Any trivia buff worth their salt knows the answer to this question: What was the first video ever played on MTV? And if you’re really sharp, you’ll even know the group. (answer at bottom of post). I thought we would take an interesting departure from the norm and take a look at VJ: The Unplugged Adventures of MTV’s First Wave.
You’re probably wondering, what in the world can you learn from a book about the five celebrity MTV VJ’s and their launch of the music video age. As I found out, quite a bit.
The original MTV VJ’s were Nina Blackwood, Mark Goodman, Alan Hunter, Martha Quinn and the late J.J.Jackson. If you grew up as part of Generation X these people were every part of your youth as parachute pants, Camaros, and The Breakfast Club.
They brought us the music of our youth, but they did not bring it to us the way the baby boomers heard their music. For the boomer generation it was all about the radio and the live concert. Music television promised to not only combine audio and video, it would eventually elevate to a level where each music video was a small, wholly developed miniature movie. Suddenly, just being able to play good music wasn’t enough, you also had to look really good doing it.
But what about the five people who started this entirely new way of listening to music? Reading their story I found lots of little gems along the way about how to succeed, how to persevere and how things get done in the real world.
Today, MTV ironically doesn’t play music anymore. But it also served as the launch platform for another cultural phenomenon, reality TV. While it can be argued that some of the early shows like Star Search, were the initial forms of reality TV, MTV set the bar and established the format., when you think about. . . this is the true story of seven strangers picked to live in a house and have their lives taped. Find out what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real.
I should also note, that of the original five MTV VJ’s, J.J. Jackson is no longer with them having passed away at age 62 in 2004. But you can still hear Mark, Martha, Alan, and Nina today on SiriusXM 80s on 8. Yes, it is the most frequently visited station on my serious radio.
All of the VJ’s came from various backgrounds but they had to come together or else the project would look unbalanced – everyone had a role to play. JJ was the man about town who everybody knew, Mark was the industry expert who knew everything about music, while Alan was sort of learning as he went along. Nina was designed to be the edgy sexy one (nothing new there, we all pretty much knew that), and the Martha was supposed to be the girl next-door who every guy in America wanted to sleep with. Again, no surprise here either as every guy I talk to too to this day who came of age in the 80s still carries the same fantasy. Yes Martha, you’re still hot.
I learned is that in any endeavor, when it starts, it is usually pretty shoestring, but there is a benefit to that. The sets are sparse and the props are typically something one of the actors found on the way to the studio. Much of what goes on is very impromptu and spontaneous. In other words, just like a YouTube clip today.
Also, many of the polished celebrity personas that you see today were a work in progress for many years. Just like all of us, we will change over time but like I tell my students, growth is a choice but change is inevitable.
See, when I was a kid I used to read Cinemagic magazine and try to figure out how to make movies like Steven Spielberg or George Lucas. I got an 8 mm camera and an Editor. However, most of my stuff would typically result in a lot of footage of us blowing stuff up in my parents garage. It certainly didn’t look like what I saw on the big screen at the Cooper Theatre on Colorado Boulevard, so I declared myself a failure as a filmmaker and moved on to other hobbies. (I still have a reel-to-reel 8mm projector and the Editor if anyone is interested).
Years later after seeing some of Steven Spielberg’s work when he was a kid, I realized I should’ve just pushed forward because his amateurish early films looked a lot like mine – you need those early years in order to build a foundation from which you can learn to do the amazing stuff that people will bill pay you billions for later.
The key lesson here that I learned, and that was reinforced in the MTV book, is you start with what you’ve got, wherever you’re at. Not everything will be perfect and in fact maybe it shouldn’t be. If you have a bright idea and an Angel or venture capitalist throws millions of dollars of money at you, it might be too much. When you encounter problems, throwing money at it is not always the best solution. Sometimes you must innovate and get creative when you don’t have all of that cash. This not only helps build a little bit of character and humility, it also helps you learn new ways to overcome obstacles and get things done – it helps build your creative muscle.
Something else I have learned is that you may not always think you were the one the right one for the position. But sometimes others see something in you that you do not and occasionally you have to take a step outside of the comfort zone as Martha Quinn did when she said yes to the MTV gig (VJ’s 35).
Although Martha tried to turn the job down and refer others to it one day they called and asked her if she would like to have a job where she flies around the country and interviews rock stars and goes to concert and is on TV. She took the job without even asking how much it paid and she was only 22 years old (VJs’ 36). There is an old saying in Hollywood that goes: “don’t leave before the miracle.”
Despite the fact each of the MTV VJ’s had various levels of experience in the music business there was one commonality in that they all did have at least some experience in the music business. This is another important point to remember, it is easier to get a job in the industry when you’re already in the industry.
Whenever a student of mine asks me the best way to get a job in aviation I tell them to go get a job in aviation. It sounds like double speak but let me explain. When you were on the outside attempting to get a job on the inside, it is like being outside a gigantic Castle wall, and lobbying your resume over the wall hoping it will land in the right person’s hands, and that person will be impressed enough with you (on paper at least) to open the castle gate and allow you in for a quick discussion.
When you are already on the inside of the castle walls, it is much easier to move throughout the kingdom and connect one-on-one with the people that you were trying to impress. Plus, you’re in the “know.” You get the inside scoop. When I left my Sound and Photo job at Target and took a job tossing bags at Stapleton International Airport, I took a decrease in pay and had crappier hours. However, I started to learn about all sorts of other opportunities at the airport, and met the people who could make stuff happen.
It is easier to build your reputation for adding value and being an expert within the castle walls then it is outside of them.
If you’re trying to get a job in some industry, figure out a way to get a job either within the industry had a lower level or in a supporting role. Whether that is as a 1099 contractor (which is becoming very common and very effective these days) for a job that is currently beneath your station that is at least inside the castle walls.
I will admit that I read this book several months ago and it’s sat on my shelf for awhile. I read it because I enjoyed our original VJ’s and still enjoy them on SiriusXM, but I wasn’t sure I could turn it into a “What I learned from. . . ” entry. But, after having gone through my highlights and notes, I find I’m learning a ton and I look forward to bringing that to you. As they say: don’t leave before the miracle.
Answer: Video Killed the Radio Star by The Buggles
Blackwood, Nina, Goodman, Mark, Hunter, Alan and Quinn, Martha, and Edwards, Gavin. VJ: The Unplugged Adventures of MTV’s First Wave. New York: Atria, 2013. Print.