Tag Archives: 80s

VJ: THE UNPLUGGED ADVENTURES OF MTV’S FIRST WAVE

I am 80s music-obsessed. (After all, look at the name of my blog.)  When I learned that the original MTV VJs were coming out with a memoir, I knew I had to read it. I don’t read much, if any, non-fiction, but I made a happy exception in this case.


I thoroughly enjoyed VJ: The Unplugged Adventures of MTV’s First Wave, told through the voices of Alan Hunter, Martha Quinn, Mark Goodman, Nina Blackwood, and, posthumously, the late J.J. Jackson. Those five were the original hosts on MTV when the network launched in 1981. Gavin Edwards interviewed the four and threaded together their responses to create a loose narrative detailing the six years after the fledgling network launched.

There’s lots of good behind-the-scenes scoop here – what the musicians who dropped by the studio were like; the parties and concerts the VJs attended while working for MTV; how being revered by millions of high school kids affected their personal lives. It is fun to read about how clueless they all were about MTV was when they took the job, and the impact that they – and the network – eventually had on television, music, and pop culture. The interrelationships between the five, who were were very different but quickly thrust into immediate intimacy, are also pretty interesting. They each adhered to a type – the snobby music critic, the kid, the comedian, etc. – that mostly defined them throughout their tenure together. There are some funny anecdotes about how low-rent the early days were: they rented cars to go to concerts together; they didn’t even get to watch the videos before they talked about them on air; they all shared a dressing room; and they each got a clothing budget of $500 every three months.

I didn’t have cable TV in the 80s (DC was very late to get cable and I was already in college when it finally happened), so I sadly missed the early years of MTV when some of my favorite artists were on heavy rotation. I spent a lot of this book feeling wistful for what could have been: afternoons after school watching Simple Minds, Police and U2 videos and getting to know these VJs as well as so many other American teenagers did.(Instead, I have been relegated to watching 80s videos on YouTube in my 40s after going to reunion tours at the 9:30 Club.)

If you’re still reading this review, then VJ: The Unplugged Adventures of MTV’s First Wave must appeal to you on some level. Give it a try – it’s a light but surprisingly engrossing read about a unique time at the intersection of television and music. MTV will never again be what it once was, nor will the music industry, but VJ: The Unplugged Adventures at least memorializes those bygone days.

In my next life, I want to be a VJ on MTV. (That ain’t working, that’s the way you do it…)

YOU ARE ONE OF THEM by Elliott Holt

I just finished a book that I liked quite a bit. It’s not perfect, but I thought the good was very good.

It’s called You Are One Of Them, by Elliott Holt. I picked it out because I liked the premise: Sarah Zuckerman, who grew up in DC in the early 80s (like me!) had a best friend named Jenny who lived across the street. One day, they decide to write letters to Yuri Andropov to ask for peace between the US and the USSR. Jenny’s letter is singled out by the Russian government, and she is invited to the USSR as a child ambassador to help thaw relations during the Cold War. Upon Jenny’s return to the US, she becomes a celebrity, leaving Sarah behind. But within a year, she and her family have been killed in a private place accident en route to a speaking appearance.

Many years later, Sarah receives an email from someone in (now) Russia, claiming to have met Jenny on her visit in the 80s, and suggesting that Jenny is still alive,  having defected to Russia. Sarah has to decide whether to pursue the investigation into what really happened to Jenny and, in so doing, address her unresolved issues about the demise of their friendship.

[Incidentally, about 30 pages in, there were details in You Are One Of Them that were so familiar to me that I went online to see where Holt went to school. Sure enough, she went to my small, DC private school, which explains part of why this book appealed to me so much.]

So there are basically two parts of this book – the part about Sarah and Jenny’s friendship, and the part that explores the mystery of what actually happened to Jenny. I loved, loved, loved the first part. The treachery of middle school friendships set against the dark backdrop of the Cold War was perfectly covered by Holt, down to the little notes Sarah and Jenny used to write to each other, the cruelties that adolescent girls visit on each other, and Sarah’s sense of isolation and rejection. I also enjoyed following Sarah into adulthood and seeing how she coped with her deeply flawed family and the insecurities that were ingrained from a young age.

The second part of the book was a little problematic for me. I thought that in Russia, Sarah behaved in ways that were pretty out of character. Some of the postulated theories about Jenny’s whereabouts were overly simplistic and should have had more complexity. And there is the ending itself, which has its own opacity (but which I ultimately admired). It’s hard to address the second part of the book completely without spoiling the ending, so I will leave it at that. If you’ve read it and want to discuss it, email me!

Russia plays a huge role in this book – its history, its transformation in the 90s, and the ways in which its society adapted to Western sensibilities post-Cold War. Holt has a great talent for conveying the effect of the city’s weather, architecture, and economy on the psyches of its inhabitants, whether native or ex-pat.

You Are One Of Them was my favorite book so far this summer. It’s not perfect, as I said above, but I love Holt’s writing and can’t believe this is her first novel. I will be watching carefully – “like KGB, da?” for her next one.