Cannonball Read IV: I Want My MTV by Craig Marks and Rob Tanenbaum
It seems like oral histories are becoming a more and more prominent way to explore a specific event in pop culture. Last year I read both the oral history of Saturday Night Live and the oral history of Chris Farley's life and death, and Grantland recently put out a pretty incredible one about Friday Night Lights; there was a funny one about the short-lived Party Down, etc.
I will always prefer well-researched, well-written non-fiction books to straight oral histories. Sometimes (a lot of the time), even with creative, funny people who were involved in these movies or shows or lives, the straight retelling of events can become somewhat boring, and even though these people are speaking their own words, you lose a lot of the voice that made their work of fiction so compelling.
It's a similar deal here, where Craig Marks and Rob Tanenbaum let the executives, VJs, artists, and directors tell the story of how MTV was created and flourished. Literally, the most dynamic voice on the page here belonged to Sebastian Bach. He's funny and ironic and has a billion times more charisma than most of the other musicians in these pages (Marks and Tanenbaum interviewed hundreds of people for this book). Sample: "I'm looking at [my hair] right now. It's so flaxen!" and he's ultimately a footnote in music history. For such a creative group of people, they all sound kind of the same.
I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution only covers the channel's inception through 1992. I was born in 1984 and thus don't have much memory of a lot of the events and artists covered in the pages. I know who Warrant, Winger, Whitesnake, Poison, and Motley Crue are, of course, and I like them in a cheesy and ironic way, but I don't think I ever realized how heavily MTV played and relied on hairbands in the early '80′s. I never knew that MTV initially resisted playing Michael Jackson videos (there are some very interesting stories of racism and sexism - sexism bordering on misogyny - in these pages). I learned a lot about videos I had never seen and spent a lot of time on youtube while I was reading, so that was fun.
Since I began watching MTV in the mid-to-late '90′s, I was already familiar with their non-music programming. Marks and Tanenbaum give quite a lot of space to those who defend and those who deride the decision for MTV to move away from only showing music videos. It's interesting to see the divide even amongst the network's brass, and how the artists and their teams were affected. Still, it was odd to get only one chapter on The Real World, which is arguably one of the biggest television shows ever created. There's also an even longer chapter on Remote Control, which again I don't think I can fully appreciate the relevance of, as I never watched it when it originally aired.
I really, really wish the book could gave gone at least through 2000. I would have loved to have heard more about grunge exploding (we get a lot on Nirvana, of course, but nothing on their amazing 1993 Unplugged), which is very briefly touched upon but obviously extended beyond '92; I'd love insight into the era of Britney, Christina before she became X-Tina, NSYNC, and the Backstreet Boys. Dave Holmes is included all over this text, because he is clearly one of the best VJs, but I would have liked to have heard from Idalis and John Sencio (the internet just told me he hosts a show on HGTV?). I would tooootaally read a Volume Two if I could be guaranteed that Chris Hartwick would just shit all over MTV and Singled Out for a few paragraphs. I would read a Volume Two, regardless - this was a fun if not earth-shattering book, and for nearly 600 pages was a quick read.
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This review is part of the volunteer Cannonball Read IV. Read all about it.
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