I! Love! Reading! About! Music! History! It’s just who I am as a person. And I especially love reading about music history when it’s done with as much warmth and sensitivity as Gerrick Kennedy’s biography of Whitney Houston, Didn’t We Almost Have it All. As soon as he started talking about his relationship to music (not just Houston’s), I knew I’d enjoy the book. I feel the exact same way: music can bring joy and an escape. And the book is extremely approachable, too; it’s written in a casual tone. (Sometimes too casual – there were moments when the repeated use of “shit” was jarring.)
I was particularly compelled to pick up Whitney’s story because it’s actually not one I know a lot about. I’m from the era just after her star, so brilliant, bright, and game-changing, had begun to fade. I do, of course, know her big songs – don’t we all? As Kennedy points out, it’s wild that just four songs made her a global superstar.
Kennedy writes, “Because Whitney was engineered for pop audiences there was this expectation that she needed to be all things to all people…” (p. 103) Trite as it may seem, it was this pressure that drove her to self-destruction. In Didn’t We Almost Have it All, Whitney emerges as both a cautionary tale and a tragic figure rather than the media punchline she became.
The reviews of Whitney’s early albums were fascinating to read (p. 91). They were called “disappointing” and over-produced. It reminded me of how Led Zeppelin was panned by Rolling Stone back in the day, and now they’re falling over themselves to label Jimmy Page the greatest guitarist of all time.
My rating? 4/5 stars. The book got repetitive after a while, and there were several sentences, sometimes whole paragraphs, that were confusingly worded. That said, Kennedy deals with Whitney’s demons using the grace and delicacy that they deserve, and definitely didn’t get throughout her career. And the ending of the book made me tear up. In the moment, the media is so confident to cast public figures aside, only to “learn its lesson” years, or even several decades, after the fact. It’s a vicious cycle.
A fellow music blogger friend of mine recommended this book to me and I finally got around to reading it. When I checked the book out from the library, my roommate laughed at how “on brand” it is for me. What can I say, I love music history, and new wave is, admittedly, a genre/era that I don’t know much about.
I have to say, Are We Not New Wave is not immediately accessible. It’s written primarily for an academic audience, rather than the average reader. Yet it’s compelling: the book situates new wave in the context of both punk and disco, the era and genres that preceded it. New wave maintains punk’s disaffected sensibilities (see: The Cars), throws in some disco danceability (see: the B-52’s), and comes up with something new. The genre can also be seen as somewhat highbrow; Elvis Costello’s glasses and clever lyrics lends it some gravitas.
The book also encouraged me to reflect on my own relationship with new wave. Of the bands it discusses, the one that I’m most familiar with in terms of oeuvre is The Cars. I love their debut album, of course; it’s almost entirely composed of their greatest hits. Heartbeat City has the bouncy “You Might Think,” and Candy-O has “Let’s Go.” (As a music fan, I think there’s really nothing wrong with liking just one or two songs off an album, even [especially?] if they’re what was most heavily promoted or released as a single.) The Cars have a lot in common visually with punk; they have a similar wardrobe to the Ramones: sunglasses, leather jackets, limited color palette.
That was another aspect of new wave that I hadn’t thought of before reading this book: music can be defined as much by appearance as it is by sound. Aside from The Cars, the aesthetics of new wave were very plastic-y and forward-thinking; for example, the book begins with The Buggles’ seminal “Video Killed the Radio Star.” The song is an early glimpse of new wave, with its synths and high-pitched, slightly flat vocals, and futuristic vibe. It’s also a literal description of what was to come: the song was the first that MTV ever played, and new wave would dominate the channel for much of that decade.
I’d give Are We Not New Wave 3.5/5 stars. I enjoyed it, but there were times when it was a bit too dense, even for someone as obsessed with music history and trivia as I am.
This book is so relevant to my interests. Briefly, it’s a collection of essays by female music critics, each one exploring the songs or artists that should be difficult for them to love: lyrics that glorify violence against women; artists that have a misogynistic track record.
Yet these critics concede that, despite all that, they can still listen to, for example, Eminem’s explicitly aggressive rap; Iggy Pop, even after he’s made dismissive comments towards and about women. David Bowie and his groupies. Guns N’ Roses, despite their infamous robot album cover. The list goes on. It makes you notice that women really have been left out of the foundations of music. When they are mentioned, it’s just by way of a footnote. Some of the other examples were obvious: Phil Spector, creator of the Wall of Sound and simultaneously a murderer and abuser. AC/DC, bragging about their prowess. Others were, in my opinion, a bit of a reach: “Like a Rolling Stone” is apparently about a socialite brought low. I always thought it was about a man. (Perhaps that says something, too.)
The book’s title comes from the song of the same name, which immediately sets the tone because “Under My Thumb” is probably one of the most iconic songs about dominating a woman. The book’s tagline is “Songs that Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them.” It’s bold – brash, even. And indeed, initially it was off putting, even for me as a female music critic myself. The more I read, however, the more I settled in and got comfortable. I realized how much I, too, identify with these other women. You’re existing and trying to create a space for yourself in a world that will tell you clearly that you’re not wanted. (Or that you’re wanted for only a few things.)
And they’ve found a way to navigate the tension between being a fan of this content, while acknowledging its troubling nature. It was inspiring.
My rating? 5/5 stars.
This is a book that gets me. Hopper articulates that deep-in-your-soul feeling of joy and possibility that happens when you find a song or artist that you connect with. She also speaks meaningfully to what it’s like to be a music lover and a girl, and the sometimes uncomfortable places that those identities intersect. One of her essays describes a crush she’d had in high school. He was so into grunge, and so teenage Jessica became so into grunge, too. The crush ended when she got humiliated for being a “poser.” Yet something important came out of that experience: she discovered riot grrrl. Here’s punk by women, for women.
Some elements of the book serve as a great time capsule on a reread: there are essays about the rise of Chance the Rapper, Lady Gaga, and Lana del Rey. I’m looking forward to the expanded and updated edition, due out in July.
Another thing I love about this book is Hopper’s honesty. She’s relatively unfiltered, especially with the essays that come straight from her now-defunct Tumblr blog. Those essays feature lots of exclamation points, copious usage of caps lock, and unbridled joy about experiencing music. Sure, they might not be polished like an interview from Spin, but their inclusion is important. They illustrate the complexity of being a music critic and how you have to hold the personal back from the professional.
Despite the title and the essays about womanhood and music, Hopper also widens her scope to music and culture at large. In her commentary about Lady Gaga, for example, she describes the singer’s conscious exploitation of stardom by walking through the airport barely clothed. In Hopper’s essay on Kendrick Lamar, she dives deep into the rapper’s roots in Compton and how they shape (but don’t fully define) his lyrical themes.
The collection is short, only 200 pages or so, but the brevity showcases both the depth and breadth of Hopper’s skills as a writer. She is an inspiration for me as a fellow female music critic, and the book is a wonderful read.
Well, here we are: I finally finished this 572-page book. (Not counting the index.) The music video era has truly ended, brought on by grunge and The Real World. Of course, Nirvana did make music videos, but they were intentionally subversive. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” featured all the outcasts of high school, everyone that wouldn’t normally be in a music video. Music videos in general had just become more about art and less about big hair and other excesses.
Despite the shifting profile of the channel, an executive described 1990-1992 as another “golden era” of MTV. A reason for this is that MTV demonstrated its influence in the world beyond music. When they covered the 1990 election, it engaged a demographic that historically hadn’t been inclined to vote.
The artists, staff, and viewers of MTV have conflicting feelings about what happened to the channel after it became less about music. The final chapter is titled “You Have No Idea How I Miss It.” They acknowledge MTV for what it was when it started: a cultural revolution that brought people together, created and/or broke careers, and shaped a generation. That’s the version of MTV that they miss. And indeed, that’s the nature of nostalgia. We focus on the parts that we like and were meaningful to us.
Overall I’d give the book a 3.5 out of 5. I Want My MTV is great for behind-the-scenes stories and it’s amazing how many famous voices they were able to gather. That said, I think the book could be about 20% shorter. (For example, the chapter about that was exclusively about drugs didn’t feel necessary; I got the point from the other anecdotes.) As I said in a previous review, it got a bit repetitive.
This segment covers chapters 34-46. The ’80s are now drawing to a close, along with MTV’s first decade. I liked this section of the book because it’s the more obscure part of MTV’s history. 1984 has passed and the “big” acts that kicked off the channel have either been left to obscurity, or have gone mainstream enough that they’re no longer as splashy.
Now MTV is starting to look more like the channel that I grew up with. They’re branching out from music, with the Remote Control game show and Cindy Crawford’s House of Style. MTV also started airing 120 Minutes, which was the kind of programming I would have watched had I been around during that era. It was the home of the emerging “alternative” genre. They played The Replacements, Nirvana, R.E.M., The Cure, and others that wouldn’t have been as popular during regular hours. (120 Minutes was tucked away in a Saturday slot.)
But the channel was changing in other ways, too. There were new VJs that were crasser, louder, and less interested in the music itself. MTV invested in turning these VJs into celebrities in a way they hadn’t with the previous crop. Meanwhile, Club MTV was yet another excuse to showcase beautiful girls dancing. The camera tended to…linger. From there, it wasn’t much of a leap from the channel’s “coverage” of Spring Break, which was the channel’s attempt to garner ad space from alcohol companies. You can see how that’s a precursor to the kind of reality shows MTV airs now: people partying hard and hooking up in a variety of settings.
On a more serious note, Yo! MTV Raps was a non-music video program that was particularly influential. It launched Will Smith’s career as the Fresh Prince, which, as DJ Jazzy Jeff comments, “introduced a lot of white kids to hip-hop.” The show really did integrate MTV, and cemented the channel’s longevity as a result – for better or worse.
Up next: the end of the book and my closing thoughts.
Welcome back to my series reviewing the book I Want My MTV! This review covers chapters 21-33. We’re about halfway through the book at this point. Speaking of “we’re halfway there”: Bon Jovi makes an appearance in this section. There’s a chapter about hair metal and how, despite its often cheesy aesthetic, it raked in the cash and cemented a genre.
Here’s where MTV really starts to take a turn: they’re going corporate. Their influence is becoming even more wide-reaching. And it’s here that one-hit wonders start getting made. You either have the image or you don’t, and MTV is the channel that decides that fate. This was something I had never thought about before, or at least not to this level of detail, so I enjoyed that perspective.
One of the ways MTV exerted its influence was through the Video Music Awards, which were first created in 1984. (One thing that I started wondering as I read this section was, “why don’t they call it the Music Video Awards since that’s what the channel is all about?”) Superstars like Madonna and industry movers and shakers from behind the scenes got the best seats. Of course, there was also some money and backdoor deals that went into it.
This section of the book also goes into detail about the substances that fueled MTV and the videos themselves back then. It’s at this point that I started to not like the book anymore because of how repetitive it’s becoming. I’m not enjoying the endless stories about parties. There’s an entire chapter all about it, in addition to perhaps 80% of the rest of the anecdotes in the book.
What shook up this section is the chapter on the rise of Run-DMC. Rap was everywhere…except on MTV. Run-DMC and their remix of Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way” changed that. It made rap accessible to wide (i.e. white) audiences. I love stories about new trends in music and their origins. This is one of the ur-examples.
Up next is the gradual transformation of the channel into the reality show clearing house it is today.
As mentioned in the previous post, I’m splitting this review up into parts since it’s such a long book. This part covers chapters 13-20.
I feel like now we’re getting into the meat of the MTV story. Music videos had now established themselves as a way to get sales. Even the Boss finally caved and made videos for a few songs from Born in the U.S.A. Although his videos were mainly concert footage at first, “I’m On Fire” actually has something of a plot. Because music videos are so big, artists are having more of a say instead of just producers. See: Prince’s paranoia about his creative vision.
Because music videos were now mainstream, each one had to be bigger than the last. And perhaps one of the biggest music videos of all was (and is) Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” This is where the book, though admittedly bloated, is quite enjoyable: it dives into the minutiae of making something so iconic. You get to hear the story from the people who were actually there.
It’s also the fun part of the book because Madonna has now arrived. The interviewees make a good point that the Madonna/MTV relationship is something of a chicken-and-egg situation: MTV was just hitting the mainstream as Madonna became ascendant, but who really influenced whose success?
The authors continue to do a great job stitching together the interviews to make a coherent story. For example, in the chapter on Madonna, producers and artists describe how Cyndi Lauper could have been the next – or another – Madonna because they were both big at the same time and had a similarly weird/experimental sound. The only problem was that music was changing so fast back then and Madonna continued to evolve while Cyndi didn’t. Then they cut to a soundbite from Cyndi herself where she acknowledges that, too. It’s a quiet, sad moment in the midst of a technicolor era.
I’m reading I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution. It is a monster of a book, clocking in at over 400 pages, so I thought I’d split up the review. This covers chapters 1-12.
The book is an oral history and features voices such as MTV executives, the original “VJs,” and a whole host of artists ranging from Stevie Nicks to Billy Joel. It brings the book to life and makes for a much more entertaining read. You can actually smell the tequila when they describe the office culture of MTV in the ’80s.
What strikes me most this part of the book is that MTV really was a startup. No one thought it would succeed, not even the people who founded it. People were running on coffee (and other stimulants) to get it off the ground for its launch in August of 1981. Even after it was on air, not all cable stations hosted it. Distribution was scattered; for example, a rural viewer might be more likely to catch the channel than someone in Manhattan. It wasn’t until the “I Want My MTV” campaign aired that people began to realize that wait, this could actually be a thing.
See, music videos weren’t a thing. Radio and physical records were dominant. The first music videos were clunky and awkward. Even as the format took shape, stories were disjointed and didn’t fully match a song’s lyrics. Not all artists cared: they were learning the ropes along with everyone else. Rod Stewart was one of the first artists to churn out music videos at any great volume, which is why most of his videos are what were aired in MTV’s early days. Duran Duran was another band who captured the zeitgeist with their infamous “Girls on Film” video. It was actually banned for explicit content. Some members of the band later complained that they were being pigeonholed as a mere “video band,” especially after “Rio” came out.
The “original” MTV is before my time. I came along when reality TV was taking over the channel. A music video release isn’t necessarily a big deal anymore – unless it becomes a meme. The book is an excellent and vivid exploration of another era that wasn’t really that long ago but feels like a different time entirely. The interview excerpts that make up each chapter have a tone of both humor and nostalgia. It’s well-crafted and hums along at a great pace. I’m looking forward to more!
This is a bit of a departure for the blog, but since The Love Song of Jonny Valentine is all about the music industry and how it affects us, I figured it would be a fitting book to review. I finished it last night and I would give it 4.5 stars out of 5.