Contest-Winning Case File #17: Jesse & The 8th Street Kidz

Contest-Winning Case File #17: Jesse & The 8th Street Kidz

MTV experienced such massive, unprecedented success with Total Request Live after its 1998 debut that the youth-culture juggernaut felt empowered to experiment further with pop-culture democracy by letting the wise council of elders that constituted its audience choose the network’s next on-air personality via its Wanna Be A VJ contest. The job requirements were pretty basic: All a VJ really needs to do is look reasonably presentable while looking at a camera and introducing videos. 

The choice between the final two candidates couldn’t have been clearer. One was a smart, funny, quick-witted, and polished improviser and music fan named Dave Holmes. He was unmistakably the right man for the job, a steady hand on the wheel who would be easy to work with, a consummate professional and a quick study. The other was a 6-foot-4 teenager named Jesse Camp who was so underfed and towering he looked like a hair-metal hobo, with his angry shock of black hair, thrift-store Dumpster wardrobe, and skeletal torso. Pasty human scarecrow Camp was a man out of time. In a TRL world of shiny, pre-fabricated boy bands and shimmering pop tarts, he was a glitter-metal true believer with clothes and a sensibility frozen forever on the Sunset Strip circa 1987. When he appeared on Wanna Be A VJ, Camp looked less like the future of MTV than a stoned ghost of half-forgotten ’80s past. 

I suspect much of the MTV audience had the same response to the two finalists that I did. I liked Holmes a lot. It was hard not to. But Camp fascinated me. He had the potential to be a glitch in the matrix, a genuine freak in an uptight corporate atmosphere of finely manicured pseudo-rebellion. We MTV viewers were being offered a choice between two job candidates. One promised professionalism and a smooth transfer of power. The other promised that if chosen, he’d dress up like Ziggy Stardust every day, make the cafeteria serve nothing but hot fudge sundaes and jelly beans, and institute mandatory breakdancing lessons for all, even the elderly and infirm. One candidate was clearly more deserving than the other. Unfortunately for Holmes, the other promised to make life a whole lot more interesting for everyone involved—because he was insane, or at least pretending to be for the cameras. 

Besides, it wasn’t as if MTV viewers would actually have to work with Camp. Nope, they could afford to be malevolent trickster gods. The viewers didn’t choose Camp because they thought he’d excel at the lost art of VJing. They chose Camp because they thought it would be funny to fuck with MTV, and who the hell takes a VJ contest seriously anyway? 

As soon as Camp won the contest—and with it $25,000 in prize money, a bounty destined to last anywhere from a few weeks to a month in New York—questions began to arise. Who was Jesse Camp anyway? Where did he come from? Was his whole wispy-voiced space-cadet shtick an art-school pose? Was he Andy Kaufman, refusing to break character no matter how ridiculous he looked? Was he on drugs? Was he playing a role? Was he homeless? Where were his parents? Why was Jesse Camp happening, and was there anything that could be done to stop it? 

Camp’s rise and fall are both wrapped up in mystery and mythology. The young man with the crack-addict physique, angry tangle of hair, and incomprehensible stoner screech turned out to be the son of a history professor and an elementary-school principal and a graduate of the prestigious Loomis Chafee boarding school. As if all that weren’t fancy enough, the dude with the “Can I just crash on your couch until I come down?” vibe was born Josiah Holden Camp IV. Camp wasn’t born a drifter or a ragamuffin. He simply picked up their ways after bumming around the country following his graduation from Loomis Chafee. Was Camp’s shtick an act? It’s hard to tell. When you’re 18 years old, identity can be awfully fluid. What teenager hasn’t adopted, then discarded, various personae? Camp was just fortunate, or unfortunate, enough to have gone through his hair-metal pixie-hobo phase in the public eye.

Being a VJ was almost invariably a means to an end, a high-profile path to a better, more substantial and lasting gig, not a profession or career path. Camp’s endgame, such as it was, involved making the epic leap from semi-coherently introducing videos and jibber-jabbering with their creators to making music himself with his band The 8th Street Kidz. In a 2008 L.A. Weekly article, Camp claims to have been the beneficiary of a million-dollar contract with Hollywood Records that allowed a directionless teenager on the run from a life of wealth and privilege an opportunity to live out his rock ’n’ roll fantasies with a subsidiary of Disney footing the bill. Camp’s life was instantly transformed into rock ’n’ roll fantasy camp, and he was suddenly in the studio working with Stevie Nicks and Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen on a big-sounding, Rob Cavallo-produced major-label album. 

Released in 1999, Jesse & The 8th Street Kidz was doomed from its inception. Camp performed an unusually reverent variation on a style of music that hadn’t been commercially palatable since Nirvana’s Nevermind destroyed hair metal with a few thundering power chords and intentionally enigmatic lyrics. In order for Jesse & The 8th Street Kidz to succeed, it would need to turn back the clock to an age when men dolled up like cheap strippers to caterwaul about chicks, drugs, and wild times over screeching guitars and pounding drums. The album didn’t just have to fight the public’s ever-increasing distaste for Camp—a stumbling punchline who just wasn’t funny anymore, if he ever had been—it also had to resurrect a subgenre that had been more or less laughed out of prominence early in the decade.

Jesse & The 8th Street Kidz is unapologetic in its embrace of the relentlessly superficial. “See You Around” kicks off the album by pretending that Nevermind never happened and hair metal still rules. The song and the album make good on hair metal’s implicit promise dating back to the days of Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” music video: Ostensibly heterosexual men with way too much eyeliner and very loud guitars are going to invade your school and liberate you from the tyranny of stodgy authority figures and their tedious rules. 

Jesse Camp’s art form isn’t singing or music television. No, Jesse Camp’s art form is being Jesse Camp. On “See You Around,” Camp doesn’t sing so much as he rambles good-naturedly and semi-coherently about a day in the life of a high-school slacker who isn’t too big on book-learning or rules-following, but is intent on scoring straight As in partying. “See You Around” barely qualifies as a song; it’s more like quasi-improvised hipster jive-talk married to pummeling glam-metal riffs. Yet Hollywood Records had such faith in the track that it made “See You Around” the album’s kick-off track and first single. Hollywood had a delusional level of confidence in the single, but the song’s producer had so little faith in Camp’s singing or songwriting ability that he pushed the vocals to the back of a slick, big-sounding song. Combined with Camp’s mumbled, tongue-in-cheek delivery, the song’s production makes Camp damn near impossible to understand. I had to listen to the song three or four times before I could discern that Camp does in fact mumble couplets like, “If things get too tight I’ll say, ‘Yo teach, I got to see the school shrink’/I’ll act all crazy then you stash them pills that make us think.” 

Jesse & The 8th Street Kidz is Jesse Camp’s coming-out party as a frontman, singer, songwriter, and hair-metal revivalist, yet the production relegates him to the background. The following track, “Break It,” pairs Camp’s marble-mouthed sneer with Sex Pistols-style guitars and a big pop-punk chorus. “Summertime Squatters” offers a change of pace, a powerless ballad that luxuriates in the glitter-strewn glamour of being young, broke, and beautiful with nothing to lose and everything to gain. There’s a strange innocence to that song in particular and the album as a whole. A decade before the emergence of Ke$ha, Camp had the foresight to propose that nothing in the world is more rock ’n’ roll than being quasi-homeless and dressed like a runaway from 1985. If youth is all about being impulsive, wild, and free from even the fuzziest notion of responsibility, then what’s more liberating than being a hair-metal hobo, a glitter-rock gypsy, an MTV migrant? (Then again, Ke$ha’s producers have enough faith in her abilities that they don’t essentially scrub each track clean of her contributions.) 

Camp presides over Jesse & The 8th Street Kidz as a larger-than-life personality, not as a singer, songwriter, or creative visionary. He has a whiny screech of a voice that’s rich in attitude and destitute in everything else, but hair metal has never been a genre that prized technical prowess in its belters. Camp’s vocals are just one insignificant element of a busy mix assembled by professionals who are just barely tolerating the human train-wreck with his name on the album. That is, until “My Little Saviour,” a maudlin acoustic ballad of young love that makes the terrible mistake of putting Camp’s wavering vocals front and center. Then something strange happens about a minute in, as Camp’s fragile voice cracks and croaks and strains to hit the high notes: The song becomes a duet between Jesse Camp and Stevie fucking Nicks. More than a decade later, it’s still jarring to hear Camp’s wobbly croon alongside Nicks’ unmistakable voice. “My Little Saviour” represents the apogee of Camp’s surreal flirtation with fame. After singing alongside Stevie Nicks on a million-dollar major-label album at age 19, there’s nowhere to go but down, which is just where Camp’s career headed. 

In hindsight, Camp’s rise and fall feel both pre-ordained and the result of a massive cosmic fluke. It was his fate to be a creature out of time, a Warholian superstar and hair-metal evangelist at the close of an uncertain century. If Camp was a cartoon of pop-culture past, he was also a harbinger of its even more degraded future. Camp was an early example of an all-too-common contemporary breed: the reality-TV trainwreck famous for being both famous and a disaster as a human being. If he had hit five years later, he could have made a living, albeit a humiliating one, flitting from one dispiriting reality show to the next.

Instead, Camp essentially disappeared after his album flopped. His label dropped him, and MTV decided that it had seen and heard enough of Camp for one lifetime. Considering the strange nature of Camp’s fame, it seems tragicomically appropriate that he popped up briefly on the cultural radar in 2008 when the vultures over at TMZ taped him arranging to buy two eight-balls of cocaine outside a party for the finale of Total Request Live. Camp stops just short of putting the call on speakerphone to broadcast as clearly as possible that he, Jesse Camp, formerly of MTV and Hollywood Records, would like to buy some illegal drugs from his illegal drug dealer and would like to do so as quickly as possible. The whole exchange is sad and poignant and more than a little pathetic (in part because he’s doing it alongside a sister he’s clearly crazy about), a strange dance of humiliation between creepy voyeurs and an exhibitionist unencumbered by dignity or self-respect.  

What makes the whole situation even sadder is the sense that he’s putting on a show for TMZ. Camp doesn’t seem to be feeding an addiction so much as he appears to be rounding up audition footage for the maiden season of Celebrity Rehab. A decade after his MTV breakthrough, Camp was still putting on a show. The first time around it felt like a warped, spacey comedy, a trippy meditation on the ephemeral nature of fame. When MTV’s wide-eyed space boy uses a precious few moments in front of a camera—any camera, it doesn’t seem to matter—to buy drugs for the benefit of the home audience, it feels a like tragedy, and a particularly dingy and sour one at that. 

Failure, Fiasco, or Secret Success: Failure