27 June 2012

Summer Reading: Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum Make Me WANT MY MTV

I started watching MTV in secret when I was 11 or 12. I was just old enough to be allowed to stay home by myself while my parents were out running errands, and when I heard the garage door close I would creep up to my parents' room to watch their TV. I remember the texture of the purple corduroy pillow I would sit on to watch so I wouldn't leave a tell-tale crease in my parents' bed. I don't think I ever asked permission; I just knew it wasn't allowed.

Whatever was on, I would watch, but back then mostly I watched videos. This was the era of Prodigy and No Doubt, of Missy Elliott wearing a coat like a garbage bag and Fiona Apple rolling around on the floor. Biggie and Tupac had just died, but I wouldn't understand the significance beyond the tribute videos for a long time. I loved "Daria" and thought it might be fun to be on "The Real World" (this was back when they made them all get jobs and weren't full-time drunk hot messes).

I wasn't around to see the first golden age of MTV when the channel flipped on with "Video Killed the Radio Star," but nor do I feel insta-nostalgic for whatever JWOWW did last week. As a creation myth, Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum's oral history of MTV was an eye-opener for me, and even when I got to the aspects of its history I was familiar with, the detail they dug up over what must have been thousands of interviews made the retelling new.

Before delving into the videos we know and loved (or hated), Marks and Tannenbaum spend a fair amount of time explaining the way that the channel was shaped by its shoestring budget and casual operation. MTV began as a small pet project of a giant corporation with the budget of a rounding error, and couldn't afford to pay record labels for their videos (most of which were promotional pieces aimed at Australian or European audiences) -- so they convinced labels to air them for free, and played whatever they had. Cable owners didn't want to pick the channel up, so one executive begged Mick Jagger to record a commercial that would appeal to viewers to demand it -- the legendary "I Want My MTV" spot. They couldn't afford famous on-air talent, so they did a talent search and picked 5 unknowns to be the first "VJs," who look back on their time at MTV with fondness but feel a little cheated by their old contracts.

Some of the more salacious details about past misdeeds on sets and catering money going to less legal pleasures go unchecked, but Marks and Tannenbaum probably have at least one tidbit that will shock you even if you've heard it all. Mine concerned Rod Stewart, some lovely ladies and the River Cafe, a respectable upscale restaurant here in Brooklyn... and that's all I'll say about that. I'd recommend this book for trivia obsessives, people who like to wax nostalgic about the "good old days" of music videos and anyone who, like me, wishes to have been present at the creation.

A place I took this book in 100 words or less: Long Island City, Queens for work. Warehouses scrolling by on every block interspersed with views of the UN. A parking lot containing small planes instead of cars. Stained-glass windows on the platform of the elevated train, representing shops on the street and a train itself. I took a picture of the platform's Art Deco detail and accidentally captured a man in the foreground who was sitting in the trunk of his hatchback. Winds chased each other down to the river as if pulled by gravity. Sandals over cobblestones. Sunshine and no one.

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