Thirty years of MTV: Former VJ Dave Holmes talks music

Aug 01, 2011

Popular music channel MTV is celebrating 30 years of music videos, celebrity interviews, the birth or reality television and more. Join former VJ Dave Holmes as he talks about the evolution of the network and what it was like to be an MTV VJ. He'll be online Monday, Aug. 1, at 10:30 a.m. ET.

Hello everyone! Hope you're having a good morning! I am here to diminish your productivity. Let's talk!

Just wanted to say I was glued to the "I Wanna Be a VJ" contest back in the day, and was so glad to see the career you made for yourself since. Like other reality show competitions, that was a case where the best person didn't win. Whatever happened to that nut-case (was it Jesse?) who actually won?

Thank you! You're way too kind. 

I am asked about Jesse literally every single day of my life. Seriously! (And it's okay with me.) And I couldn't tell you where he is. There's someone on Twitter who says he's Jesse, but I just don't believe it. 

I have to admit I have forgotten his name, but I remember MTV once had a young man as a VJ. I met him and gave him a card and asked if he would please autograph it. He signed the card and then walked off with it. Someone later explained it was my fault: I forgot to explain to him I wanted the card signed and returned to me. Please tell me most of the other VJs were not as slow witted.

Ha! I'm sorry to hear that. But I'm afraid we were all pretty dumb. 

I've enjoyed the MTV 30 that played on VH1 all this weekend, do you have any idea how they decided what went in? It was good to see Courtney Love pelting Madonna with compacts and Madonna vogueing as Marie Antoinette. What ever happened to Tabitha Soren? Didn't she marry Michael Kelly of the New Yorker?

Isn't that MTV30 thing interesting? A guy named Alex Coletti (who's been at the MTV since the '80s) put that show together, and I think it's just whatever he could find. Seriously- there's a Facebook group for those of us who worked there, and he asked us all whether we had any tapes sitting around. A LOT of the old stuff is just...gone.

I remember when MTV was about music. MTV should greatly increase the music videos it plays. Your thoughts about this?

You know, I agree. Everyone at MTV agrees. But here's the thing: music videos get terrible ratings. We tried it a million different times in a million different ways when I was there. People just don't watch them. MTV is above all a business. It runs on advertiser money, advertisers want ratings, shows rate well, blocks of music videos do not. Simple as that. Heartbreaking!

Everybody knows that the Buggles "Video Killed the Radio Star" was the first music video on MTV. But since MTV no longer plays videos, I'd like to know what the last video played on MTV was.

They do! I swear. It's, you know, 2 to 6am, but still- MTV does actually play music videos. I wish there were more, and at friendlier hours, but there you go. 

I forgot to answer the question about Tabitha Soren. Yeah, she's married to Michael Lewis (I think? Guy who wrote "Liar's Poker,") and last I heard, they were living in France. 

What was it like being a VJ on MTV?

It was like being in the greatest treehouse in the world. I got to meet the smartest, most talented people in the industry, and I don't mean the famous people. I mean the writers/producers/creative types who worked behind the scenes. We got to travel all over the world and make fun stuff happen, and it was 10 times more fun than it looked.

What is one of your fondest memories from your time on MTV? Any celebrity you were most looking forward to meeting?

My fondest memory is my first. When they had officially given me the job and I showed up for work that first day. When I went to that audition, I still had a real job job as an advertising guy. So when MTV offered me a job, I had to give notice at my agency. I worked my real job until 2am the night before my first day at MTV, organizing my files for the person they'd hired to replace me. And then at 7am, a car picked me up and took me to the MTV beach house in Seaside Heights, where Funkmaster Flex was spinning, people in swimsuits were dancing, and interns ran to get me Frappucinos. You can't beat that. 

As for celebrities I met: Joe Strummer of The Clash. So important to my musical tastes, so friendly and smart, and so handsome. I fell deeply in love. 

Jesse was the VJ who signed the card and walked off with it. I remember his name now, You know, they really should have awarded to that contest to whoever it was that finished second. Can't remember his name, though.

I know, right? I'll pass that along to him. He's a good guy.

How do you think the role of a VJ has evolved from the beginning of MTV to now? What sorts of things was a VJ expected to do?

I guess it's mostly changed in that it doesn't exist now. There are no more V's to J. Jim Shearer (dreamboat!) does the countdown on VH1, and...that's about it. We are extinct.

Good morning, As a child of the 80's, I admit my tastes in music were influenced by what MTV showed video wise. Now that MTV is interchangeable with Bravo, A & E and all the other residents of the upper end of my cable system, I've struggled with being introduced to different types of music outside of the clear radio lineup. Any suggestions?

Good morning! Great question. I struggle with this, as I'm now 40 and struggling to stay hip. Here are my suggestions:

  • Pandora. Choose an artist you like, and they'll help you find more.
  • I love it there- you can DJ with your friends or with total strangers, and I guarantee you'll find something new.
  • Sirius/XM. In particular, Sirius XMU. Jake Fogelnest will bring you the best new underground artists. 
  • Spotify. Every now and then, I just turn their top 100 songs into a playlist and check out what the kids are listening to. 

Hope that helps!

Video did not kill the DJ afterall. There is room for radio and video. Although, I am not certain if today's generations realizes they can get music on things that spin around. What are some of your observations about the last three decades?

I was just talking about this with (watch out! a name is about to get dropped!) Bob Mould. (Interviewed him for NPR's The Sound of Young America- it'll air in early August.) We shared a common concern that indie culture might be dying. Back in my day, you had to go to the COOL record store to get the good records- the indies, the imports. These records' scarcity is part of what made them so special, and the people you met at those stores became your friends. Now everything is available to everyone all the time, and nobody has to do the work. You can be hip without even trying. I can't decide whether that's good or bad. 

Were you watching the VH1 Classic footage of MTV 30 this weekend, and if so, what brought back the strongest memories/associations for you?

I DVRd all of it. It's been a busy weekend (because of this: but I have spent every spare moment glued to MTV30. What I connected to most were the old station IDs. MTV brought some great visual art to the masses: Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf, Ann Magnusen, etc. I miss that.

What do you wish MTV would get back to? We all know it's rare they play music videos anymore. Is it really that non-lucrative to just play videos? Do you think MTV is responsible for the massive onset of reality TV? And would you do another karaoke show, if asked?

I will do pretty much anything if asked. I go out for all kinds of shows. I like to work. My only rule is that I won't audition for entertainment news shows. If I have to make a name out of the first names of a celebrity couple (Brangelina, Zanessa, etc.) I am not interested. Otherwise, I'm down for whatever.

Everyone complains that MTV does not show as many videos these days and is overrun with reality TV shows. My sense is that MTV very early on became a kind of "lifestyle" channel for the young and hip - with interviews, videos, game shows and of course the Real World. It's just carrying that on today. When MTV started, there were few ways to connect with musicians/artists - you had to endure the awfulness of Solid Gold to catch one act you like, or stay up past your permitted bedtime to watch Friday Night Videos. Until MTV. Now that we can connect with artists anytime, the videos mean less and less. What are your thoughts?

Yeah, I think there's something to that. Artists are connecting with their fans in real time, all day long, and every video is available on demand. So I kind of wonder what there is for kids to get excited about. 

I do take issue with your assessment of Solid Gold. Those dancers really gave it their all. You better recognize.

Just wanted to tell you how much I enjoy your internet program. I've been thinking a lot about your conversation with a filmmaker (his name escapes me right now- my apologies) and you were discussing how so much of people's work is all reference-based. Like, "This is a reference. That makes it's funny." I share your frustration with that but wonder if you think reference-based humor, etc. inherently a weak thing. Thanks. I think you're rad.

Thank you for noticing that I am rad!

And thanks for your kind words about A Drink With Dave. We have had a blast putting that show together. Internet TV is where it's at.

I don't think references are necessarily a bad thing, I just think you have to do something with them. Otherwise it's just lazy. 

Sure, everyone remembers the first song that was played on MTV. But what was the second song played? (I think it was a Pat Benatar song.)

It was! It was "You Better Run." They're reairing the first hour of MTV on VH1 Classic today- go check it out. 

MTV shows far fewer videos these days. (I am not taking about MTV2, MTV Tres, MTV Jams etc.) What do you think of the direction of the flagship channel? I miss the exposure to music I wouldn't otherwise known existed. The hairbands of the 80s and metal music were introduced to me by MTV.

I'm with you. But again, the ratings indicate that people don't watch music videos. Here's my take: Neilsen doesn't count you as a viewer unless you're tuned in for 15 consecutive minutes. When you're watching videos, you tend to change the channel a bunch. So while anecdotally, we had evidence that people were watching videos (kids knew that "Bye Bye Bye" video backwards and forwards), the hard evidence- the numbers advertisers look at- said videos rated badly. So that was that. 

I wanted to add my appreciation for your support on the It Gets Better project. I live in a rural county where the community standards are anything but gay friendly. There are actually times when I feel I'm in a horror zombie film because even members of a local church shadow me. Yep, I'm typing this as I'm living in the Shaun of the Dead world. Anyway, speaking as one person struggling for acceptance, the more positive gay role models, the better - especially in music.

Aw, my friend. Keep your chin up. You will make it to the other side. The world is changing fast, it IS GETTING BETTER. Push on through. 

Churches are supposed to be forces for fairness, and I have faith that once we're past this silly argument over whether gay people should have basic civil rights, they will shake it off and get back to being good.

So what would you sing as a karaoke song?

I love doing karaoke. My standbys are Jermaine Stewart's "We Don't Have To Take Our Clothes Off" and Looking Glass' "Brandy, You're A Fine Girl." I will cold rock a party.

I don't know if you are the right person to ask, but how are participants and topics selected for the shows? Are the subject paid for participation?

You know what? I have no idea how that works. I don't even know whether they still do those shows. What was your favorite? Mine was "I'm An Inner-City Cheerleader." 

Would Elvis and the Beatles have been as revolutionary if they had emerged in the video era? Or would the video era actually have amplified their greatness?

One could make the case that Elvis and the Beatles DID emerge in the video era. Their visual styles were as strong as their music. You think Elvis, you think lips and hips. You think Beatles, you think moptops and Ed Sullivan. They both made movies which were essentially long-form music videos. They were pretty revolutionary in that way. 

I caught a little of MTV30 and cheerfully recalled what an asshat Puck was.

What you cannot experience through television is how he smelled. 

Lightning round....What's your favorite video of all time? What is the worst video of all time? Most overrated video of all time? And most ground breaking video of all time? Go.... (loved you back in the day, btw!)


Favorite video: can't go wrong with Duran Duran's "Save A Prayer." Made me want to go to Sri Lanka or the Maldives or wherever they were. 

Worst video of all time? Wow. Maybe Crazy Town's "Butterfly?" Unpleasant in every way. 

Music video as an art form is consistently underrated, so I don't know if I have a most overrated. 

Most groundbreaking? I'm going to go with Robyn's "Call Your Girlfriend," from 2011. How is she not a superstar?

PS: Thank you for loving me back in the day! You are still free to love me NOW, should you so choose.

I imagine most, if not all, were unbearable to deal with? Who was the nicest, most down to earth pop star that you dealt with back then? Who was the worst?

You imagine wrong! Most were pretty down-to-earth. My problem, especially with the young ones, is that they were so media-coached. On-air, every answer to every question was designed to say nothing and make everyone happy. If, for example, you asked Britney Spears "what time is it," she would answer "It is my favorite time, which is always right now, because I love my fans." It got a little exhausting. 

But off-camera, they were all pretty decent. Being a dick really doesn't get you far.

Who would win in a cage match?


What role did RW in changing MTV? (Also, why is this show still on the air?)

With The Real World, MTV had its first long-form show with a story arc. And people watched it. Have you seen that first season? It's on Netflix, and I can't recommend it highly enough. It is paced like a Ken Burns documentary, by today's standards. 

And I don't know why it's still on. The kids on that show now were born when that show was on the air, and they have grown up being the kinds of people who tell you what kind of people they are. They are the WORST. 

Who's your fave and least fave? I loved Julie and Heather in Season 1, I crushed hard on David from Seattle, and I loathe Flora from Miami.

What was the best concert you have ever been to?

The Hold Steady, Troubadour, 2007. The Hold Steady anywhere, really.

When Jesse won the I Wanna Be a VJ Contest, what happened behind the scenes? Were they freaking out that they were now committed to hiring him since he was such a space cadet? How did they come back and offer you your job?

I couldn't tell you what happened behind the scenes, but I can tell you that once my foot was in the door from Wanna Be A VJ, I put all my effort into pushing that mother open. I went to the wrap party, stayed sober and positive and got as many business cards as I could. And then that Monday, I called. And called. And called some more. I figured I'd either hear "NO," or they'd find a job for me somewhere. And they did. But boy, I was shameless about asking for meetings. (Which you really should be, always.)

I grew up with it and it was born on my birthday. I don't recognize it any more.

You probably look different than you did 30 years ago too. Everything changes, everything is cyclical. MTV is not my cup of tea now either, but you never know what's around the corner.

I think I realized (finally!) that television invaded my life on too huge a level when I saw you once in Brio (in St. Louis) and was too star struck to say anything. The people I was with didn't recognize you, and that was when I knew I probably watched too much tv. So thanks for that.

BRIO! I go there with my parents every time I'm home. Good flatbreads. Will you please come say hi next time? And bring better friends? 

I wouldn't say I had a favorite. The most memorable was the "Poly-amorous" gay guy involved in a 3 person relationship looking for a fourth participant. I do appreciate and question how the participants put themselves "out there" for all to see. What if anything do they want others to learn other than they exist. I have noticed that all the participants are younger than me, so it may be generational. I would not be a participant on the the show. I like my privacy.

Oh, me too. I know just enough about reality tv to stay far away from it. 

Nice to see Carson (who seems like a genuine fella) finally strike it rich with The Voice!

Man, Carson struck it rich long, long ago. "Last Call" has been on the air for...10 years now? And yes indeed, he is a decent fellow. He's doing great, and he deserves all his success and much more. 

Do you think MTV will ever return to some aspect of its old format? There have been a few shows in the past 5 years that had potential and just didn't survive.

MTV might never be the way it once was, but there are some good, smart people working very hard in 1515 Broadway, and I have no doubt that whatever they come up with next is going to be interesting. 

In This Chat
Dave Holmes
Dave Holmes is a television personality who entered the scene as a contestant on MTV's first "Wanna Be a VJ" contest in 1998. Despite finishing as runner-up, Holmes had a successful career on the music network, hosting the popular "Say What? Karaoke" until 2001. Currently, Holmes works on-air at FX and hosts the daily video Web talkshow "A Drink With Dave"
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