Friday, January 13, 2012

Review: 'I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution'

With that barrage of commercials instructing 7-year-old me to call my cable company and demand my MTV, I was hooked on the new basic–cable channel showing nothing but music videos even before it finally came to New York in 1982. It was the classic scenario: my sister and I would come home from school ever day, ditch our textbooks in the nearest wastebasket, plop a few inches from the T.V. screen, and vegetate until our parents came home and read us the riot act about consuming so much sexed-up, violent crap starring weird-looking specimens like Boy George, Madonna, and the increasingly cadaverous Mick Jagger. That, of course, just deepened our addiction to MTV. Years away from even becoming a record buyer, I couldn’t consume enough music videos. I wanted my MTV, and when I got it, I OD’ed. By the time that initial golden age passed, my tastes evolved beyond new wavy one-hit-wonders and made no room for shitty hair metal. I’d pretty much had enough of MTV at that mid-‘80s turning point, even as I was still strangely compelled to spend hours and hours watching it. Perhaps Martha Quinn and J.J. Jackson were too deep in my bloodstream to purge them completely.

Reading Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum’s I Want My MTV is a lot like the scenario described above. Their oral history is absolutely impossible to put down even when its initial novelty has worn off and the stories become somewhat repetitious. There’s a lot in this 600-page book about music videos going wrong, artists and executives over indulging in various substances and bodily functions, and folks looking back on the channel’s content with a fair share of embarrassment. Anyone interested in reading this book has probably heard a lot of these tales before: the endearing cluelessness of that first crop of VJs, the backlash against the channel by religious and political groups, the infamous showdown between Kurt Cobain and Axl Rose at the 1992 Video Music Awards. But such familiarity is inevitable in a book as thorough as I Want My MTV. Quite a lot of it is revelatory, such as the extent of Monkee Mike Nesmith’s role in creating the channel, Mick Jagger’s role in selling the “I Want My MTV” ad campaign, a truly outrageous story about the kid who won a contest to be Van Halen’s “roadie” for a day, a bizarre assertion about Martin Scorsese’s Casino from Bobbie Brown of “Cherry Pie” video fame, and the dangers of elephant mating when filming Duran Duran videos. It’s all wonderfully lurid, strange, and tongue-in-cheek, and the roster of interviewees is impressive: all surviving VJs, Debbie Harry, Robert Smith, Michael Nesmith, Tom Petty, Mark Motherbaugh, Stewart Copeland, Dave Grohl, Stevie Nicks, and droves of executives who partied harder and did weirder shit than a lot of the rock stars they put on TV.

Yes, 600 pages of I Want My MTV is a bit too much of a good thing. The chapter about the channel’s indisputably greatest program, the alternative showcase “120 Minutes”, is too short and too focused on mainstream acts like U2, Bruce Springsteen, and Lenny Kravitz. There’s stuff in here you might feel compelled to skim or skip, but that’s what makes it such an appropriate approximation of the over-indulgent first ten years of MTV—and it is appropriate that the book ends with the debut of “The Real World” in 1992, the moment when MTV ceased to stand for “Music Television” once and for all. Whatever its faults, I Want My MTV is almost always entertaining, addictive reading. And who could resist any book with chapter titles like “He’s Got a Metal Plate in His Head”, “A Whopping, Steaming Turd”, and “The First Time I Smelled Freebase”?

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