all time in “VJ: The Unplugged Adventures of MTV’s First Wave.”
Video jockeys Nina Blackwood, Mark Goodman, Alan Hunter and Martha Quinn — with help from rock writer Gavin Edwards — provide an oral history of the launch of the network that pioneered unscripted entertainment, and brought Michael Jackson’s dance moves and Jon Bon Jovi’s hair into our living rooms.
The book is an easy-to-read compilation of interviews with the VJs. A fitting subtitle would be “Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll.” The VJs’ candor about their relationships and behind-the-scenes antics and politics will be nirvana for pop culture fans.
It’s a totally tubular testament to the excess of the ‘80s, chockfull of the crazy stories you’d expect — from David Lee Roth’s groupie sexcapades to backstage cocaine binges, infidelity and post-MTV career difficulties.
The authors celebrate what brought them together: their passion for music and the people who make it. They marvel at their incredible access to music legends and popular bands, from Madonna’s first club dates to covering Live Aid. They dish about some of music’s biggest names, but say overall the more famous and talented performers — think Jagger, Bono, Dylan, McCartney — were also the nicest.
The book is dedicated to J.J. Jackson, the fifth original VJ, who died of an apparent heart attack in 2004. The group pays homage to the most experienced of the VJs in many stories and old interviews.
Lyrics from the ‘80s serve as chapter headings and organize the narrative, while reminding readers of some of the best songs of the iconic era. Photos of the VJs’ memorable interviews illustrate anecdotes and show off their big hair. MTV put rocker style on the map, and the VJs fondly remember neon colors, parachute pants, ripped tights and shoulder pads. “MTV really was the epicenter of hip ... on the leading edge, at the beginning of every new trend ... always morphing before viewers had a chance to catch up,” says Hunter.
Readers may be surprised that the VJs were overworked and underpaid throughout their time at the channel. Quinn says she made a “whopping $26K,” and often helped the crew when they needed a hand. They put in 14-hour shifts and often felt unappreciated by management, music critics and the press.
One compelling tidbit is the VJs’ and network executives’ different versions of how Michael Jackson originally got on MTV. The authors say when that when the “Billie Jean” video first came out, management resisted playing it because it was too urban and didn’t fit into the channel’s rock format. When CBS Records finally forced MTV to play it, it opened the door to expanding content, which led to new viewers and innovative programming.
“VJ” will evoke nostalgia in readers who remember the ‘80s. Grateful for their role in the MTV revolution, the authors say when watching it today, they don’t recognize the network they helped build. Reality hits like “Jersey Shore” and “Teen Mom” have replaced most of the videos.
But MTV is always evolving. As Goodman says, we can blame the network for changing the face of entertainment. “We’re the reason you have no attention span. And you can pin reality TV on us too. You’re welcome.”