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.
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."
You expect to find great trees in city parks and botanical gardens. But you might not expect to find ancient or unusual trees in the inner city or smack dab in the middle of a highway.
Benjamin Swett has a love of trees so deep that he's written pamphlets about them, created photo exhibits and now has a new book, New York City of Trees. His book has pictures and stories of some 60 trees in the city.
I took a walk with him to some of the great trees, often in unexpected places.
Swett first takes me to Alley Pond Park in outer eastern Queens. It's noisy. The park stands in the middle of the Long Island Expressway and several other highways.
Swett points to what might be the tallest tree in Queens and tells me that tulip trees like this — along with white oaks and white pines — were the original tree-filled landscape when Henry Hudson arrived in 1609.
"It comes out of the earliest times," he says. "It may not have started growing itself when Henry Hudson came, but it brings us back to the times when Native Americans lived in this area and when these woods were what the whole of New York City looked like."
If you look down and up at the tree from a bluff on high, you'll see that it's huge. No one has cored it, so its age is unknown. But 13 years ago, when it was last measured, it stood 134 feet tall.
Bed-Stuy's Unusual Trees
You wouldn't expect the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn to be the home for unusual trees. But next to some nondescript brownstones there's a Southern magnolia.
With its huge waxy green leaves and white flowers when it blooms, Swett says, it shouldn't even be here.
"It is much too cold for it here," he says. "But we think that by literally hugging the side of this row of brownstones it received enough warmth to remain growing through all the severity of the northern winters."
There's a mural on the wall dedicated to Hattie Carthan, who saved the tree when developers wanted to tear it down. She convinced the Landmark Preservation Commission that the tree was so unusual it should be preserved along with the brownstones that protected it. And they were.
Queens' Huge Cedar And Katsura Trees
There's a huge cedar of Lebanon that sits within a protected gate in Flushing Queens. It's another tree that is hard to grow in this city, but can live for 1,000 years in the Middle East.
In the 19th century, Kissena Park, also in Queens, was a nursery run by the Parson family. Fredrick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux got many of the trees they planted in Central and Prospect parks from Kissena.
We come across some beautiful Katsura trees in straight rows. This tree originally covered the world, but later survived only in Asia. So why is it now in backyards all over the United States?
"In the middle of the 19th century," says Swett, "a consul to Japan, who had been appointed by President Lincoln, sent some seeds back to his brother in Brooklyn."
And he passed them on to the Parson family.
Swett says trees actually connect people with the city physically. "Each growth layer that they put on every year contains a bit of the air from that year, transformed into carbon, and so the tree physically holds the years and years of the life of the city," he says.
And of course trees become part of people's lives, their history and memories.
Manhattan's Hangman's Elm?
The last tree we look at is back in Manhattan. I have probably passed it 100 times walking through Greenwich Village and Washington Square Park. And like so many, I never noticed it, although it's probably 220 years old, an English elm standing 135 feet high when last measured almost 30 years ago.
"This tree, for many years, was known informally around the city as the Hangman's elm because it was thought that during the American Revolution traitors had been hung from one of its long branches that used to sneak out over the nearby street," Swett says.
It turns out hangings did not take place on the tree, which was probably planted in the 1790s, but there may have been a gallows nearby.
Swett says trees have psychological and emotional meaning that we often don't even realize until one is cut down. And a couple of the trees in his book are already gone.
Twenty years ago, when brain imaging made it possible for researchers to study the minds of violent criminals and compare them to the brain imaging of "normal" people, a whole new field of research — neurocriminology — opened up.
Adrian Raine was the first person to conduct a brain imaging study on murderers and has since continued to study the brains of violent criminals and psychopaths. His research has convinced him that while there is a social and environmental element to violent behavior, there's another side of the coin, and that side is biology.
"Just as there's a biological basis for schizophrenia and anxiety disorders and depression, I'm saying here there's a biological basis also to recidivistic violent offending," Raine, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the new book The Anatomy of Violence: The Biological Roots of Crime, tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross.
Raine says this re-visioning of violent criminals could potentially help direct how we approach crime prevention and rehabilitation.
"I think prisoners ... [are] not motivated to change, really," he says, " ... because they just think they're a bad, evil person. If we reconceptualized recidivistic crime as a criminal disorder, would we make them more amenable to treatment?"
The key question that preoccupies Raine, however, is that of punishment and the question of the death penalty.
"Simply put," he says, "if bad brains do cause bad behavior, if brain dysfunction raises the odds that somebody will become a criminal offender — a violent offender — and if the causes of the brain dysfunction come relatively early in life ... should we fully hold that adult individual responsible?"
"I've got to be careful here. There's no destiny here. Biology is not destiny, and it's more than biology, and there's lots of factors that we're talking about there, and one factor like prefrontal dysfunction or low heart rate doesn't make you a criminal offender. But what if all the boxes were checked? What if you had birth complications and you were exposed to toxins and you had a low resting heart rate and you had the gene that raises the odds of violence, et cetera, et cetera, stuff happening early on in life. I mean, you're not responsible for that. Then how in the name of justice can we really hold that individual as responsible as we do ... and punish them as much as we do — including death?"
On studying psychopaths
"The most striking thing I found working one-to-one with psychopaths is ... how I really liked being with them, which is shocking and at the time surprising to me but, gosh, I loved dealing with the psychopaths because they were great storytellers. They were always fun. They were always interesting, and I was fascinated most of all with how they could con and manipulate me."
On the possible correlation between lead exposure and violence
"In the '70s, '80s and '90s, violence went up in America. What was causing that? Well, one hypothesis: It was the increase in environmental lead in the '50s, '60s and '70s. You know, lead in gas, for example. So, in the 1950s, little toddlers were playing outside, putting their fingers in dirt, putting their fingers in their mouths and absorbing the lead. Twenty years later, they became the next generation of violent criminal offenders because violence peaks at about 19 or 20. Then what happens is in the 1990s violence begins to come down, as it's been doing. What's partly explaining that? The reduction in lead in the environment. In fact, if you map environmental lead levels over time like that and map it onto the change in violence over time, lead can explain 91 percent of those changes. And to me, it's the only single cause that can both explain the precipitous rise in violence from the '70s, '80s and '90s and also the drop that we've been experiencing."
On what the fact that he has a brain scan similar to that of serial killer Randy Kraft means to him
"It makes you wonder, you know, what put me on one side of the bars in those four years in top-security prison when I was interviewing someone, when maybe with a different life course and other factors in my life, it could have flipped just the other way around? I've got a low resting heart rate. I'm a bit of a stimulation seeker, and, yes, I've got a brain scan like a serial killer. I had poor nutrition as a kid. ... What stopped me [from] becoming a killer, for example, or becoming a violent offender? I was anti-social from the age of 9 to 11. I was in a gang, smoking cigarettes, setting fire to mail, letting car tires down. ... But I've been intrigued: Why didn't I stay on that pathway? And it's an area that we need to do so much more on: protective factors. What protects some people who have some of the risk factors from actually becoming an offender? I think in my life, for example, I had parents who sort of loved me. I always felt loved. There was always a roof over my head. There was always a secure environment. And I got on with my brothers and sisters. You know, and maybe that's the critical ingredient: some love."
On changing his mind about the death penalty after being the victim of a violent crime
"At that point in time, I'd always been against the death penalty. I mean, I'm from England. We don't have the death penalty there, you know. You just think, 'That's crazy, having the death penalty.' After being that victim, I changed my mind about that because it made me feel more about victims' experience and how maybe — maybe in some cases — it could give them a sense of closure. Now I would not be ruled out of the jury on a death penalty case, but I'm not proud of that."
On reconciling the victim part of him with the criminologist part of him
"I'm a Jekyll and Hyde. So there's a Dr. Jekyll inside of me that's done the research, seen these risk factors, done longitudinal studies, documented these early risk factors beyond the individual's control that moves them into a criminal way of life, and that Dr. Jekyll is saying, 'You know, you can't ignore this. You can't turn a blind eye to the biology of violence and the social factors, too.' But there's a Mr. Hyde inside of me ranting and raving and saying, 'Look, I don't want sob stories. I don't want excuses. There's a cause for all behavior. We can always find a cause for behavior. ... It comes from the brain: So what? We found the cause. OK, great.'
"You know, what about the victim? What about how they feel and what about that sense of retribution, you know? What about deterrence? So, I mean, I go backwards and forwards on this, and I bet I'll change my mind again at some point in time. ... The scientist inside of me says, 'You know, that deterrence aspect — especially to capital punishment — that's not working,' and I don't think the science really shows it, too, but ... there's a part of me that says, 'It's an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth and a pound of flesh: My throat was slit, his throat should be slit.' I mean, that's just how you feel as a victim. ... Kids need to be socialized and punished for bad behavior, and doesn't that also apply as adults? If you buy into the argument, that Dr. Jekyll inside of me says then all bets are off: Nobody's responsible. You can't have that. That's what Mr. Hyde says."