Photo: Melinda Nagy/Shutterstock

Remember MTV? I Was One of Their VJs, and This Is What I Learned

Brazil Music + Nightlife
by Gaía Passarelli Jan 15, 2015
1. People are amazed by VJs

When I worked for MTV Brasil I wasn’t the target audience: I was a 30-something music critic. But in 2010 the network decided a new music show was needed. I got to audition, and someone thought I was good enough. I accepted the job because they were going to let me choose the videos, and as someone who grew up watching MTV, it was an offer too cool to pass up. It surprised me how many people cared about MTV and their presenters — those on-screen personas called VJs. Teenagers went to the network door to get autographs and selfies, sent gifts, started virtual fan clubs. It’s like being a reporter but also a rock star.

2. No one cares about cool music

My first show at MTV was a late night weekly called Goo, named after the classic Sonic Youth album and dedicated to new alternative music. Zola Jesus was a favourite, as was zef trio Die Antwoord and multiracial rap group Das Racist. I was always trying to sneak in a seven-minute long instrumental piece by Explosions in the Sky. The idea of airing alternative stuff that no one knew about was super exciting, but also crazy and bound to fail. Goo was canceled after 8 months, and I was doomed to talk about music that people cared about, like Katy Perry and Maroon 5.

3. You can’t always get what you want

You know when you buy tickets for an awesome music festival and then the time schedule forces you to decide which of your favourite bands you won’t see because they play different stages at the same time? Well, imagine going to a music festival and not getting to see ANY show because you must stay inside the press area to make 35 different interviews in one day.

And it’s not like you’re partying with rock gods, because rock gods don’t want media people around. But what got on my nerves was asking dumb stuff to incredible artists because the network decided that was what people wanted. I had to ask Gal Costa (this lady, Brazil’s greatest singer) if she had seen the newest Batman film. She hadn’t.

4. You meet a lot of cool people

Directors, writers, producers, executives, stylists, technical, camera and audio operators, designers, reporters, programmers…the people I got to work with at MTV are still some of the craziest, most creative, hard workers I’ve ever met. I married a fellow VJ. And there’s also all the musicians you get to meet. Most of the time they’re as professional and as nice as you’d expect — Jack White is in this category. Then there’s the occasional indie band who acts as if they don’t want to talk to you, the crazy singer-songwriter who talks too much, the rapper who decides it’s a nice idea to discuss Eric Hobsbawm with you on camera. Oh, and Julian Casablancas said he liked my style.

5. It’s ego crushing

You’re being judged; it’s part of the job. But I’m not talking about a teenage Lady Gaga fan ranting on Twitter because you didn’t praise Mother Monster enough that afternoon, or an artist mocking an English grammar mistake. It’s more serious than that. There’s the colleague stealing a moment you considered yours. There’s the director who doesn’t communicate. There’s the secretly evil hair-stylist. There’s the focus groups, where kids are invited to see the shows off-air so they can express their strongest opinions about it.

Worst of all, there’s the air-check sessions, when you must sit with the executives and directors to have your screen presence availed. Imagine sitting in a room with people saying to your face that you “look old” or you “should never wear short skirts” or “the image you project is arrogant.” You need a lot of confidence to stay sane.

6. It’s hard work

Sure, getting in front of a camera to talk about music videos isn’t exactly quantum physics. But I dare you to keep your cool trying to interview a Japanese musician who doesn’t like to talk. On the ground of an EDM music festival. In front of dozens of screaming teenagers. While your director is urging you to “Say something funny”. On camera. Live.

It makes you develop a lot of respect for people who work on screen. The anchor person doing late night live news from Monday to Friday? Awesome. Actors portraying emotion in front of an audience? Amazing. War correspondents? Superhumans.

7. People care a lot about TV

Nothing beats TV in terms of popularity. You can write a best seller, create a super famous YouTube channel, have your voice heard by millions on radio, but TV is what makes an aunt pick up the phone and scream “I just saw you!” I like to use this story as an example: I once wrote a very cool article for Brazil’s biggest newspaper. It was front page, Sunday edition. It was a big deal and of course I was super proud, so I called my grandparents to hear congratulations. What did I hear instead? “That’s lovely, dear. But are you going back to TV?”

8. It’s crazy fun

The first day of my first international assignment ended with me sleeping under the table of a strip club in Austin, Texas, waiting for Har Mar Superstar’s show to come to an end. I wasn’t drunk but I also hadn’t slept in 36 hours.

My last day at MTV Brasil was the closing night, September 2013, when the company shut down. The network went live for 10 hours straight to celebrate. A lot of Brazilian musicians and all the old VJs came to visit, the network installed cameras all over, MTV Brasil’s Twitter account was open to everyone tweet about what was going on, the doors were open and fans drove to the building to join the party. Everybody drank a lot, people danced on tables, cried, screamed, hugged, and after that we all stayed in the bar downstairs, laughing until morning came. It was the coolest night in television history.

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