MuchMusic’s Checkered History

Searching for women in a revolution that was televised

In 1984, a Montrealer named Corey Hart went from relative anonymity to rock stardom, complete with screaming mobs of fans. Hart’s debut album had been released in Canada the year before, to tepid results. A warmer response from the American market surely helped. But there was another factor: 1984 was the year MuchMusic launched, beaming Hart’s pouty lips and spiked hair into Canadian homes, making Hart this country’s first music video star. I was five years old at the time, and Hart’s First Offense and Michael Jackson’s Thriller were the only two LPs I considered mine. I knew all the words to the songs, perhaps because, like many music aficionados a decade older than me, I had gone from never having seen a music video to being able to recreate every twitchy, fright-night move of the creeper zombie dance, and spending my evenings running through the back alley of an East Vancouver living room, pretending my already-thick spectacles were sleek, dark ­sunglasses.

This was Canada—or at least its youth cohort—in the first years of MuchMusic. In Is This Live?: Inside the Wild Early Years of MuchMusic The Nation’s Music Station, former Much VJ Christopher Ward presents a quasi oral history of the channel’s first decade. A scrappy affair held together by hairspray and safety pins, MuchMusic was the perfect, careless wild child to convey the bloated excess, ambition and artistry of the record industry in the 1980s and ’90s—and the wide-eyed awe of the next generation of music fans.

Is This Live? documents a moment in the country’s cultural history that can never be recreated. This was not merely a platform for a new art form but a new way of making live television, one that was defiantly imperfect. This is the spirit of Ward’s book, too, whose format mirrors the pastiche aesthetic of Much itself. In it, Ward’s own reminiscences of on-air and off-camera conversations with the likes of George Harrison, Kate Bush and Maestro Fresh Wes sit alongside interviews with his erstwhile colleagues and MuchMusic executives, including the network’s founder, Moses Znaimer, and a trove of trivia from the Much archives, a fascinating record for amateur pop music historians.

Ward’s jump-cut–style text evades a linear narrative, but a clear picture does emerge of Much’s role in shaping some major Canadian music industry careers. At one point, Corey Hart talks about the character that he and the director Rob Quartly created for his initial videos. “The lone wolf persona is true to my actual personality, so it was easy for me to play this solitary character,” Hart tells Ward, in one wonderfully self-mythologizing moment. At another point, Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy recalls how the group had already been playing for seven or eight years without a major breakthrough and Warner Music suggested they take a job as k.d. lang’s backing band for six months. “We had no fucking interest in that,” Cuddy recalls. Shortly thereafter, in 1989, “Try” became the band’s first hit, largely thanks to the video making it into significant rotation on Much.

Znaimer, co-founder of MuchMusic as well as CityTV, emerges as an unusual figure—a visionary and, sometimes, a progressive one. His TV stations were disruptors before disruption became a business buzzword and the subject of Harvard Business Review stories and New Yorker deconstructions. They were television channels that looked like little else in the television universe, and not only because of the flashy camera techniques on which they relied. Like many of today’s media disruptors, they showcased young people, and they evinced an interest in cultural diversity. Znaimer insisted that he wanted a range of voices on air. Not looking for perfection in his hosts, he prioritized “personality, preferring memorability to smooth,” he tells Ward in the book. Fat and thin, male and female and “anything in between,” as Znaimer put it, anyone “who lived the life of music” had a chance. Not only was this not what television looked like in the early 1980s, but it was also not remotely what the music industry looked like.

In Is This Live?, Stephen Stohn, an entertainment lawyer and producer, notes that Znaimer’s “crowning achievement really is hiring young, energetic, creative people and giving them vastly more responsibility and freedom than they ever should have, and paying them almost nothing.” According to Ward, it was the late John Martin, Much’s co-founder and the original director of programming, who was perhaps the real visionary: Martin “hired people who were comfortable with disarray, inspired by anarchy,” Ward writes. His standard rule was, “You can do anything you want … as long as it doesn’t cost anything.”

But whosever idea it was, paying young people “almost nothing” and giving them more responsibility than they should ever have is not anarchy; it is exploitation. And it is important to reframe, or at least offer an alternative interpretation of, this MuchMusic mythology. There is tremendous unchecked privilege in having a “cool job” that requires long hours and pays very little (and no overtime), particularly when that cool job promises visibility, representation of your voice and ideas, and a chance at shaping a country’s pop culture landscape. It is, generally speaking, a kind of opportunity that only a select few with resources and support can afford to take. And one wonders if Znaimer or Martin themselves would agree to be grossly underpaid for the relative and nebulous privilege of enjoying “freedom” on the job.

Indeed, Znaimer’s vision is equally often rather regressive. “I considered you part of my intellectual arsenal as opposed to the big-knocker part of my arsenal,” he tells Ward, not in the 1980s, when it would have been bad enough, but in a present-day interview for this book. This kind of rock-and-roll, boys’ club nonsense is part of the foundation of Much, and Is This Live? is rife with both subtle and explicit examples. Sometimes Ward calls it out, but occasionally he is complicit in it, as when ­introducing the heavy metal singer-songwriter Lee Aaron:

In a genre of music where most of the guys looked like women, where were the heavy metal femmes fatales? The ones who actually looked good in lipstick and platform shoes? The women—who are they? The Runaways? Lita Ford, maybe, but Joan Jett was always a punk, no? Vixen—c’mon, Richard Marx wrote their hit, “Edge of a Broken Heart.” That’s problematic.

Ward seems to be raising a question about the lack of representation of women in a male-­dominated genre, but he is glib and trades in gender clichés, which undermines any sincere interest in the subject. Is This Live? zeroes in on the first decade of Much’s existence, so the coming domination by Canadian women in the music industry—the confluence of Céline Dion, Shania Twain, Alanis Morissette and Sarah McLachlan—is not covered here. But, of course, that was an authorial decision, and a writer more genuinely interested in the gender narrative might have followed that thread a year or two on.

Throughout Is This Live? female employees do recall their own experiences with sexism, and that can be edifying. Catherine McClenahan, the first woman VJ at Much, provides some insight (“Except for Moses, I loved working there,” she tells Ward), as do Laurie Brown, Denise Donlon, Monika Deol and Erica Ehm. It is particularly striking to read how differently Ehm, Much’s second-ever female VJ, and Anthony were treated. Anthony’s disruptor/­agitator identity—he had no TV experience, although he had been a radio DJ—ushered in a new era of the VJs as stars, and his antics were not just tolerated, but celebrated. “At [Toronto radio station] Q107 they let me do whatever I wanted, and that’s what attracted MuchMusic, and that’s what they encouraged,” he tells Ward. Ehm, meanwhile, was critiqued constantly, both inside Much and by fans. Ward recalls that she would spend hours preparing for her interviews, but her inexperience on camera was evident, and she tells Ward the speculation was endless that she had slept with the boss. “I was … repeatedly reminded … that I was easily replaceable,” she says. “I was paid less because I was a girl.”

 

“Because I was a girl” is a loose thread throughout Denise Donlon’s memoir, Fearless As Possible (Under the Circumstances), which charts the former Much host and executive’s life and career in the music industry. Donlon spent 14 years with Much and its parent company, CHUM. She was host and producer of The NewMusic, then director of music programming, and eventually vice-president and general manager. She subsequently became the first female president of Sony Music Canada, followed by a brief stint at CBC in the executive suite.

A self-assured, confident writer, Donlon talks candidly about her feminism and its evolution. After finding out about periods from a friend, she recalls asking, “What happens to the boys, then?” “Nothing,” her friend told her. “‘Nothing?’ It was my first inkling that the world might just be unfair to girls,” Donlon writes. It is a funny moment, but also a poignant one. In a chapter titled “The Feminist Compromise,” she recalls being handed a backstage pass at a stop on Whitesnake’s Slide It In tour. The picture on the pass showed a woman’s bright red lips, lightly parted, a banana or snake or some other visual euphemism halfway in. “I’m not wearing that!” she said, fruitlessly, to Whitesnake’s tour manager. Taking it off was not an option—she was working as a publicist for bands signed to famed music manager Sam Feldman. Instead, she tore off the backing and wore it inside her jacket to hide the image.

That ends up being a good metaphor. Donlon writes compellingly about other showdowns with the industry’s sexism—in one interview she challenges Professor Griff, of the critically acclaimed Public Enemy, on his sexist views, only to have him double down, adding homophobic slurs. And she talks about some of the socially progressive content she presided over at Much, such as The Big Tease, a special on The NewMusic, which she co-hosted with Jana Lynne White, focusing on female exploitation and power in the music business. But Donlon never explicitly identifies any of her own experiences of sexism. At one point she writes, rather vaguely, “As a woman, I’m sorry to say, you do need to run faster, work harder, jump higher, and learn to thrive sleep-deprived. Remember what was said of Ginger Rogers: ‘She did everything Fred Astaire did, backwards and in high heels.’” But about 30 pages later, she contradicts this statement, expressing frustration with constantly being asked to comment on being a woman in the business. “The truth was, I wasn’t aware of ever being treated differently, and I wouldn’t have whined about it if I was.”

There is so much internalized sexism in that one line it is heartbreaking: if women complain about gender bias, it’s “whining.” It also speaks to a well-established coping mechanism, the legacy, it seems, of growing up with a father she loved, but whose temper she describes as a “kind of rolling wrath,” something that could not be contained once it got the best of him. He would call her a “slovenly bitch” or a “clumsy clod” in the heat of his fury, although he never hit her. She admits in the book that he prepared her for a lifetime of dealing with people just like him. “I don’t see rage as something to be scared of,” she writes. “I see it as a sign of weakness.”

Donlon writes regularly with this kind of gorgeous, raw clarity, and often in a witty and self-deprecating manner. That, too, is perhaps a coping mechanism, a way to control tempers and tempos in situations of volatility involving highly driven creative people, many with sizable egos. Donlon writes about her interactions and friendships with an array of iconic musicians, sharing stories about Neil Young and Annie Lennox, Céline Dion and Joni Mitchell. (“Evenings around Joni require some stamina.”) A fight she has with Leonard Cohen about including his classic “So Long, Marianne” on a greatest hits compilation is a highlight. Sony wanted to include the song and Cohen did not. Donlon did her best to convince him, but he would not budge. Finally, she told him, “Leonard, you know we can put it out without your blessing.” The poet was furious, Donlon writes. They continued to argue on the phone, and Cohen warned that if she insisted on this course of action, she would “forever hold a much smaller place in my heart.” Understandably, Donlon is crushed. Later, Cohen sends a fence-mending note, written with the same effortless eloquence as anything by Leonard Cohen, which Donlon reprints verbatim. And “Marianne” did make it onto that album.

The music industry has changed substantially in the last 35 years and Donlon’s book, like Ward’s, captures the business at a more profitable, and greedy, time. It offers a unique and fascinating vantage point into that history, and Donlon proves an inspiring figure, if an occasionally complicated one, who has genuinely worked hard at being as fearless as possible—under the circumstances, of course.