I Blew My MTV Audition

Back in 1980 or so, in Los Angeles, I had a disastrous try-out to be one of the original MTV VJs. I had no idea what the content was going to be, but having been on the radio and having done stand-up, I figured why not try out? By the time I wrote the article below, which appeared in Los Angeles music magazine "Music Connection" the week of April 12th-25th 1984 (25 years ago!), MTV had gone from pretty bad to much worse. So I wrote this arbor of sour grapes that I thought you might find amusing now that MTV is no longer about music.-Ed.

I blew my “screen test’ to be one of the their VJ’s, but that doesn’t disqualify me from saying that MTV is about as much fun to watch as a credit card.

Yeah, I got nervous and sped up as I read, so they rolled the teleprompter faster. I read faster. They sped up some more. I read faster. When the teleprompter read, “walk,” I said “walk,” instead of walking to where I was supposed to ad lib a commercial for an MTV T-shirt. But that won’t stop me from saying that fur of the VJ’s look and sound like they’re lithium cases. The fifth, Nina Blackwood, looks and sounds like she isn’t on the stuff, but should be.

Okay, in my screen test I mispronounced “memorabilia” as “memo-ra-b lia” but that doesn’t diminish the accuracy of my prediction that MTV will go the way or hula-hoops, drive-in restaurants, and eight-track tapes, and sooner than you might think. Its demise will be nothing to mourn over. MTV has never had life. . It circumvented the usual pattern of birth, struggle, growth, success and eventual sell-out that, for example, progressive radio underwent from its beginnings in the Sixties, by being corporately created in a “sold-out” state.

“Sold-out” because its initial programming concept was simply lifted from “regressive-rock” formats like KLOS and KMET, which, in my opinion, are in the business of pandering to base tastes.

How else can you explain the re-emergence and great popularity of heavy metal on radio and MTV? It’s awful enough to listen to Quiet Riot’s note-for-note remake of Slade’s great ten-year-old hit, “Cum Feel The Noize,” butg to see these musical vampires on MTV in the attitude and outfits of 1973, playing to an audience of leftovers from Don Kirschner’s Rock Concert, with their raised fists and long hair, is simply pathetic. Woe unto a generation of adolescents that gets its thrills listening to their older brothers’ and sisters’ stale music!

Listening to heavy metal in 1984 is like, in 1967 passing on Sgt. Pepper for The Kingston Trio!

Ironically, in the beginning, MTV had to program what they could get, and that meant a lot of “new wave,” where the rock-video revolution has its roots. Since the MTVers weren’t sure who was watching, this gave them a hedge against their real bet. Fortuitously for MTV, their airplay was the only place people could hear new music. “Regressive-rock” radio was still in its when-in-doubt—”Stairway To Heaven” phase. MTV broke a good number of bands and gained almost instant importance. But now look—mostly heavy metal and acts like Loverboy, Quarterflash, Pat Benatar, Journey—hardly anything adventurous. “Regressive-rock” roadio was readjusted to MTV and now the two more or less share the same mundane musical format.

But even the whiney women and baritone boobs of “regressive- rock” are welcome relief after a few sessions with MTV’s VJ nonentities. At least radio has the good sense to provide some comic relief a la Rick Dees and Frazier Smith. At MTV, it’s one stiff after another. The VJ’s who came from radio, like J.J. Jackson and Mark Goodman, are also handicapped by one of the great hazards of the trade, an afflication that I call “radio face,” wherein the muscles of the face—being unnecessary on radio —atrophy, resulting in a smiling, stiff, expressionless face, as in the case of Jackson, and a smug, stiff expressionless face, as in the case of Goodman. See Charley Tuna’s KHTZ television spots and you’ll get an idea of just how serious this malady can get.

In radio, one must remain “on-axis” with the mike in order to maintain a consistency of vocal sound. The VJ radio refugees are suffering under some kind of misconception that if they turn their heads off-camera, they’ll no longer be seen! Only Martha Quinn has learned the art of the offstage aside. Somehow, she’s learned to transcend sexuality, as well, but that’s another story.

VJing is a thankless job, made all the more so by MTV’s decision to try to be all things to all people. Imagine in one breath talking excitedly about Bob Dylan, Ozzy Ozbourne, and Culture Club. Who would you imagine ou’re talking to as you look into the lens, the 36-year old Dylan fan who think Culture Club is a mail-order record store, or the 15 year old Culture Clubg fan who thinks Bob Dylan is the rabbi at Temple Beth El Malibu? What would your attitude be in front of the camera if you had to announce that “Bob Whitebread of Oreo Basketcase has left the band to join Canadian heavy-metal trio Failure.” I mean, who the hell cares?

The real problem with MTV though, is not the schizophrenic metal-based musical mix, nor the “luded-out” non-style of the VJ’s, nor the fact that, in essence, MTV is really a relentless high-tech promo package. The actual death blow to MTV will be dealt by the videos themselves, not just because of their mostly bankrupt content, but because the whole concept of rock videos is not, despite their current success, viable over the long haul.

Radio keeps us company while we attend to other business: driving, homework, housework, making love, etc. We put up with the commercials, lame DJs, and a few bad songs because we get to hear (and tape) a mix of our favorite current music on a station which most closely approximates our taste.

Rock videos demand our full attention. You’ve got to watch them; can’t read a book or wash the car. And I really don’t think I want to look up during an intimate moment to see Toni Basil cheerleading her way through “Mickey.” Come to think of it, I don’t want to see that no matter what.

You’re lucky to get a couple of songs an hour you like while tuned to MTV. Meanwhile, you’ve got to sit there like a dunce wading through the crap.

When you finally get to a song you like, there’s no guarantee the video’s going to be worth watching. Mostly you get—no matter what the song—a sensuous, thick-lipped, pouty, gorgeous girl tempting, torturing, and generally shitting all over you, and the dorky types who seem to populate today’s musical terrain—like the guys in Styx.

Or you get the woman-as-object type video where their statuesque osing objectifies them as instruments of anxiety, cruelty, and fear more than as someone you’l want to grow close to. A couplea of months of steady MTV could bring out the latent homosexuality in even the most macho adolescent male.

And, lately, there’s another disturbing trend: the three minute mini-movie that has not so much to do with the song as it does with the director’s desire to self-promote himself into a feature-film job.

But this turn is only natural. The whole MTV phenomenon is one big promo man’s wet dream and, I’m afraid, nothing more. For every Peter Gabriel, David Byrne, or Bowie video worth watching, there’s a hundred John Cougar Mellencamp, Rick Springfield, Loverboy, Berlin, or ZZ Top videos to wade through—and frankly, it’s hardly worth the time.

And you know what? Even with the good ones, I still prefer the images the music summons up in my head to what some commercial director turned “artist” serves up on the screen.

As I write this, Frankenstein-cum Billy Idol, the Eighties version of Fabian, is getting his electrodes charged while dancers dressed and choreographed to resemble a cross between Night of the Living Dead characters and Nazi concentration camp victims parade around him. I’ve got the sound on “mute.” This couldn’t possibly be “Dancing With Myself”…could it? Click. It is. Click. There’s always the coverage of the barroom rape trial on Cable News Network…