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Much ado about nothing

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THIS SPRING, TEXT-MESSAGING TEENAGERS ACROSS Canada helped MuchMusic, that venerable institution of Canadian popular culture, select 23-year-old metrosexual Tim Deegan of Kitchener, Ontario, as its newest video jockey. Conducted for the first time as a reality television special in which viewers would determine the outcome, MuchMusic’s 11-year-old VJ contest pitted attractive and, in theory, musically engaged young Canadians against one another in the hopes of winning a full-time contract, and the fame that accompanies having face time on the nation’s music station.

While it is true that the empty-headed Deegan’s arrival marked the ultimate triumph of style over substance at Much, smarts among VJs have been on decreasing rotation for over a decade. Deegan’s stage was set by another insufferably hip young man who competed for a similar position some 12 years ago: Rick “The Temp” Campanelli. Prior to Campanelli’s arrival, the VJ culture at MuchMusic was defined by an outward looking intelligence and curiosity that extended beyond the discrete confines of the music industry. Beginning with Daniel Richler and J.D. Roberts in the 1980s and continuing with Avi Lewis, Master T, Sook-Yin Lee and George Stroumboulopoulos in the 1990s, VJs were intellectually equipped, if not always editorially empowered, to ask tough questions and make original insights. They added depth to the viewing experience by contextualizing discussions of music and popular culture in the broader social and political issues of the time.

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Campanelli and his ilk–Amanda Walsh, Rachel Perry, Rainbow Sun Francks and others–always appeared, like MTV’s infamous Carson Daly, far more interested in the celebrity aspect of the music industry than the music itself or the people who devote their lives to its creation and production. Their interviews, unlike the probing and frequently provocative efforts of their predecessors, were fawning, superficial and invariably deferential.

For the old-school VJ, the celebrity status that working at MuchMusic afforded was often used as a stepping stone to a career in the arts, in journalism or in television news. Roberts moved on to become a major news anchor at CBS and now CNN, Richler hosted TVOntario’s Imprint and acted as editor-in-chief at BookTelevision, Lewis became a prominent documentary filmmaker, Lee graduated to host CBC Radio’s Definitely Not the Opera and Stroumboulopoulos moved on to host The Hour on CBC Newsworld. In contrast, new-school VJs used their celebrity to achieve yet greater celebrity. Campanelli is now a host with Entertainment Tonight Canada, Rachel Perry moved to the United States to host VH1’s Strip Search, and Amanda Walsh and Rainbow Sun Francks are attempting to carve out careers in Hollywood.

The four finalists of the most recent edition of the Much VJ search, Tim Deegan, Nikki Mah, Sean Gehon and Erik Bartik, completed a questionnaire as part of their candidacy, and their answers are deeply, if not also depressingly, revealing. Their favourite books included He’s Just Not That Into You, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, and “my advertising text,” and their favourite magazines were People, Cosmo, Snowboard Canada and Maxim. Lest anyone accuse me of intellectual snobbery, the kids all happened to bomb a particular segment during the VJ search that tested their knowledge of musical history, the one subject they should at least know something about. The intellectual depth of this particular field was, in other words, about as deep as a kiddie pool. They looked great, of course, but seemed ill-equipped to be anything other than particularly hip and physically attractive microphone stands.

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That said, the central question the transformation of the VJ raises is whether it is valuable for the people who mediate our experience with musical culture to have any familiarity with the world that exists beyond it. Are they cultural adventurers, poking into unexplored corners and exposing both the attractive and the unattractive elements of their subject matter, or merely tour guides charged with showing us the exotic beasts on display and occasionally tossing them a handful of nuts? It seems, for the time being, that the MuchMusic brass has opted for the latter. Canada’s newest instant celebrity, Tim Deegan, observed that MuchMusic is “a great way for kids to know what’s going on in this world.” Unfortunately, thanks to the changing VJ culture Deegan represents, that becomes less true with each passing Countdown.

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