Because I am first and foremost a narcissist, I think of 1998 as being the Year That Changed Everything. Thanks to placing second in MTV’s inaugural Wanna Be a VJ contest and subsequently getting hired by the network, that was the year I went — literally overnight — from being an average Joe to being an average Joe who occasionally gets pointed at by strangers. But at the same time that my life was fundamentally restructuring itself, I’d argue that our entire culture was going through some intoxicating changes, many of which came courtesy of my colleagues at 1515 Broadway and still resonate today. As we spend this week glancing back at that landmark year, let me walk you through a few of the people, trends, and concepts MTV launched on our world in 1998, as best I remember them, from my seat near the big red button.
Competition Reality Shows
The trend has come and gone and come again, but MTV was the first to anticipate our appetite for starry-eyed hopefuls getting the shit kicked out of them on live television. Just as The Real World paved the way for Big Brother, I would argue that Wanna Be a VJ served as a proto–American Idol for people with much more reasonable ambitions. The Next Food Network Star and ESPN’s Dream Job followed the Wanna Be cable-gig-competition template, and it is very much to my relief that MTV got there first; the contest lasted from a Wednesday to a Saturday, whereas nowadays the whole thing would take place over eighteen weeks and I’d have to talk about my “journey.” Another MTV reality series running in 1998 was The Cut, an early America’s Got Talent for Americans who had talent. It was hosted by Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, whose colleagues in TLC, after Lopes’s death, sought to find a replacement via R U the Girl, a 2005 UPN competitive reality series. Both of these shows were cruelly left out of the recent VH1 TLC biopic.
People come up and talk to me about my screechy-voiced Wanna Be a VJ rival Jesse Camp literally every single day. If I were on fire, I’d like to think that people would hose me off before they asked me what Jesse was like in real life, but my experience suggests they’d probably do both simultaneously. So I’ll answer your most popular question: Yes, Jesse Camp was really like that all the time. And I mean all the time. It turned into a little game for the rest of us around MTV headquarters: Surely he doesn’t always talk that way. Ten bucks to the first person to hear his real voice. We’d sit next to him when his energy got low, or hover nearby when he’d wake from a nap, and I can say this with authority: If it was a put-on, the kid can commit. I also get a lot of “So what’s he doing now?” and while I appreciate that people generally say it in a spirit of solidarity with me, I have to say this: Jesse and I got along fine, he was actually a pretty sweet kid once you learned to speak his language, and even though I genuinely don’t know what he’s doing now, I have to imagine it’s some variant of whatever the fuck he wants to. We should all be so lucky. (No footage of the first Wanna Be a VJ could be found on YouTube, but here Jesse and I are hosting the second search in 1999. And check out all of these Jesse Camp fan pages that amazingly still exist.)
The Jersey Shore
After Wanna Be a VJ, I called and e-mailed anyone stupid enough to give me their business card, and I didn’t stop until I got myself a pitch meeting. And after a couple of freelance writing gigs, they hired me as a VJ on a probationary summer-only basis. And so, one chilly mid-May morning, a town car showed up at my New York apartment and whisked me off to the MTV Beach House, which was located that summer in Seaside Heights, New Jersey. And as a deck full of extras in bikinis or board shorts danced themselves fit at a taping of The Daily Burn (hosted by Baywatch’s Michael Bergin), I quickly learned two things:
- I would not actually be living with other VJs at the MTV Beach House itself. (And R.I.P., MTV Beach House 1998, victim of Hurricane Sandy.) I mean, that makes perfect sense now — it was just a set — but at the time I was genuinely surprised. On the car ride down, I honestly thought: “I guess we’ll have some kind of chore wheel?”
- Seaside Heights is bananas. It is full of colorful characters, and the color is mostly orange. The people are over-pumped, over-tanned, and generally over twice the legal blood alcohol content. A good MTV beach house needs locals willing to do whatever we asked, and boy did the Jersey Shore deliver. My show, Eye Spy Video, was shot in a boardwalk bar that opened at 7 a.m., 365 days a year. We would arrive to set up the cameras at seven sharp, and the bar would be crowded. With people who didn’t know we were coming. Eye Spy Video came and went, but one of the PAs on that show, an ambitious young fellow named Anthony Beltempo, looked around the bar and thought: There’s a show in this. You now know Beltempo as the co-creator of The Jersey Shore.
Just after the 1998 Beach House programming wound down, popular daily shows Total Request and MTV Live merged into one daily entity, and then shit got weird. Day in and day out for ten years, TRL attracted the biggest celebrities of the day, and then also thousands of people who wanted to stand in Times Square and yell at them. I have too many memories to even decide what story to tell, so I’ll keep it general. The superstars were all shockingly gracious. The celebrities who were difficult are people whose names we’ve all forgotten. The 95 percent of people at 1515 Broadway who didn’t work at MTV kind of hated us for the shrieking throng we brought to their doorstep every afternoon. Walking over to the window and waving down to the crowd never got old. And now the studio is an Aéropostale store. We may never return to a world that made a show like TRL work, but I’m glad I got one long look at the monoculture before it disappeared.
Madonna versus Cyndi Lauper never existed outside of magazines, and Oasis versus Blur didn’t matter to America, but the Backstreet Boys versus *NSYNC fan wars were real, and they were spectacular. Lines were drawn, positions were defended, and woe betide the TRL correspondent who asked a Backstreet girl to introduce “God Must Have Spent a Little More Time on You.” To the mind of anyone over 16, there was scant difference between the two, but to the girls blocking Times Square traffic, there was only room in the human heart for one. As none of the boys were writing or arranging their own music yet, the battles boiled down to matters of cuteness, but they were no less vicious for it. (I had special affection for the girls who repped for 98 Degrees, the RC of the Boy Band Cola Wars.) In 2013, there’s a new Twitter beef every day, but I’d argue that BSB/*NSYNC was the original Angry Dance-Off. Who won? It’s hard to say. Backstreet is still alive and touring, and though *NSYNC is no more, they did produce the man who’s still our biggest worldwide cultural phenomenon. I speak of course of Lance Bass. I call it a draw.
An Entire Pop-Music Economy of Children
While the history of pop music is dotted with the occasional teen idol, the MTV of my youth was full of grown-ups: Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, Pat Benatar playing the world’s oldest teenage runaway in “Love Is A Battlefield.” But as soon as I boarded the mothership, the demographic dropped a decade. My very first day on air at MTV coincided with the first appearance of *NSYNC, and from there, it just got younger. After Britney Spears blew the doors down, there was a moment in the late ’90s when nobody in the top ten could legally vote; the buzzed-about celebrities roaming the hallways suddenly had tutors with them. MTV had always tried to lure teenagers, but starting in 1998, they used teenagers to do it. And they haven’t stopped. Neither has the rest of our our culture; TMZ has dispatched cameras to both Fanning sisters’ homecoming dances. Some of us took this shift as a cue to start looking outside 1515 for cultural enrichment; some did not. My colleagues at MTV were roughly 95 percent smart people who wanted to make engaging, memorable television, and 5 percent people who wanted to collect famous friends, and it was a special joy to watch the 5 percenters attempt to befriend 15-year-olds. I remember hearing a group of my co-workers boasting about the plans they’d made to hang out with Jamie-Lynn Sigler that weekend, and thinking, Congratulations, guys — you have dinner plans with a child.
On a chilly autumn afternoon in 1998, the studio was abuzz as a Disney princess stopped by to premiere her debut video. You could always tell when a person was about to become important, and all the elements were in place; there was a scrum of stylists, publicists, label reps, and family members, and at the eye of the storm was … an exhausted kid. She was gorgeous, she had personality, but she had been media-coached to within an inch of her life, to the point where no question could get a straight answer. You could ask, “Hey, Britney, what time is it?” and you’d get a brief presentation on how really any time of the day is the best, as long as you believe in yourself. She was clearly a star in the making, but if you looked closer, you could tell that she was scanning the room for exits. I may not have said it out loud at the time, but “In a few years, this woman will marry a cornrowed backup dancer at a ceremony where the wedding party wears matching Pimps and Hoes tracksuits” is definitely a thought that crossed my mind. Also, once “Baby One More Time” had become a hit, my brand-new agent told me how much he liked her. “She’s hot,” he hissed, “and a lot of people here disagree with me, but I like that she’s kind of fat.” It was my first clue that I might have moved into a business that was evil to its core. Anyway, now she’s about to make her family a jillion dollars by doing shows at Caesars Palace — so nobody learns anything, ever.
Upon hearing “No, No, No,” I will admit to lumping Destiny’s Child in with 702, Jade, and Brownstone. The early singles were forgettable, the choreography was nothing special, and that name — let’s be honest with ourselves here, people — is fucking ludicrous. But then the whole group came into the studio and the sheer star power of Beyoncé Knowles was undeniable. Even in her youth, her charisma was as gigantic as her hair. Plus the manager of the band was her father and the stylist was her mother and anyone who didn’t get with the program got the keys to the street right quick. At around the turn of the century, approximately 2.3 million young women took a turn in Destiny’s Child; it was like jury duty for young black female singers. But then as now, Beyoncé was clearly the star of the show. It feels strange even acknowledging that she has a last name.
Nü-Metal, Rap-Rock, Douchecore (i.e., Limp Bizkit, Korn, etc.)
I’m really sorry about this one. But just as the MTV of my youth needed a David Lee Roth to balance out the Madonna, the TRL charts needed something for the straight boys, and I guess nothing else was available. Although it makes sense; like Quiet Riot and Mötley Crüe before them, Limp Bizkit and brethren sang simple, aggressive songs about life’s easy pleasures: strippers, whiskey, nookie, bawaitdaba-de-bang-de-bang-diggy-diggy. Plus the uniform was easy to replicate: backwards baseball cap, nanny-goat patchy facial hair, jeans and jerseys from the big-and-tall store. I disagreed on principle, but every now and then, ol’ Fred Durst would get my head bobbing. Stick that up your yeah. (But I have never been able to krack the kurious kase of Korn, wherein for a brief moment, teenage jocks in Jeeps pumped their fists to songs about surviving molestation. 1998 was a weird time, folks.)
Here’s a little story: Spring break in Cancun, a just-barely-pre-fame Kid Rock DJ’d the festivities, and at the end of a particularly long shoot day, a few of my co-workers and I relaxed in the hotel jacuzzi. Let the kids go pound sugary drinks at Señor Frog’s, we thought, let’s be grown-ups and drink wine in the tub. We were having a perfectly nice conversation when who shows up but Kid Rock, shirtless and in cut-off jean shorts, holding a bottle of Jack Daniel’s, which he tried to pass around. No takers. We tried to engage him in conversation. No interest. “Where the pussy at?” he bellowed. “Ha haaaaa I’m just serious.” And then he said it again. And then he said it again. We quickly realized that the Kid Rock on the CD and the Kid Rock in real life were one and the same. He realized over a much longer period of time that he was talking to three grown, professional women and two gay men, none of whom had any particular interest in locating the pussy. It was the only time in Mexico that any of us had faced a language barrier. “Ha haaaa. Whooo,” he exhaled, and took another long, dejected pull off the bottle. You guys, it was a delicious moment, and I hoped it would never end.