Sunday, April 11, 2010

Making Jesters Into Kings

Readers my own age may vaguely recall the name Jesse Camp. Folks older likely won't, since they had better things to do in the late '90s than watch daytime basic cable; folks younger won't because they hadn't yet been trained to care about the culture machine's wet farts. So, to put us all on the same page: a recap.

The 1990s were tumultuous times for MTV. After its Faustian dalliance with the semi-disinterested, ironically-distanced grunge/alternative audience, the network (like everyone else) was desperate to fill the Kurt Cobain-shaped hole left in the popular consciousness. Various ugly, ill-fitting hats were tried on: ska, electronica, swing. Before long, this pre-millenial tension & post-modernist introspection congealed into catharsis through wanton aggression, and self-parodic celebration of artifice through unmitigated consumption - manifested respectively by "nü-metal" bands and the resurgence of prefab boy bands & pop princesses.

MTV had hit the jackpot. Acts like Limp Bizkit and Slipknot allowed the network to court a nominally hostile & overwhelmingly male audience that fancied itself "transgressive" and "anti-establishment"; meanwhile, the legion bleached-blond teases from Florida captured the hearts of tweens, teen girls, middle-American prudes, and pedophiles alike. Best of all, MTV could pit these two camps against each other, a culture war between the minions of Light and Darkness for the soul of America with all the depth & stagecraft of pro wrestling.

The true masterstroke, though, was when MTV fully embraced the dawning information age's ethos of interactivity. A forum was crafted upon which the epic battle of the saccharine V. the sinister could unfold in realtime, with each side's footsoldiers beating back the other via telephonic vote. It was called Total Request Live.

Total Request Live (or TRL, as it rebranded itself in text-and-Twitter-era Newspeak) was the last of MTV's programs that dealt explicitly with music to become a pop-cultural touchstone. Ironically, its success also ushered in the "reality TV" format that ultimately eclipsed it in the mid-Aughts. TRL's emphasis on audience participation (both at home & in the studio) conditioned viewers to be entertained by - and want to be - shrieking, inarticulate narcissists pulled right off the street.

The most important erasure of the line separating MTV's on-air personalities & its audience came in 1998, with the inaugural Wanna Be a VJ? contest. Participants were pulled from the throng surrounding MTV's Time Square studio and vetted according to their music knowledge & on-screen charisma. Whereas candidates for MTV's first "reality" flagship The Real World were selected exclusively by the show's producers, the VJ-wannabes were eliminated by phone-in & online vote. Eventually, the contest was whittled down to two candidates: former college radio host & music geek Dave Holmes and trashionista space-cadet Jesse Camp.

Despite Holmes' experience & skill in front of the camera, Camp was voted the victor thanks to his dynamic personality & his populist persona as gutter-punk everyman (despite his plush prep-school background). There were, however, allegations of ballot-stuffing, an earlier incarnation of the "Vote For the Worst" culturejamming campaign that upset the sixth season of American Idol. Possibly in response to this, MTV hired Holmes as well, entrusting him with celebrity interviews while limiting wild-card Camp's onscreen responsibilities to occasional colour-commentary on TRL.

His popularity couldn't compensate for his obvious incompetence, and Jesse Camp unceremoniously left MTV after barely a year - a full two years less than Dave Holmes' tenure on the network.

Since then, Camp has more or less been off the radar. (Holmes still works as a TV commentator & host.) In 2006, Camp was seen working at a Los Angeles pet shop and is currently rumoured to be on staff at a McDonald's franchise. It's a fate commonplace to flavour-of-the-month reality TV "stars". But in retrospect, Camp's case seems excessively unfair. Let's review the particulars: a charismatic but unqualified character is plucked from obscurity; obfuscating their inherited privilege, their sloganeering performance as a populist simpleton foments a popularity that eclipses their better-experienced colleague. Their general cluelessness & inexperience, however, mark them as a liability and they're effectively marginalised by the very powers that anointed them. Finally, their inordinate fame precipitates them to abandon their office to follow their "true" calling and achieve their "proper" potential - despite a total deprivation of apparent skill.

Why, with that kind of backstory, you'd expect Jesse Camp now to be treated as an esteemed expert in his field, to be the elected figurehead of a "grassroots" movement... to be a candidate in the 2012 presidential election.

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