The Evolution of MTV’s Hipster VJs

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MTV has always had a love-hate relationship with the hipster (formerly alternative, punk, etc.) community. Although the network strives for authenticity by appealing to all that is fresh and young, in the end, they’re in the business of platinum-selling pop — and the two worlds only occasionally overlap. Yet, over the years, MTV has pushed various hipster-flavored VJs on the viewing masses. Just yesterday, we received a press release about Alice Levine, a fresh face in a lace-trimmed sweater who has already begun hosting “cheeky” MTV programming in the UK. The news of her debut got us thinking about the other counterculture-affiliated VJs who’ve appeared on the network and how their styles have evolved over three decades.

Punk rock girl: Nina Blackwood (1981-86)

Although most of us think of Martha Quinn first when we’re remembering early MTV VJs, Nina Blackwood was in fact the original. With her throaty voice, bleached-out tresses, generous eye makeup, and hard-edged style, Blackwood endowed the nascent network with a cache of cred it would spend the next three decades squandering.

Hip headbanger: Riki Rachtman (1990-95)

Believe it or not, before grunge appeared to wash away the hairspray and spandex of ’80s metal was actually cool. And Rachtman was at the center of it. A pal of Axl Rose — who helped get him the gig hosting MTV’s Headbangers Ball — he was also co-owner of LA metal club Cathouse and was featured in the documentary The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years . His style evolved throughout the years (especially when flannels began to replace beaters), but classic Rachtman was full-on Sunset Strip sleaze: long hair, all-over denim, T-shirts with the sleeves ripped off, and plenty of visible tattoos. In later years, he showed up on VH1 to host various Rock of Love-related shows and was no longer cool by any stretch of the imagination.

Indie chameleon: John Norris (1988-2008)

The longtime MTV News correspondent parted ways with MTV in 2008, when the stock market crash caused massive layoffs at the station’s parent company, Viacom. Although he was never the network’s most flamboyant presenter, Norris was one of its most common presences, and his style changed subtly with the times. And his knowledge of music was second to none (with the possible exception of Matt Pinfield). Still an active and enthusiastic fan and journalist, he can often be seen crowding into even the most obscure of Brooklyn DIY venues to check out new bands.

Geek chic: Kennedy (1992-1996)

With the ’90s in full swing and Nirvana leading a wave of underground bands-turned-overnight chart toppers, MTV embraced its weird side. Enter Kennedy, host of the beloved Alternative Nation, a fixture on the network throughout the mid-’90s. She was your typical lovable nerd, complete with granny glasses and a love of plaid that would put Cher Horowitz to shame.

The authentic music nerd: Matt Pinfield (1995-99)

Unlike other MTV VJs, Matt Pinfield wasn’t particularly good-looking or even really that charismatic. What endeared us to him was his epic fandom: Pinfield was like a walking encyclopedia of music, an early hint at the digitally empowered 21st-century music geek. On his late-night college-rock turf, 120 Minutes, he spewed rock ‘n roll tidbits like a kid who’d been memorizing baseball card stats. His look, if you could call it that, was simple: With T-shirts, button downs, jeans, and a shaved head, he resembled about half the guys you’d see at late-’90s indie rock show.

Jesse Camp (1998-2000)

Life-size cartoon character Jesse Camp, the impossibly tall and skinny winner of MTV’s Wanna Be a VJ contest, only stuck around for a year or so. But in that time, the prep-school refugee who advertised himself as a street kid, managed to inflict his own special brand of marble-mouthed mayhem on the network. For anyone who hadn’t spent much time in the East Village (i.e. most MTV viewers) his style — an odd mix of crust punk and Guns N’ Roses style metalhead — provided a rare glimpse into the odd world of downtown street fashion.

Emo intelligence: Gideon Yago (2000-2007)

Among the most visible musical subcultures of the ’00s, even emo had its public spokesperson on MTV. Of course, Gideon Yago was always about more than music: An MTV News anchor who began working with the network in his early 20s, Yago was often involved in its political efforts, interviewing presidential candidates, creating specials on pressing issues, and working to get young people involved in the democratic process. He also sported thick-rimmed black glasses and wore a lot of sweaters, and was thus lumped in with the emo crowd.

Androgynous beauty: Kim Stolz (2008-present)

Appearing mostly on mtvU — which makes sense at a moment when MTV proper doesn’t exactly have much need for VJs — Stolz debuted on the network only a few years after finding success as a contestant on America’s Next Top Model. Her boyish style may have left ANTM judges doubtful, but her fitted cowboy shirts have served her well at the new job. Between the plaid and the androgyny, she’d be bound to fit in at any Williamsburg social function.