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…)