If you, like me, came of age in the 1980s, chances are you spent a lot of time hanging out with the five original MTV VJs. They helped us do our homework, occupied our weekends and made us feel way cooler than we actually were. The original music video network launched at 12 midnight on August 1, 1981 in somewhere between one and two million households, but oddly enough, not in Manhattan, their city of origin. The team that created this new channel had to gather in a bar in New Jersey just to watch the kick off to an era with “Video Killed the Radio Star” and “You Better Run”. Yet even in its infancy, none of the pioneers involved ever doubted the brand and the format was going to be a success. (Well, maybe Alan Hunter, who kept his bartending job for at least a month after starting his VJ gig.) This group of trailblazers has released a new book, VJ: The Unplugged Adventures of MTV’s First Wave. It’s written in an oral history format that allows them to share, in their own voices, a wide range of stories about their personal histories as well as their experiences in a burgeoning industry they simply don’t get enough credit or respect for helping to create and shape.
The book is engrossing from page one, immersing you in the era with backgrounds on each of the surviving VJs as well as J.J. Jackson, who passed away from a heart attack in 2004. You get a sense of just how lucky but also how ambitious they all were, regardless of their different origins and experience prior to starting at MTV. J.J. and Mark were the ones who had actually been DJs, Nina and Alan had theater backgrounds, and Martha was fresh out of NYU and a radio internship at WNBC. There are no holds barred with how the group discusses their former bosses, but on the whole, they’re not mean or petty, just honest. Mark Goodman shares a phone conversation overheard that revealed the crew was cast as types that weren’t very flattering: the Jew, the black guy, the vixen and the jock (Quinn would fill the “girl next door” role soon after.) Whatever the formula was, it worked. The jocks shared a dressing room for the first couple of years, which helped them form a family-like bond that remains today.
Alan Hunter thought of the job as another acting role, while Jackson was considered the consummate pro and father figure. Blackwood (who was somewhat hampered by the revelation of a 1978 Playboy shoot and bouts of depression in later years) was cast as a rocker chick, but was really more of a free spirited hippie. She was also a tad naïve–one story about her not picking up on signals from John Cougar Mellencamp ended innocently enough—but smart enough to get out before she could be let go. Mark was the de facto leader of the team and Martha was America’s Sweetheart, sure she’d work there forever. But times changed, the executives wanted something new, and the reality hit all five hard when they found themselves with a lot more fame than money, looking for new jobs.
None of the stories about strung out rock stars are shocking, but learning that the VJs partied as hard as the musicians provides some interesting anecdotes. Other stories about how musicians came to view the network as an essential part of their marketing and branding, as well as how it evolved from a fledgling basic cable channel to an industry powerhouse are woven throughout. The recollections about events like New Year’s Eve, The US Festival and Live Aid are awash in good old nostalgia, and great to think back on as if they just happened.
Details on the many years that followed after each VJ left the channel are much less plentiful, and after getting to know the group so intimately, and root for them, it would have been great to see more about how Martha Quinn, for example, rebounded from having no health insurance and collecting unemployment after her contract expired, praying no one recognized her while she stood in line. Getting any or all of the VJs’ takes on the state of MTV today would have been pretty cool as well. There are a few passing comments on the subject, but I know I would have loved more.
Regardless, fans of pop culture will find this a fun, fast and essential read.