I Want My Camp TV

Sound Salvation is a biweekly music column by Sarah Vowell. New MTV VJ Jesse Camp rocks Music Television's regimented world.

By Sarah Vowell

Published May 5, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

It occurred to me recently that most of the drop-dead delightful musical
moments I've run across in the last year have been on television: the
nonchalant glimpse of Cibo Matto on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"; the "Nothing
Sacred" episode when Father Ray the penniless priest has to sing "That's
Life" to pay for his beer in a bar; John Waters eloquently defending and
defining Sonny Bono on the scandalously snobby "Nightline" obit for the late

The one thing these little televised musical marvels have in common is that
none of them were on Music Television. The last time anything spontaneous
happened on MTV may have been Tabitha Soren's '92 interview with Bill Clinton.
When he answered, "Thelonius Monk," to her question "Who's your favorite
musician?" and she wondered out loud, "Who's the loneliest monk?" And even that was
only as fun as a gaffe.

But that may be changing. Ever since a sparkling spaz named Jesse Camp beat out the other 4,000 contestants on MTV's "Wanna Be A VJ" contest last month, the channel's been swimming in surprise. Camp told MTV, "To be a VJ? C'mon! It's like being president of the United States, and MTV is my White House!" Camp was among the six finalists who campaigned for the position for four hours on April 18, answering music trivia questions, taking field trips to a record
store to talk about their favorite albums, trying to answer poor Kurt Loder
when he had to ask them questions like, "So, were you ever into punk at all?"
Votes were counted; Camp won.

One viewer in particular voted for Jesse Camp as a protest against MTV's
format fervor. He voted a lot. According to the Village Voice, a hacker who
calls himself "UglyPig" broke into MTV's virtual ballot booths and voted for
Jesse more than 3,000 times. The network stands by Jesse's election and
maintains viewers were allowed to vote more than once, even though 3,000 is
much, much more than once. UglyPig told the Voice, "I just like Jesse
better. He didn't seem like the typical MTV VJ, all corporate and shit, so I
made him win." If that's not exactly democracy, it's certainly devotion.
UglyPig's voting -- and Jesse's disarmingly singular persona -- worked against the
grain of MTV's orderly, polished political machine. Those few days before I found out Jesse's ascension was based on a fix, I was starting to feel a fondness for the surprisingly obscure tastes of MTV viewers.

Thanks to Camp, the daily talk show "MTV Live" has become completely
unpredictable. Camp is a weirdo, a wonder, a misguided wild child whose very
cluelessness to the well-behaved ways of TV talk is the source of his
considerable charm. And even though he isn't smart in the bookish sense, he
is in his own way articulate. Every time he's on camera, it's pandemonium. When he goes outside to talk to the throngs holding vigil in Times Square -- and "MTV Live" makes him do
this a lot -- he ignores the show's host, or he forgets the name of the person
he's just asked, "What's your name?" or he might call a guest like actor David
Boreanas "David Bananas," or he might just stand there in a sea of screaming
kids in a state of silent serenity.
This is a guy who only a month ago was sleeping on some girl's couch because
he had no home. This is a guy who can sing "Dream On" in eye-locked duet with
Tori Amos and out-weird even Her Weirdness. This is a guy whose sense of style can
make cartoon character Lenny Kravitz into a shrinking violet. This is a guy
who wears leg warmers on his thighs. And I haven't even mentioned the
hair, which everyone knows is one of the top characteristics necessary for star quality. Jesse Camp is up to here in hair, and its spiky spokes frame his head in a kind of halo. As his new colleague Carson Daly put it recently, "He's an angel from God."

Daly is the host of "MTV Live" and was the master of ceremonies for the
"Wanna Be A VJ" contest. Daly is the epitome of late-20th century man.
He's not too much of any one thing. He has a sense of humor but he's not
hilarious. He's smart without being off-puttingly intelligent. He's cute
without being an out-and-out pretty boy. He seems honest enough even though
his job is basically to feign interest in the careers of sitcom actors like Jon Cryer and sound
happy to chat with viewers, whose on-air phone calls tend to begin with the
greeting, "Dude!" Daly is as competent as he is predictable. If, in the
"Wanna Be A VJ" contest, MTV was looking for the next Carson Daly, well, they
didn't get him.

They could have, though. The fellow who came in second to Camp would have
been an MTV Human Resources dream: Dave. Dave was boy-next-door attractive,
intelligent, enthusiastic and leg warmer-free. And, unlike Jesse, Dave did
not talk up his love for "Hanoi Rocks" by pronouncing it "Hanny-O." Dave was
the guy you could picture following Carson Daly's every command. Dave was an
affable rule-follower. According to Daly, Jesse's out of control. "When
we're on the air together, I know a job has to be done," Daly said on the
recent MTV documentary "Who the Hell Is Jesse Camp?" "So I'm like the
policeman." The fact that someone working in and around the formerly fly-by-night enterprise
would refer to himself as a law enforcement officer says a lot about how regimented MTV has become.

Interestingly, Jesse Camp came into our lives just weeks after MTV issued
press releases about its new commitment to seriousness, i.e., music. One of
these missives even quoted an MTV executive talking about how "even eighteen-
year-olds are talking about neotraditionalism." Jesse is having none of
that. Not only is he the kind of teenager who isn't talking about neotraditionalism, he is the kind who uses the word "rock 'n' roll," a term you
never hear on MTV, probably because "-'n' roll" is too sentimental a suffix.

UglyPig's anticorporate assessment might speak to the fact that Jesse Camp
lights up MTV when he shares screen time with the channel's other odd man
out -- Kurt Loder. Because every time Jesse shows up, Loder is about to burst
into a giggle fit. The gray ghost! In stitches! It was downright heartwarming when, on a recent "MTV Live," Loder had Jesse read one of Jewel's poems aloud and Jesse asked Loder how to say, "vaporous consequences." It was the
kind of moment that made you think Kurt Loder would be a really good dad, the
way he leaned over Jesse's shoulder and pronounced the absurd syllables, even
though Loder couldn't stop himself from muttering, "Whatever that means," under
his breath like his pre-Jesse, I-can't-believe-they-make-me-say-this-shit
voice of reason you can't help but trust. He always used to seem so sad, Kurt
Loder. And now look at him: Thanks to Jesse, he's constantly cracking up.

And aren't we all? I cannot remember ever being this rapt in front of MTV,
cannot remember the last time I watched the channel and thought out
loud, "I can't believe they're letting us see this." Wonder how long this
will last? The Jesse phenomenon can only go two ways: Either MTV gets tired
of his shenanigans and dumps him or Jesse Carson-izes himself and plays by the
rules. I'm unfortunately betting on the latter. I happened to bump into
Jesse and a camera crew on 8th Street in New York the other day. They were
filming him with some sort of chart, leaning against a building, holding
forth. I watched him for a minute, smiled, kept walking. For some reason, I
turned around and looked again and from down the block, Jesse Camp did not
look out of place. He looked like he knew what he was doing, like he took his work seriously. He looked like a guy from MTV.

Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell is the author of "Radio On: A Listener's Diary" (St. Martin's Press, 1996) and "Take the Cannoli" (Simon & Schuster, 2000) and is a regular commentator on PRI's "This American Life." Her column appears every other Wednesday in Salon. For more columns by Vowell, visit her column archive.

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