It's generally understood that something about MTV was revolutionary. Perhaps it was the music video, perhaps it was the short attention span, perhaps it was The Real World, but something about MTV had enough cultural permanency that it made for a fine oral history from Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum, called I Want My MTV, in late 2011.
Now comes VJ: The Unplugged Adventures Of MTV's First Wave, written by surviving original hosts Martha Quinn, Mark Goodman, Nina Blackwood, and Alan Hunter. The last of the original five, J.J. Jackson, died in 2004. VJ memorializes the one part of MTV that turns out to have been the least interesting of all: the part where it was just like radio.
Unfortunately, much of the book either feels bafflingly irrelevant (who cares what Nina Blackwood voted for or whether Martha Quinn got good grades, really?) or like a much too late attempt to wring scandal from the idea of hanging out with rock stars. They seem to be the last to know that "I did cocaine with David Lee Roth" is no longer a particularly juicy thing to say, and neither is "Steven Tyler hit on me once." We assume these things. We got it. But when they get to talking about MTV itself, their stories seem awfully small.
Videos were rapidly growing in importance, after all. Bands were experimenting with styles and directors, people who looked terrible on camera were seeing it matter for the first time, and one bad video (the Marks/Tannenbaum book has a fantastic, dishy, uproarious chapter about Billy Squier's ill-conceived "Rock Me Tonite") could sink you.
But what turned out to be entirely retro — what turned out to be more of a last gasp than a next wave — was the initial structuring of MTV like a radio station and the idea of the "VJ." Martha Quinn herself says that when she first heard about MTV, she didn't understand that videos would be part of it. She was envisioning a radio station being shown on TV and wondering what the VJs would do on camera while the songs were playing.
In fact, aside from the fact that they were videos instead of records, nothing about the original MTV format was new, and the ability of television to disrupt the way people listened to music wound up being utterly dwarfed by the ability of personal computing to disrupt it. If you believed MTV was the future of music, you were looking over at this plugged-in box, and the future of music was over in that plugged-in box.
It's hard to remember now, but at one time, MTV really was watched just like commercial radio was listened to: you would turn it on and see what came around, and if you particularly liked a video, you'd wait a while and hope you heard it. That's what half the slumber parties of my adolescence were about: waiting for Michael Jackson or Duran Duran.
We don't wait very much anymore. It's not just that this model of MTV largely went away, or that getting most of your music listening through the radio faded. It's that the entire idea of ephemeral availability — that you would have to sit and wait for something to be played for you, and that at other times you had to do without it — is simply not how people expect to digest much of anything anymore. The VJs who believed they were at the beginning of the age of the music video were actually at the end of the age in which innovation in music would involve giving people new ways to wait for you to play the music they wanted to hear.
The VJs were the part of MTV that was legacy media. There's a curious nostalgia around it now — "Why don't they play videos anymore?" — but the answer is painfully obvious: anything you want to see, you can find on YouTube in ten seconds. Commercial radio at least has the advantage of being well-suited to being on in the background at work or while you're in the car. MTV has neither of those advantages. Continuing to play videos like they did then would be a gamble on the viewer's patience and fondness for serendipity, both of which have taken a beating in the age of the MP3 player.
And the VJs themselves were substantially more inessential than DJs were on radio, because on video, the artist and song information was on screen (foreshadowing iPods and phones that display song titles, really), so you didn't even need them to tell you ... anything. They did some interviewing, but even they admit in their own book that their interviews were of massively variable quality.
Certainly, MTV advanced particular artists and styles of music that would have been much worse off in the 1980s without it. But if MTV contributed anything meaningful to music culture outside of particular bands or genres, it certainly wasn't the VJ and it probably wasn't even the music video, which already existed and would survive being largely abandoned by the network as it became a more important pioneer of reality television than music television.
If the channel really contributed anything to the way we now think about popular music, it was probably MTV Unplugged.
At the same time the very idea of MTV was feeding fears that music was becoming ever more superficial (check out the Mobius strip of Dire Straits' "Money For Nothing," which both came from the POV of a character dismissive of video stars and had an acclaimed video), MTV Unplugged played a critical role in the development of authenticity policing. The idea that pop stars — entertainers — had to prove themselves in stripped-down formats went hand in hand with the suspicion that they were inauthentic in the first place, an idea that music videos didn't invent but certainly advanced. (Milli Vanilli released Girl You Know It's True in 1989, the same year MTV debuted Unplugged.)
The series went on to provide the obvious benefits of calculated intimacy — Eric Clapton's painfully delicate "Tears In Heaven" — as well as some deservedly indelible performances like LL Cool J's "Mama Said Knock You Out" on the "Yo Unplugged!" special. But it would also spawn performances that either bestowed or underscored the credibility associated with serious musicianship for rock and pop artists like Nirvana and Mariah Carey. Instead of embracing the genuinely revolutionary idea that what Nirvana was already doing was adequately serious and important and artistic, MTV marketed the idea that you could tell they were good because they could perform on acoustic guitars wearing cardigans. Ironically, as rock and roll as it believed its aesthetic was, MTV wound up doubling down on the idea that quiet was genuine, folk was authentic, and the electric guitar was being used to sell schlock masquerading as music. Take the lights down, turn some of the amps off; that's when you learn what's what.
Critic Sasha Frere-Jones has written that popular music is the only kind of art in which we obsess over whether artists are really what they say they are, and has pointed out that it's rather bizarre that we even care whether musicians are assuming a false persona when we don't care that actors are acting. MTV Unplugged has nevertheless fed the beast of keep-it-realness by egging on the idea that somehow, when Katy Perry does a jazz arrangement of "I Kissed A Girl," thus taking "I Kissed A Girl" completely out of the context of pop music, that's the way to tell whether she's any good or not.
In the end, MTV pushed spectacle in music, but simultaneously created a market for an authenticity proving ground, which it then filled. Just as "Money For Nothing" could be both of MTV and suspicious of MTV, artists could combat their MTV images ... on MTV. That was the way in which the channel was revolutionary: for a brief cultural moment, it was both the disease and the cure - both supply and demand.
The radio-station part, the part with the VJs, was the part that was always going to die. Not because MTV turned its back on videos, but because we turned our backs on generic interstitial blabbering as an accompaniment to curation, which we certainly still use. Now, we'll take a personalized stream from Pandora, or a playlist from Spotify, or a shuffle from an iPod, all with no hosting at all, or we'll seek out compelling, credible expertise. It's not enough to count on an unfulfilled longing to hear music — that is, the actual need to get one's hands on it — to make people tune in. The slumber parties that waited for Duran Duran videos in 1985 would just spend the night going down a YouTube rabbit hole now.
What wasn't well understood at the time about the original video-spinning format of MTV was that with regard to music, it was much more a closing chapter than an opening one. These weren't the first big VJs; they were the last big DJs. What was hyped as potentially replacing radio was actually marking time until the iPod.
A. Igoni Barrett
A. Igoni Barrett is the author of Love Is Power, Or Something Like That: Stories.
The reign of the child soldier in African literature is over.
Now, in the aftermath of its decline, the props of the regime — as with the downfall of your common blood-and-flesh despot — are being dismantled. The discerning reader has long grown weary of dead and dying stereotypes of the modern African novel: Civil wars. Black magic. Vulture-stalked refugees. In life as in literature, the stranglehold of these banal memes on African narratives is broken.
OK. Right. That's not exactly true.
Ahmadou Kourouma's last completed novel, Allah Is Not Obliged, is a chronicle of civil wars, black magic et al. But above all it is a story of "the most famous celebrities of the late 20th century."
Yes, child soldiers.
Birahima, the "rude as a goat's beard" narrator, is around 10 years old (he isn't certain) as the novel opens. After the death of his mother in a village on the Guinean-Ivorian border, he sets off for warring Liberia — in the company of a roguish clansman called Yacouba — to find his aunt, whom he hopes to live with. In Liberia he and Yacouba are stopped at a roadblock by a troop of child soldiers, and Birahima, willingly, with the gung-ho of the child for adult games, joins the rebel faction. The adventures he goes on to survive during his monthslong campaign across Liberia and Sierra Leone fill in the plot of Allah Is Not Obliged.
What shines brightest in this novel is the voice. Ribald yet naive, contemplative and at the same time chatty, the voice of Birahima is a narrative delight. Without preamble this peculiar voice is thrust at the reader from the opening sentence: "The full, final and completely complete title of my [expletive] story is: Allah is not obliged to be fair about all the things he does here on earth. OK. Right. I better start explaining some stuff."
If plot, as Aristotle states, is the soul of tragedy, then voice is without doubt the spirit of satire. The weightiness of the theme Kourouma tackles is counterpoised by his light touch. In his hands horror and humor become bedfellows, with effects that make this novel, for me, a heartbreaking yet laughter-filled read.
Bitter laughter many times; also sweet pangs of sadness, pity, regret; and always, always, at the end of each rereading, a sour aftertaste at the facts of history woven into the fiction. The influence of the child soldier might be herein declared ended, but the communal scars, the psychic resonances, the stock images, in literature and in life, for better or worse, remain still with us.
Why should you read this book rather than the surplus of other works engaging the same subject?
Here's why: the completely complete absence of sentimentalism and exoticism in Kourouma's narrative. Better still, read it because there is so much to admire and dislike and forgive in the characters of Birahima and the other child soldiers. There is so much to learn about their cultural circumstances as well as yours, their humanity as well as yours, their wartime exploits that, Allah willing, will never be yours, never be mine.
You Must Read This is produced and edited by the team at NPR Books.
In the spring of 1970, a British illustrator named Ralph Steadman had just moved to America, hoping to find some work. His first call came from a small literary journal called Scanlan's. It was looking for a cartoonist to send to the Kentucky Derby. Steadman had heard of neither the race nor the writer he was to accompany, a fellow named Hunter S. Thompson.
Steadman hadn't read any of Thompson's work, and he certainly didn't know that the writer had a bit of a drinking tendency, but he agreed to go.
One booze-riddled weekend later, Scanlan's published the essay and launched Thompson into stardom. "The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved" so fascinated audiences that one Boston Globe writer deemed it "gonzo" — a term that would stick with Hunter S. Thompson for good.
'The Real Beasts Perform'
Steadman and Thompson flew into Louisville separately and met at Churchill Downs to pick up their press credentials. As Thompson led Steadman around the racetrack, it quickly became clear that the two wouldn't be watching much horse racing.
"We went into the inner field first to just look at the people," he tells weekends on All Things Considered host Kelly McEvers. "We were really looking for odd faces. People that were kind of weird, you know? That seemed to become our real purpose."
It was Thompson's idea. They'd seek out the "whiskey gentry," as the writer called them, and there they'd find that face: "a pretentious mix of booze, failed dreams and a terminal identity crisis."
That search became the central narrative of the essay. "We didn't give a hoot in hell what was happening on the track," Thompson wrote. "We'd come to watch the real beasts perform."
At The Pendennis Club
At one point during the debauched weekend, Thompson and Steadman dined at the Pendennis Club, a private club in downtown Louisville. Thompson had arranged the upscale lunch with Steadman and a young couple Thompson knew.
"In a funny sort of way, he was an old-fashioned Kentucky boy," Steadman says.
During the lunch, the wife noticed Steadman's art supplies and asked for a portrait. Steadman was happy enough to oblige.
His trademark style, though, is distorted and a little disturbing — not exactly a lifelike reproduction. It would come to be inseparable from Thompson's writing, but at the 1970 Derby, Steadman's subjects were not often pleased.
"She said, 'That ain't pretty, I'm pretty, ain't I?' " Steadman remembers. "And Hunter said, 'Stop that filthy scribbling, Ralph.' "
The situation escalated, and the ensuing ruckus resulted in the two being forcefully escorted from the club. At least that's the way Thompson recalled it in his essay. But there's one other tiny detail to that story.
"Hunter maced people in the restaurant in order to get me out safe," Steadman says, laughing. "He was looking after me, you see."
After a hard weekend of drinking and drugs, Thompson and Steadman eventually found that face they were looking for. On the Monday morning after the race, the two stumbled out of bed and caught sight of a mirror.
"[Thompson] becomes part of the story, and that's what always happened with us," Steadman remembers. "We sort of melded together."
The Scanlan's article ends with Thompson driving Steadman to the airport, and the writer unceremoniously kicking him out of the car. That's totally true, Steadman says.
"He took me to the airport and was like, 'Get the hell outta here, you goddamn scumbag. Get outta here,' " he says. "I just thought I'd never hear from him again."
So Steadman went home to London, where he had a short-lived job with the London Times — which fired him after readers complained about his disturbing cartoons.
"Then I heard from Hunter," he says. " 'Ralph, what are you working on? Do you want to come back over here?' I said, 'What for? You told me to get out of here.' 'That was just talk, Ralph, just talk. I think I had a good time. I hope you did.' So I said, 'Yes, up to a point, yes, it was great.' "
Burt Bacharach has written huge hit songs, each recognizable after just a couple of notes: "Alfie," "What the World Needs Now," "That's What Friends Are For" — the list goes on. He's written 73 Top 40 hits, along with musical comedies and other collaborations. He's won Oscars and the Gershwin Prize. His songs are often poised on the edge between poignancy and joy, or sometimes the reverse.
Bacharach's new memoir is called Anyone Who Had a Heart. He speaks with NPR's Scott Simon about the value of melody, and writing a song about rain for a movie scene that had none.
On the value of melody
"Darius Milhaud taught me at the Music Academy of the West, and he's this brilliant French composer, wonderful man. I'm taking this composition class with him where I'd written a piece, a sonatina, for violin, oboe and piano. You know, it was very extreme music that people were writing — we were all influenced by 12-tone music, Alban Berg.
"I had this one piece at the end of the semester that I got to play for Milhaud — not with violin, not with the oboe; I just had to just do it at the piano. I was very, very reluctant when it came to the second movement, because it was quite melodic instead of being harsh and dissonant [and] avant-garde. And he took me aside afterward, and maybe he sensed what I felt or maybe just his observation was: Never be ashamed of something that's melodic, one could whistle. I said, 'Wow.' So that was a valuable lesson I learned from him. Never forgot that one. Never be afraid of something that you can whistle."
On writing "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" for the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid — in a scene without rain
"They started doing tricks on the bicycle, and it becomes a little more circusy. I just kept hearing it: "Raindrops keep falling on my head." No, there is no rain, Scott. It's a clear sky, but it's symbolic.
"Everybody connected with the film wanted Ray Stevens for the picture. He was a very hot singer at the time. He saw the movie; hated the movie. He heard the song; hated the song. [Laughs.] We got B.J. Thomas."
Clyde Edgerton is the author of 10 novels, but his latest book is nonfiction — a guide for dads. Papadaddy's Book for New Fathers: Advice to Dads of All Ages opens with a summary of Edgerton's own family situation:
I have a daughter, Catherine, aged 30. I have a 9-year-old son, Nathaniel, a 7-year-old son, Ridley, and a 6-year-old daughter, Truma. I'm 68. The age gap between the younger kids and me is not something I think about much, because I feel physically about like I did when I was 40 — or at least, I think I do. I think I ...
I just forgot what we were talking about — age?
Edgerton calls himself a C.O.D., or "Considerably Older Dad," and while his new book has advice for fathers young and old, he has special tips for men who are embarking on fatherhood later in life. He joins NPR's Melissa Block to talk about the perks and pitfalls of fatherhood, and whether he thinks of his own mortality.
On taking a "second crack" at fatherhood as an older man
"I think if your health holds up it can be a very good thing. I believe there's a secret chemical that's turned loose when you have kids that says you've got to survive, you've got to be strong — that keeps you on your toes, besides all kinds of other things, when you have three little ones running around."
On a crucial piece of advice for new fathers: Install the car seat in advance
"It could take from one to seven days to get that car seat in. The same thing with the crib — I finally finished after four days in the middle of the night, and I was so happy. I was in the living room and I started rolling it toward the baby's room, and it wouldn't go through the hall door."
On the unexpected pitfalls of animal-shaped vitamins
"You have these vitamins, and you've got a small child that wants the kitty vitamin and so you have to cut it in two, and one day I almost said, but I realized I probably shouldn't say — once I cut the little kitty in two I probably shouldn't say, 'Bad kitty!' Well, I'm afraid my little 3-year-old might not know any better and get a great big pair of scissors and go after our kitty, who was still a kitty, and we don't want that to happen. So you never know what kind of example you're setting when you do what you do."
On "sky television," one of his suggestions for entertaining children
"Kristina, my wife, and I thought about this one day when our kids were of course watching television. And we took a big blanket and put it in the backyard and said let's go lie on our back and look at the sky and call it sky television. We saw all kinds of things. I mean, what pops in my mind is a hawk flying over with a snake dangling from its beak, we saw — of course you see airplanes, but you see all kinds of birds, and it's one of those things that it just, it seems to be there but you have to discover it. So we enjoy still doing sky television once in a while."
On whether his mortality affects his parenting now more than with his first child
"You know, I think if I were not lucky enough to be as healthy as I am, I would worry a lot about that. But because I feel good physically, I really don't think about that very much. ... I was 36 when my father died, and I hope that I can live that long for my children. That will put me on up there. It's nice to have more than one little one, because while one is pushing you in the wheelchair, the other one can open the doors. I've been thinking about that a little bit."