If you are close to my age, there’s a good chance that between 1981 and 1992 all you wanted was your MTV. If so, you will find I Want My MTV: The Uncensored History of the Music Video Revolution by Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum to be informative, eye opening and entertaining.
What did I like about the book? First of all, music videos came along at the perfect time in my life. For the whole of the 80’s, I was basically a student, first in pre-med, then medical school, and I closed out the decade as a surgery resident. What do college students, medical students and surgery residents do with their precious spare time? They go out, to bars and parties, or hangout (usually hungover) in dorm rooms and apartments. And everywhere we went, MTV was on, providing a ubiquitous soundtrack for our lives. So, for me, getting a behind-the-scenes look at the cable channel that became part of my daily life for a decade was not only of historical interest, but also vastly entertaining.
Secondly, I like the way the book was written. The authors could have presented us with a linear history of events and a dry dissertation of who said what, and who did what to whom. Instead, they divided the book into sections (that do follow a linear timeline), but within those sections, the story is told by the VJ’s, artists, video directors, industry executives, models/video vixens, crew members … anyone who had anything to do with the production and airing of music videos. And most importantly, the story is told in their words, thus the Uncensored part of the title. Each chapter opens with a paragraph or two from the authors, which provides context. The authors then recede into the background and allow the rest of the story to be told in a series of anecdotes from those who were there. For example, I was a big Billy Squire fan, then he just fell off the map. I always wondered why, and in the chapter titled “A Whopping Steaming Turd: The Worst Video Ever Made,” I found out why. It goes something like this:
BILLY SQUIRE: I came up with “Rock Me Tonight” on holiday in Greece, swimming off Santorini. I came out of the water and said to my girlfriend, “I’ve got a hit for the next record.”
MIKE KLEBER: “Rock Me Tonight” is often ranked as one of the worst music videos of all time.
RUDOLPH SCHENKER: I liked Billy Squire very much, but then I saw him doing this video in a very terrible way. I couldn’t take his music seriously anymore.
Watch the video before reading the rest of the post:
ARNOLD STIEFEL: Duran Duran videos were pretty light in the loafers, for straight men. But did Billy not notice the pastel satin sheets? I mean, I don’t know that Barry Manilow ever did such a gay video. Billy was dancing like Donald O’Connor and Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain. It’s more than swishy. He was jumping on beds and ripping off his shirt. He’s the world’s most horrible dancer. This is the great Kenny Ortega [the director of the video, who would go on to direct the High School Musical series.] How could he have allowed such a thing?
BILLY SQUIRE: When I saw the video, my jaw dropped. It was diabolical. I looked at it and went, “What the fuck is this?” […] My girlfriend said something like “This is gonna ruin you.”
We hear more from Billy, and we get Kenny Ortega’s side of the story. Record company and MTV executives chime in. And now I know what killed Billy Squire’s career: A poorly conceived music video.
Some of my other favorites include:
“Midgets, Models and Trannies–The First Visionaries and Victims of the Music-Video Era.”
“I’m Not Like Other Boys–How Michael Jackson Saves a Struggling Network From Itself.”
“He’s Got a Metal Plate in His Head–MTV and Van Halen Team Up to Nearly Kill a Super-Fan.”
“I’d Like to Thank My Cheekbones–Jon Bon Jovi and Tawney Kitaen Take Hair Metal to the Top.”
“I Want to Have a Nickname–How MTV Helped Michael Jackson Elect Himself the King of Pop.”
“A Pep Rally Gone Wrong–“Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Grunge, and the Hair Metal Apocalypse.”
“Getting Out of the Music Business–This is the True Story … Of What Happened When The Real World … Took Over MTV … and Made Music Videos … Obsolete.”
Of course, there are many more chapters covering equally fascinating topics. (45 more to be exact. It’s a long book.)
For you readers who lived through, or are interested in, the pop culture excess of the 80’s, you’ll enjoy this book. For you writers of nonfiction who want to chronicle an era of historical interest, this book serves as a shining example of how to tell a linear history without it reading like a linear history.
If you’ve already read the book, I’d love to hear what you think.