Tuesday, September 24, 2013

BOOK NOTE: MTV and “The Kennedy Chronicles” by Kennedy

MTV destroys lives. 

I mean, not like typhoons or Muslim terrorists in a Kenyan shopping mall destroy lives, but I knew a few people, back around the early 90s when I’d first moved to NYC, who experienced firsthand the way MTV would tempt young creative folk to work there, get a few good ideas from them, and spit them out, preferably by the time they turned thirty, sort of like in the movie Logan’s Run. 

•I’m thinking of the guys who wrote for The Big [Blank] Show who learned the hard way that once the show was up and running, the producers figured they didn’t really need writers anymore and could just use funny hosts, starting with Yahoo Serious, who was keen to do his own material. 

The young writers had done some brilliant things over the years, though, including a Harvard Lampoon parody of Time magazine that I still have around here somewhere, which introduced the world to an immortal chimpanzee who was master of time itself, named Cranshaw the Anniversary Ape.  That wasn’t enough to keep one of the writers from ending up falling asleep wearily in my parents’ living room, mumbling “It’s all about contracts...contracts...” after MTV was done with him.

•I’m thinking, too, of my first NYC roommate in that era, Christine, and her fellow National Lampoon veteran Larry Doyle (editor of First Comics back when it was publishing a small-but-great lineup including Nexus by Mike Baron), who tried to launch an MTV comedy gameshow resembling The Newlywed Game but with college roommates, called Dirty Laundry. 

MTV told them to make it more dirty, then recoiled in horror from the resulting pilot, which never became a series.  Christine and Larry were so shattered by the experience they had no choice but to go to Yale Divinity School and become a Simpsons producer/New York magazine editor/author -- respectively I mean, not div school as a stepping stone to the Simpsons (ironically, I thought Christine was joking when she first told me she’d decided to go to divinity school -- we’d gone to Brown, how could she believe in God?).

•I’m thinking as well of the two guys in Washington State, friends of a friend of mine there, who sent an audition tape of their low-budget sock puppet show Handy and Bandy to MTV, only to watch in horror as MTV simply launched its own very similar sock puppet show a few months later.

But Kennedy (like her fellow survivor -- and fellow libertarian -- Kurt Loder, seen in my nearby photo of a recent Reason event) triumphed there, and you can learn how from her fantastic new memoir, The Kennedy Chronicles: The Golden Age of MTV Through Rose-Colored Glasses.  I won’t pretend to be objective about reviewing it, since I’m now Facebook friends with most of the people mentioned above and for twenty years have obviously been in love with Kennedy, as have a few rock stars, apparently.  And, yeah, I guess her husband and children, too.  Whatever.

Anyway, back in the day, there were many reasons to be grateful Kennedy existed: the only openly conservative VJ, a Star Trek nerd, an alternative-rock obsessive, and funny, she gave one hope that everything was going according to plan in the world: First the collapse of European Communism, then the triumph of alternative rock over broadcasting, then the Republicans retaking Congress by promising to shrink government, then the women all aspiring to be funny alternative-rock-loving nerd libertarians like that chick on MTV. 

Yep, after the Cold War, it was going to be nothing but smooth sailing from then on culture-wise, aside from occasional minor bickering about tax rates and the quality of new Star Wars films.

Buoyed, I called Kennedy hoping to interview her within days of her start at MTV -- and they patched me right through to the studio because you could still do things like that back in the day (“Why didn’t you call?” she asks readers at one point in the new memoir).  I got a few quotes from her about the fish-out-of-water experience of being conservative at MTV.  (She was more politically mainstream then but got more libertarian later -- I can sense future libertarian potential in people that way, including the aforementioned Mike Baron, whose stuff I loved back in college, as I did Dave Barry’s columns without realizing he was also a libertarian.)  I used the quotes in the most appropriate venue for an MTV-related story: the paleoconservative magazine Chronicles.

(“Unsavory,” Cato’s David Boaz half-jokingly put it later when he heard I’d written for them.  But mine was a complex, two-decade-long, “Conservatism for Punks” dialectical plan, one still in progress.  Chronicles is the sort of un-p.c., occasionally Confederacy-admiring magazine that might be used to smear me unfairly as a closet racist someday -- the way the press recently beat up on another Facebook friend, libertarian Jack Hunter, for having gone through sort of a Confederacy-themed faux-professional-wrestler phase.)

And that was my only contact with Kennedy for nearly two decades until
she started contributing to libertarian video projects (Reason, Stossel, a guest spot on Judge Napolitano’s show when I was there), aside from that time I found myself the one person at the old Tower Records in the Village who was there to see her (at that moment anyway) instead of being part of the gigantic, block-surrounding throng there to meet Green Day (whose fans likely would have thought you insane if you had said, “They’re bound for Broadway, I tell ya!”). 

Slightly bored, Kennedy was walking around like a clerk and asked if she could show me Tower’s CD selection.  She was extremely polite about declining my invitation to go ice-skating.  But enough about me. 


As she recounts in the new memoir (the funniest I’ve read since Elf Girl, which would make a nice low-rent companion piece to it), Kennedy was back then a teetotaling, sex-avoiding Christian known for having a crush on Vice President Dan Quayle and a Republican elephant tattoo on her left hip.  But politics is only a tiny part of the story.

Mostly, it’s a tale of rock n’ roll decadence and shocking, bizarre celebrity anecdotes that are mandatory reading for any Gen Xer who had a TV or radio back then, especially the alternatively-inclined ones.  I’m barely scratching the surface, but here are just a few moments of interest:

•She notes that the Gen X ethos, especially among the alternative rock types, was to eschew commercialization and too much publicity, so, mere months after being a lowly radio intern, she turned down various endorsement deals as an MTV celeb, which, as she rightly notes, you cannot now imagine the Kardashians doing -- and, in a fashion that would make my old ACSH colleagues proud, she weaned herself off (deadly) cigarettes with the help of (far less dangerous) smokeless tobacco.  Smart move.

•She humbly admits that even her mom thought the most stunning VJ was Duff.  Duff is pretty amazing, I have to admit.  Kennedy, though striking herself, made up for awkwardness with zany personality and occasionally had to be told by the director, for instance, to do another take without falsely claiming to be a member of a band called Finger My Butthole.

•She recounts (in a fashion that would please our colleague John Stossel) how MTV pretended to be apolitical, all the while knowing full well that their “Rock the Vote” campaign (sometimes promoted by singers, such as Iggy Pop, who weren’t even registered) would boost Clinton, a fact they unashamedly celebrated during the hip MTV inaugural gala of 1992 (“As the lump [in my throat] grew with every horrible, freedom-eroding realization, so too did my appetite for destruction”), whereas Kennedy entertained herself by showing her elephant tattoo to John McLaughlin, to the annoyance of McLaughlin’s date, a then-less-famous Martha Stewart.

•News-reading Tabitha Soren (who I always mention when doing my Kurt Loder impression, which employs the words “Tabitha Soren caught up with Slash outside Guns N’ Roses’ Wisconsin concert”) is revealed as a closet diva who took forever in the wardrobe room and has big feet (“She has some flippers!”). 

•She befriended gloomy Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails by singing “Head Like a Hole” to him Ethel Merman-style.  She would further annoy him at his home when he asked “Do you know where you are?” and she replied “In the jungle, baby?”  (In fact, gothy Reznor was proud to be living in the house where the Manson Family killed Sharon Tate, which reminds me a bit of a sequence from perhaps my favorite Aqua Teen Hunger Force episode.)  Reznor also seems genuinely sadistic enough to enjoy wrestling with girls and defeating them. 

•The book is filled with awkward-yet-celebrity-filled moments retold with phrases such as “...IF MY HAND WASN’T AWKWARDLY CUPPING TRENT’S MOIST, LUKEWARM BALLS!!!”

•Kennedy mentions (what she believes to be) her large ass and libertarian economist Murray Rothbard on the same page, so I may tear that one out and have it framed, or at least laminated, next to the words she wrote when autographing my copy (seen in a nearby photo -- she’s something of a poet, you know).

•She recounts living near socially-awkward Henry Rollins in the Village and conferring with him over late-night popsicles about things like his then-secret relationship with Madonna.  This is an actual thing that was happening in this City back then.

•Kennedy’s former MTV superior, Lauren Levine (who is either very intelligent or proof that being British makes people sound smarter even in print), is interviewed for the book and recalls that Kennedy hadn’t heard any David Bowie back then (Levine herself says her chief regret is not having met Bowie back then).  I will take this to mean Kennedy just hadn’t heard any pre-80s, non-Top 40 Bowie, since having heard none at all would just be too bizarre for the host of Alternative Nation. 

(More bizarre than her not having read National Review back then, which I annoyed her by mentioning in that Chronicles piece, but she was twenty and not yet very politically active, so I never thought there was any shame in not having read NR.  Maybe there wouldn’t be even now.  And there is a cute photo in the book of her meeting William F. Buckley and Lloyd Grove taken just three years later.)

•She hated the Spin Doctors with a passion yet found her heart melted and filled with “unicorn farts” by how nice the lead singer was once she met him. 

•There are frequent reflections on the sexual tensions between the (still not sexually active at the time!) Kennedy and various male rockers she met, often described with euphemistic-yet-shocking turns of phrase such as this (describing the intimidating height of Mark Lanegan): “my vay-jay was not quite ready for his Screaming Tree.”

•There are poignant occasional reminders of just how young and inexperienced she was despite being at the center of all media, as when she reveals the first funeral she ever attended was Frank Zappa’s. 

•One of the book’s most shocking revelations is that she had a (non-coital but emotional) de facto affair with the then-married lead singer of Goo Goo Dolls, whose first #1 hit, “Name,” turns out to have been about their secretive relationship -- and hints, I think, at one additional dark bond between them: They were both survivors of child abuse.

I didn’t see that one coming, despite the fact that Kennedy resembles the odd package of psychological attributes I’ve sometimes found in women I’ve dated or been interested in -- such as being obsessed with an odd combo of rock, sex, religion-or-mysticism, and news-or-politics -- and I have belatedly learned one or more of those women suffered abuse (you can read about Dawn Eden’s case in her second book).  I had wondered in recent years what on Earth it could mean if I bonded with abuse victims.  Did I have some sort of subconscious predatory instinct?  Did I, by contrast, seem abnormally “safe” and asexual? 

But knowing that Kennedy, surprisingly, may fit into this pattern reassures me a bit: I now suspect that the core of insecurity with which abuse victims (and perhaps some Asperger’s types and others) are left is often surrounded by a layer of instability but that that layer is, in some cases, surrounded (and compensated for) by a wondrous layer of theatricality -- broad, larger-than-life strokes that might be born of acute self-consciousness but are highly entertaining and easy-to-read (so to speak) for the awkward nerd observer.

It’s a bit like my favorite bit of Tim Burton’s additions to Batman lore: the idea that Batman is the tough, giant shell personality constructed by a survivor of childhood trauma.  I mean, I don’t want every hero reduced to a psychiatric diagnosis (and my comics-editing friend Dan Raspler would strongly contend that Batman is not crazy), but if the shoe fits.  So Kennedy -- and an ex or two of mine -- may be like Batman.  That doesn’t excuse the childhood trauma, but it helps redeem it.  And I’ve here dwelled on it perhaps longer than Kennedy does in the book itself, and I don’t claim to be a psychiatrist, so let’s move on.

(You just know we’re going to end up hearing all sorts of weird psychological stories about Miley Cyrus sooner or later, by the way.  Her tweet about having a sex dream with Katy Perry in it was surely only the beginning.)

•Hard as this may be to believe, Kennedy was also apparently in a full-fledged brawl with the Gallagher brothers from Oasis -- with Noel in a headlock and Liam jumping on her back in a very unchivalrous fashion – when Noel went berserk and broke a CD over the fact that everyone at an MTV party wanted to play the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique instead of listening, as Noel demanded, to the Beatles’ White Album over and over again all night.  She really is like Batman.


There are countless other entertaining anecdotes on every page (like her accidentally determining the outcome of the Miss Teen USA pageant one year) and a great chapter on the MTV Beach House called “It’s Not Working, They’re All Fucking!”

It all takes me back to that neat period after New Wave and before grunge’s after-effects had quite succeeded in making all alternative rock into one sustained growl.  My young-adulthood, perhaps yours -- and I am reminded as well how sometimes that period, with no small amount of help from R.E.M., balanced the old-fashioned/regional/country-inflected with the futurist/high-tech, in a way that would not happen again until Williamsburg became simultaneously full of synthesizers and banjoes about a decade later (giving me something of a reprieve, once more, from feeling completely out of it -- though I still have trouble keeping track of whether fedoras are old-fashioned, hip, or hopelessly nerdy this week).

Music, like politics, comics, and many other things, can be thought of as a sort of dialectical process of change and revolution and compromise, and Kennedy’s memoir captures a moment of all that beautifully.

And speaking of dialectical processes, if your main interest in Kennedy is her libertarianism, you might also enjoy these other, more-political texts: a book on leftists moving away from the left toward libertarianism called Why We Left the Left (h/t JD Barra) and an article from Vogue about Rand Paul pulling the GOP away from mainstream conservatism toward libertarianism (h/t Jeff Goolsby).  

As for me, I will go on thinking of Kennedy as hovering in a surreal space (known to many media folk) between inaccessible-creature-made-of-pixels and highly approachable person I sorta kinda almost know now (she gave my mom a recipe for gluten-free pie crust, you know).  Lord only knows how my brain will melt down if I actually meet Bowie someday.

In the meantime, tonight I will go where the real glamor is: the 6:30pm premiere of the anti-drug-war documentary America’s Longest War.  And maybe I’ll recruit someone to join me in seeing Blondie perform with X next month.  Or to see the Waterboys a few weeks later.

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