I want my MTV. I keep getting Snooki’s.
MTV celebrates the Fourth of July by declaring its independence from reality television. The initialism that formerly stood for Music Television returns for twelve hours to what it once did 24/7/365: music videos. Perhaps the move will inspire the network formerly known as The Learning Channel to ditch Long Island Medium and the History Channel to take a respite from Ice Road Truckers.
MTV, after all, is contagious. Cable’s reality obsession proves that.
The surreal announcement that MTV will play music videos comes in the wake of VJ: The Unplugged Adventures of MTV’s First Wave, a memoir by the four surviving original video jockeys. “To this day,” Martha Quinn writes, “I have dreams that I’ve been fired by MTV. In my dream, I’m going to a party. I can see that Mark [Goodman] and J.J. [Jackson] and Al [Hunter] are all having a really good time, but nobody will talk to me because I’m not allowed in that area anymore.” But viewers aren’t even allowed in that area anymore, save for a few hours during a backyard holiday when the television is off.
The group memoir recounts tales of Alan Hunter snorting lines with David Lee Roth to an audience of onlookers (“they were all just watching us do blow”); Nina Blackwood finding herself a subject of the #1 hit “Missing You” by former beau John Waite; Martha Quinn on an ill-fated date with Paul Stanley in which a bowling loss compels the Kiss frontman to inspect the lane for defects; Mark Goodman “hooking up in the bathroom” midflight with the winner of the network’s “Asia in Asia” contest (“the mile-high club is great in theory”); and a sweaty and jumpy J. J. Jackson getting through his morning broadcast via the same chemicals that fueled him the night before.
They partied like rock stars. They weren’t paid like them.
The stingy network initially awarded Quinn a paltry $26,000 annual salary. She couldn’t afford cable so, as one of the fledgling medium’s most identifiable faces, she stole it. Alan Hunter, an actor with bit parts in David Bowie’s “Fashion” video and the movie Annie, earned $27,500. He elected to keep his bartending night job. J.J. Jackson and Mark Goodman, veterans of FM rock radio, earned more than double. But on a channel less music than television, the popularity of the younger, more camera-friendly VJs soon eclipsed their colleagues with more impressive rock CVs.
In the beginning, MTV was a transplanted-to-television album-oriented rock station, albeit one that leaned heavily on New Wave imports. Outside of Musical Youth’s “Pass the Dutchie” and Eddy Grant’s “Electric Avenue,” few black performers won saturation airplay on the promotional juggernaut. So, the VJs found themselves on the defensive from recording executives charging racism. Country stations didn’t play The Waitresses. Why should MTV play Michael Jackson?
“We were ecstatic when ‘Billie Jean’ got added — art trumped format,” Quinn remembers. “What we didn’t see at the time was how it was the foot in the door to expanding the format. And then it became a constant exercise in expanding it a little more: How about a game show? How about a reality show?” The start of MTV’s end didn’t come with Remote Control or Real World but with “Billie Jean.”
When Quinn refused to ask Robert Palmer a trashy question at 1986’s Video Music Awards, she sealed her fate. “I went on unemployment, because I couldn’t pay my rent. That was my lowest point: Less than a year after that Robert Palmer interview, I was standing on line at the unemployment office in Van Nuys, California, praying that nobody would recognize me.” The reality of her post-MTV life dawned on her at a stoplight where, from her Honda Accord, she spotted acting school classmate Heather Locklear in her Porsche Turbo Carrera. “She was going home with her husband, Motley Crue’s drummer — I was heading back to Sherman Oaks, where I had a roommate because I didn’t have the money to pay the rent myself.”
Regrets? They have a few. Goodman spends much of VJ apologizing to his then wife Carol Miller for his serial adultery and admits that hard living has led to cirrhosis. “We’re the reason you have no attention span,” Goodman confesses. “And you can really pin reality TV on us too. You’re welcome.” Nina Blackwood laments that she exuded a sexpot image when she was in fact a prude. “I have very few regrets in life, but posing for Playboy is probably my biggest,” Blackwood recalls of a pre-MTV shoot that came back to haunt. Mom Martha Quinn now cringes at some of the videos she played then: “I have to admit, now I see where Tipper Gore and the [Parents Music Resource Center] were coming from.”
A Sunset Blvd. quality colors the retrospective. One can imagine Quinn and company surfing the web for old clips the way I do. If they searched back far enough, they would discover a Sunset Blvd. vibe present at the creation. What else is “Video Killed the Radio Star” but an aural reinterpretation of a dilapidated Gloria Swanson watching her old movies?
“In the beginning, everyone told us MTV wouldn’t last,” Quinn recalls. “As it turns out, they were right — our MTV doesn’t exist anymore.” For twelve hours on the Fourth of July, MTV lives again — if but as a ghost of its former self. But it’s never the same the second time around.
We can’t rewind. We’ve gone too far.