Interview: Former VJ Kennedy Looks Back at the Golden Age of MTV Through Rose-Colored Glasses
If you were a red-blooded American teenager in the 1980s, chances are at some point, you not only wanted your MTV, you wanted to work there, either behind, or ideally in front of the cameras. Lisa Kennedy Montgomery, better known simply as “Kennedy,” was someone who lived the dream, becoming part of the second wave of VJs to arrive at the television network, when it was still (usually) showing rock videos.
However, Kennedy had an at times bruising run there, when it was discovered that she was – gasp! – a conservative. As she mentions in her new and thoroughly enjoyable book, The Kennedy Chronicles: The Golden Age of MTV Through Rose-Colored Glasses. Things got particularly grim at the 1994 MTV Video Awards:
[Roseanne’s] joke that Kennedy was backstage performing oral sex on Rush Limbaugh sparked Kennedy's mock fellatio performance on a microphone while standing next to New York City Rudy Giuliani. Later, when fellow VJ Bill Bellamy asked her if she wanted to say anything to Roseanne, she responded: "Roseanne, ease up on the Prozac, and by the way, Rush Limbaugh says you give [much better oral sex]." Roseanne later wrote Kennedy a letter saying she was one of the few people that had ever stood up to her "and she had a lot of respect for me," Kennedy said in an interview. "It was such a nice letter, one of those kind moments that taught me a lot about class and supporting a lot of women." Although the incident almost got her fired, Kennedy points out that MTV had approved Roseanne's joke because it appeared on the teleprompter.
Fortunately, though, she survived Roseanne's disgusting sucker punch (and Roseanne would only go downhill from there), and left the network in 1997 on her own terms. She’s now a DJ at L.A.’s ALT 98.7, creates videos for Reason TV, and contributes to John Stossel’s show on the Fox Business Channel. And she’s still on great terms with her fellow VJs from the period, as well as MTV News host Kurt Loder, who also contributes to Reason.
During our interview, we’ll discuss:
● How Roger Ailes gave a surprising assist to her early MTV days.
● How she was able to smuggle her conservatism into the perilously liberal world of MTV.
● How Kurt Loder helped her make the transition from conservative to libertarian.
● The confining worldview of many left-wing rock artists.
● Why “Zappa Family Values” aren’t an oxymoron.
● Why so many musicians suffer from what Keith Richards calls LVS – “Lead Vocalist Syndrome.”
● Young people and libertarianism in 2013.
●How the media world today differs from the MTV era.
And much more. Click here to listen:
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Transcript of our interview begins on the following page; for our many previous podcasts, start here and keep scrolling.
DRISCOLL: This is Ed Driscoll for PJ Media.com, and we're talking with Lisa Kennedy Montgomery better known simply as Kennedy. She was a VJ with MTV during the last period that everybody still wanted their MTV, and now, among other things, she produces and stars in videos for Reason TV. And she's the author of The Kennedy Chronicles: The Golden Age of MTV Through Rose-Colored Glasses. It’s published by Thomas Dunne Books, and available from Amazon.com and your local bookstore. And Kennedy, thanks for stopping by today.
KENNEDY: Thanks, Ed. How's it going?
DRISCOLL: OK. Kennedy, I think for most young people, if you were a red-blooded American teenager in the 1980s, chances are at some point, you not only wanted your MTV, you wanted to work there, either behind, or ideally in front of the cameras. Kennedy, as someone who got to live the dream, could you talk about your journey to MTV, and how you ultimately got the gig?
KENNEDY: Yeah, it was -- it came as a surprise, especially to me. I was going to say, ‘even to me,’ but I think I was more surprised than anyone. I had been interning at a radio station and got a job as a part-time DJ. And as luck would have it, the program director who hired me, he moved to MTV and became the senior vice president of programming. And then when he had been there for a few months, he offered me a job. So I didn't audition and -- it was kind of crazy.
DRISCOLL: What was the transition from audio DJ to MTV VJ like, and did working at MTV, at least initially, seem like what you had expected it to be?
KENNEDY: Yeah, it was definitely what I expected. It was everything I expected and more. It was -- it was fast. There were big personalities. It was pretty awesome. But I -- man, I don't know. I don't know how I made the transition. It was so crazy. Because I was so -- I was good with my voice, but I was so stiff. And my mom was so uncomfortable when she'd watch me, and she thought I was so sad, because I didn't smile, because I didn't want to come off as phony. So I just looked really glib and depressed.
And then someone gave me a copy of Roger Ailes' book You are the Message, and you know, there's a lot of stuff in there about how to be a TV presenter, like how to use your face and your body and all of those things naturally, so you come across as kind of an appealing presenter.
DRISCOLL: Now you’re on the Fox Business Channel these days. Have you told Roger Ailes that his book helped launch your career as an MTV VJ?
KENNEDY: Yeah. He -- he and I were some of the very first guests on Politically Incorrect when it was on Comedy Central. And it was -- it was before -- it was three years before he had started Fox News. And I took him a copy of the book to sign. And so -- and he signed my copy of the book. And you know, we have kept in touch over the years.
DRISCOLL: In the Kennedy Chronicles, you described quite a dramatic coming out as someone who was not a cast-in-the-mold liberal in late 1992 or early 1993.
KENNEDY: I got to MTV when Clinton fever was in full swing, because the “Choose or Lose” campaign had been going on at MTV, and you know, there was just such a fervor there for this presidential candidate, for this Democratic nominee. And he was playing ball with MTV. It was -- it was a really intelligent move on the part of the Clinton campaign. And, you know, I wouldn't credit MTV fully with Clinton's election. You know, I think that's a foolish, simplistic thing to do. But it certainly signaled a generational shift in politics and taking younger voters seriously. And you know, MTV wanted to put forth some really, you know, kind of credible election coverage, and the Clinton campaign wanted to reach the MTV generation, being staffed by you know, thirty-somethings, some twenty-somethings. And so, you know, that marriage was born.
But you know, I came from the right. At the time, you know, I was a confessed Republican, and that's what I had always been, because, you know, in my mind at the time, the only that existed was a two-party system. And it wasn't until later that, you know, I was brought to the light of what it meant to be a libertarian. And you know, I'm really happy now to see what's happening with students and the liberty movement, because they have so many choices. And, you know, they're voicing their true beliefs. They're not being told what to believe or who to vote for. And, you know, they're taking back college campuses. And it's a really wonderful thing to see. Like it's the most energized political generation that I've come across.
Because, you know, being a Gen-X-er, we're pretty apathetic. But it's so amazing to see people out there who consider themselves libertarians, you know, from the left and from the right. But they're very consistent in their beliefs in true liberty and freedom.
DRISCOLL: So, how did you become first a conservative, and then a libertarian in the music business, particularly given the unbelievable peer pressure there must have been to conform to the industry’s liberal groupthink?
KENNEDY: No, it was -- it would have been a lot easier, I think, especially in the beginning, to just be a full-blown liberal. But I felt like I was compromising my beliefs; you know, my belief in the free market and a consistency of ideas. Because, you know, the left talks about certain types of freedoms, but you know, both the left and the right become very hypocritical when they're pushed on the issue. And you know, I saw that really quickly, especially when it came to free speech and the environment and things like that.
And, you know, there are so many bands telling you what to believe. And there was zero curiosity and zero tolerance for people who had differing beliefs. And I always thought that was hypocritical and unfair.
DRISCOLL: Huh. I would have thought your fellow talent at MTV and in the rest of the media would have been extremely tolerant at discovering that MTV was much more politically diverse than they had first thought, right...?
KENNEDY: Oh, you know, there are people at MTV who were certainly encouraging and accepting, and you know, but they laughed behind my back. But they didn't haze me. You know, they -- they -- it didn't really become an issue until I signed my second contract in 1995, and then they put in a clause in there that I wasn't allowed to go on and talk about politics unless I had prior consent from the network. And I know no one else had that clause in their contract.
But by and large, you know, I mean, they were -- they were cool, and you know, as long as I represented my beliefs as my own, they were fine.
DRISCOLL: Kennedy, I watched your recent interview on C-Span’s Book TV, and you said something to Peter Slen, the interviewer that I was hoping you could elaborate on. You had said, “Tom Morello from Rage Against the Machine has an ideology which is very confining, and in his world, if you don't agree with him, you are the enemy, there's very little room for actual free thought. I found that to be hypocritical. When I came across people like that, I would call them on it.” Could you talk about how a hardcore socialist ideology is very quote unquote confining?
KENNEDY: Well, it is because there is zero acceptance, there is zero tolerance for someone who might have a belief system that evolved from, you know, a different set of life experiences. And that's the thing about politics. Like, we're so judgmental of each other, when really, you know, some of that judgment needs to be replaced with curiosity. And I find far less of that on the far left.
And you know, these -- these are people who claim that they're fighting for people's rights and fighting for people's freedom. But you know, it's a very narrow fight. And, you know -- and truly, if you -- if you voice anything that, you know, they perceive as criticism to them, it's an attack. And you know, and that's one of the reasons that we're in such a sorry state as far as a national political discourse.
And you know, I mean, I have friends who are libertarians who really -- they -- they run that gamut as far as their life influences and what they truly believe. But, you know, in the end, it comes down to, even if I don't agree with you, I will still fight for your freedom to choose whatever you want to do with your life, as long as it doesn't affect me.
DRISCOLL: And even beyond the politics, in his autobiography, Keith Richards talks about what a prig Mick Jagger can be, and describes him as a long-suffering victim of L.V.S., or Lead Vocalist Syndrome. In your book, many of the frontmen you describe meeting are even bigger...jerks than Mick, to use a family-friendly word. Is that a defense mechanism, is it a pose?
KENNEDY: No, I think -- you know, if you're the -- if you're the lead singer in a group, whatever -- you know, big how small and however long you've been around, it's -- you know, there's inherent narcissism there. It's just the way it is. Like if you want
to -- if you want to stand on a stage and say, hey look at me, you really can't be a successful, charismatic, entertaining lead singer without that.
And you know, and then look like David Lee Roth. He's probably a total pain in the ass to hang out with, but man, Van Halen is sure entertaining.
DRISCOLL: In contrast, perhaps because he’s a guitarist and not a lead singer, Dweezil Zappa comes across as quite a sympathetic character in your book, whom you knew while his father was in his last days.
KENNEDY: Yes. Dweezil's an amazing person. And you know, he's super introspective and, you know, comes from such an incredible family where, you know, they openly talked about politics. And they made fun of politicians across the board. And it was really funny, because I always saw people in the political realm who (indiscernible) -- you know, they were always intrigued by Frank and always kind of wanted his blessing.
And that's because he was, you know, Frank was so uncompromising and so legit. And he really -- he passed that on to his children, especially Dweezil. You know, Dweezil is a remarkable, creative human being. He's such a good person. And, you know, he was -- he was raised really well. And people thought that Frank Zappa was this insane person, but he was a truly dedicated family man. And you could see that, just entering into their house, how much love there was.
And, you know, it's like I wanted my family to be like that. I thought I grew up in a normal family. And, you know, from the outside looking in, you would think they're strange. But it was actually a very tight-knit group. It was very beautiful to witness.
DRISCOLL: Later in the Kennedy Chronicles, it seems to me that you described Tabitha Soren, who was played a prominent on-air role during the 1992 MTV “Choose or Lose” campaign as somewhat of a cautionary career tale. Is that a fair assessment?
KENNEDY: I don't know -- I don't know if that would be the case. I mean, there's nothing really cautionary about her career, because she was also another uncompromising person. Like she left MTV, she left broadcasting because she chose to do that.
And, you know, that was really what she was telling me. The advice that she gave me was go live an interesting life. You know, fame, all of this, is nonsense. It's total illusion. And, you know, that's why I called the chapter “Siddhartha Soren,” because you know, here she is like transforming into the Buddha before my eyes and ears, and she's telling me -- I thought that she was a fast tracked really ambitious career woman. But it turns out like, you know, as soon as she fell in love and got married, like she followed her passion to Stanford and Berkeley and, you know, she's an incredible photographer, and she had three kids. And I have a lot of respect for that.
It's -- you know, it's much easier to get on the hamster wheel and chase the cheese and have an unfulfilling yet professionally successful life. And it really speaks for someone who totally unplugs and goes out and lives the life that they want. And you know, that's -- the fact that I was able to move to Seattle and leave MTV really at my height was -- I credit Tabitha for that.
DRISCOLL: And let’s move things forward into the present day. But first, do you ever hear from your fellow VJs?
KENNEDY: Yeah, I do. I talk to a lot of people. I talk to a lot of people who were not on camera. I talk to John Sencio, who just had a tremendous battle with a rare form of carcinoma that almost took his life. You know. And in the book I write about John was one of my fellow VJs from Massachusetts. He and I started really close to each other. And he -- he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma when he was at MTV. He was only like twenty-four years old. And he lost most of his hair. Whatever hair he had left, they glued it back on his head. And you know, he was one of those people -- this incredible triumph of the human spirit. Just watching him was incredibly moving, because you know, his body was becoming so frail, but he insisted on working the whole time. He wanted to stay on camera.
So he would go to the (indiscernible) he'd get (indiscernible) he'd come back and you know, he was (indiscernible) to leave. And he ended up battling another kind of carcinoma just last year that was so devastating. And he went through, you know, months where they did not know if he was going to make it. And he has successfully beaten cancer again. And you know, I'm so happy to know him, I'm so happy to be connected to him.
And I talk to Bill Bellamy. I see Carson Daly, you know, at least a couple times a week, which is so funny. And I talk to Kurt Loder. I always have dinner with Kurt Loder when I'm in New York. There's quite a few people that I keep in touch with.
And you know, also through the miracle of Facebook, there -- we have some MTV Facebook groups where people post funny things and pictures. And it's really great.
DRISCOLL: Now, Kurt Loder's also a contributor to Reason, like yourself.
KENNEDY: Yeah. Kurt's awesome. And he was -- he was the one who brought me into the light of libertarian being.
DRISCOLL: Compared to the MTV craziness, how are things in front of the cameras and microphones today?
KENNEDY: It's really fun, because, you know, one of the great things about new media and technology is it allows you to create your own identity and interests. And you know, whatever you want to do, if you have the resources, you can go out and do it.
And you know, it's -- thanks to editing software and the immediacy of all of these tools and a place to put it. And, you know, it's -- and they're very -- I have very distinct jobs. You know, it's like when I -- when I go out and shoot for Stossel on Fox Business, you know, I go as his reporter. I am John's proxy. Like I go out and I get the story that John wants to tell.
And, you know, when I -- when I do stuff for Reason, it's a different and wider scope. And you know, there's a different kind of latitude, but, you know, you also have
to -- we may be a little looser with the content, but you also have to respect what Reason is about, because Reason is its own institution, and it's an incredibly creative place. And, you know, I love going out with Jim (indiscernible) with the (indiscernible) he'll let me, and writing all sorts of stuff.
It's -- it's so satisfying. And I did not foresee this much activity in my career, even ten years ago. And I'm really happy for it. And, you know, I'm still connected to music through iHeart Radio and through ALT 98.7 which is my radio station in LA. I do mornings there.
And you know, being able to still be passionately involved in politics and music, I'm so happy for that. And, you know, I love -- I love upsetting people. I love soaking people out. You know, any time you can get an -- an emotional reaction, good or bad, it's something successful for me.
DRISCOLL: This is Ed Driscoll and we've been talking with Kennedy, formerly with MTV and now with Reason TV and the Fox Business Channel. She's the author of The Kennedy Chronicles: The Golden Age of MTV Through Rose-Colored Glasses. It’s published by Thomas Dunne Books, and available from Amazon.com and your local bookstore. And Kennedy, thanks once again for stopping by PJ Media.com today.
KENNEDY: Thanks, Ed. I really appreciate it. Thanks for your time.
(End of recording; for our many previous podcasts, start here and keep scrolling.)
Transcribed by eScribers.net, with minor revisions (including hyperlinks) by Ed Driscoll.