KINGMAN--This place is still an insulated, redneck, dust-blown, drive-by town, with mediocre-to-rotten radio, no mall and not enough to do. It is still more than 100 miles from anywhere, unless you count the boom-town horrors of Bullhead City. It is, in so many ways, still Kingman.
But it is no longer unusual to drive along Stockton Hill Road--the main drag here--and see teenagers dressed like punk-rockers en route to a Sex Pistols show in mid-Seventies London. Credit--or blame--for that peculiar phenomenon goes to MTV, the Music Television Network. On August 1, it celebrates the tenth anniversary of its sign-on.
Without question, MTV has united the world's fourteen-year-olds in ways that were never before possible, providing young people with instant access to the most extreme, most shocking, most thrilling cultural trends. The fashions worn by hipsters in Brooklyn or Venice Beach appear in the hallways of Kingman High in mere days. The world-premiere songs that appear on MTV one Friday become part of the cruisers' roar down at the Sonic drive-in by the next. A major component of the hoopla that will accompany MTV's anniversary (the network plans several in-house commemorative specials, and has scheduled a prime-time salute to itself on ABC) will be head shots of MTV corporate types taking credit for big changes in the popular culture. For better or worse, they've got a good point. Advertising is quite a bit hipper now, more driven by rock and funk and the corresponding attitudes.
Rap music, which is predominately city stuff produced by self-described "gangstas," is a fixture on the Top 40 and almost surely wouldn't have been without exposure on MTV. Who would have thought, twenty or ten or even five years ago, that underwear would become outerwear, everywhere? MTV's barrage of babes might have had something to do with that. And nobody would've predicted that the single most popular television personality among Kingman's leaders of tomorrow would be an unlikely hero named Pauly Shore, a hilarious MTV veejay who speaks in a barely fathomable language known as "dude."
These are just a few of the better-known contributions made to our lives by MTV, and they will be much-discussed in coming weeks. What has not been examined is the network's impact on people fortunate enough to live outside a major media center. At the close of MTV's first decade, New Times traveled to Kingman (area population 24,000) to judge what ten years of MTV have done to a small town in the middle of nowhere. Kids in bigger cities, we figured, were already doomed. But what of the kids in a total cultural backwater? The ones who, pre-MTV, could monitor their peers on the outside only by watching American Bandstand? The kids whose world view comprised glimpses of the life whizzing past them on the interstate? ODDLY ENOUGH, residents of Kingman, a town historically significant only as a pit stop along the Santa Fe Railroad, then Route 66 and now Interstate 40, witnessed MTV's revolutionary video-clip programming before New York City and Los Angeles. Few of the country's larger cities were adequately wired for cable when MTV first came to life. Smaller towns, where existing cable companies had been built to provide the basics of network TV, were technically better prepared for MTV than America's cultural capitals. As it turned out, MTV's first corporate logo, a moon-walking astronaut who appeared regularly to announce the network's top-of-the-hour ID, was a perfect image. To hear Kingman folk who were around for the sign-on tell the story, the coming of MTV was like the coming of spacemen. "The first time I saw MTV, it hit me that Kingman had come into the twentieth century," says Walt Bridges, age 39, a husband, father and owner of Walt Bridges Trucking. He remembers walking through a neighborhood and seeing TVs in every front window tuned to the nonstop music channel.
"It was better than a radio station," says Craig Chastain, another longtime resident. "They played everything." Jim Vine was manager of Kingman's little cable-TV company in 1981. "Some people felt that it was unfit," says Vine. "But it wasn't quite the battle we went through when we first put the Playboy Channel in." Ten years later, much of Kingman's adult population likely feels just as confused about MTV as it was on Day One. "If you don't blast 'em away from it for one reason or another," gripes one member of the high school's parental advisory board, thinking of her own son, "they'll just stay glued to it."
THE NONSTOP VIDEO ROCK came to a town that had not seen much in the way of cutting-edge culture. In the Sixties, says Walt Bridges, youth activities not based around school or church included the local drive-in movie screen, street races between the town's various hot cars and beer blasts in the boonies, dubbed "Shit Creek" parties. "It was crew cuts and flattops," he says. With an even tone that reveals no sarcasm, Bridges recalls that he and his buddies would walk out to the highway just to watch for new car models that might be driving past. On weekend nights, live-band dances were held at the National Guard armory. Las Vegas, 100 miles to the northwest via rolling State Highway 93, was the nearest outpost of civilization, and touring rock bands sometimes played concerts there. When Bridges was in high school, the only regular links to outside-world culture were KOMA, a clear-signal AM giant out of Oklahoma City (it could be heard only at night, usually in your car) and the weekly telecast of American Bandstand. Things had improved only slightly by the early Seventies. During that era, late on Friday nights, a select group of people would gather in an electric- appliance store in downtown Kingman, flick on six or eight televisions at once and tune in to In Concert and The Midnight Special. "We did that religiously," says Craig Chastain, son of an appliance store owner, who claims to have had one of Kingman's very few subscriptions to Rolling Stone magazine. FROM A YOUNGSTER'S perspective, Kingman's culture still sucks. Asked what there is to do in her town, one young woman replies, "Waste gas." There is no mall or water park or recreation center for teens. There is but one small multiplex movie theatre. Aside from proms and other school-sponsored functions, there is no place for kids to dance. (The city's only dance deejay--the fellow who spins records at high school hops and proms--still lives at home and works days at a taxidermy shop.) The boondocker keg party in the desert, such a tradition in Walt Bridges' youth, remains popular, and the Friday-night cruising loop still runs from the Sonic to Lewis Kingman Park and back. Radio is a disaster. Kingman's AM/FM station, KAAA-KZZZ, broadcasts a canned format of light pop on FM and good ol' country music on AM. The stations' commercials are targeted almost exclusively at interstate travelers headed for Vegas, Bullhead or Flagstaff. At night, car radios can draw traffic reports from Denver, weather updates from Tulsa, games with the Albuquerque Dukes or the San Francisco Giants, but only faint echoes of music from the likes of Jethro Tull, Julian Lennon or Marvin Gaye. "MTV basically provides the brunt of the students' cultural activity," shrugs Vince Wedge, 32-year-old director of the high school band. "I don't know that it's bad, but it's not very well-rounded." People still gossip about the last even remotely cool teen trend that blew through town: skateboard mania. The rowdy skaters had a clubhouse of their own, called the Shred Shop, and briefly made life uncomfortable for anyone who didn't like their rude dress, hair or attitudes. But the town fathers eventually felt they had to ban skateboarding in public places, and the Shred Shop--founded by a sixteen-year-old skater named David Stehly--had to close down.
Stehly goes to school at Northern Arizona University now, majoring in mechanical engineering. The only remnants of the thrilling-for-a-few-months skate invasion are the Shred Shop sign still visible on Beale Street, the various no-skating-allowed signs above the sidewalks, and the excellent selection of skateboard videotapes for rent (Splendid Eye Torture, Future Primitive) among the other titles (Guy Eaker's Bass-Fishing Secrets) on the shelves of the Video USA store. "I'd say the most popular of the videos we've got all-around are the ones from Wrestlemania," says the clerk there. "But those skater videos do rent quite a bit."
CRAIG CHASTAIN LEFT Kingman in the late Seventies and came to Phoenix to work in record stores. His return to Mohave County coincided with MTV's debut. Not long afterward Chastain opened Boulevard Records, Kingman's only significant outlet for recorded music. The big K mart out on 66 stocks the Top 40 and country, but Boulevard is where kids go to get anything else. Chastain's store may be the most astounding manifestation of MTV's presence in Kingman. Chastain estimates that one fourth of his sales is rap tapes and CDs. Rap has been a hot item on the Top 40 for a couple of years, and its appeal cuts beyond the urban markets in which the music is created. But according to a brochure handed out by the Kingman Area Chamber of Commerce, the city's population is 90 percent Anglo American. Blacks number only .2 percent of the populace; Mexican Americans fewer than 6 percent. Kingman High's black enrollment this last school year was one. The local radio station certainly doesn't play rap, and the distant signals of late-night radio don't adequately translate the music's full effect. Yet there they are, lining the top row of Boulevard's tape display: Ice-T, NWA, 2 Live Crew, Public Enemy and De La Soul. A junior-high-age boy came into Chastain's store once and asked to purchase As Nasty As They Wanna Be, 2 Live Crew's most notorious work of constitutionally protected speech. Chastain, concerned about maintaining good relations with city elders (and spotting the boy's mom waiting outside in the family car), told the kid he couldn't sell him the tape without his parents' permission. Well, said the kid, my mom would come in, but, um, she's not dressed appropriately. One theory holds that Kingman's pale young locals appreciate rap primarily for its terrifying bass sounds--which they use to demonstrate the sound systems in their bitchin' vehicles. Other equally extreme forms of music are as popular, of course. Kingman is a heavy-metal town, says Chastain, who also stocks a small selection of reggae (popular among the Hualapai Indians, who drive in from nearby Peach Springs) and, of course, some country music for moms and dads. In addition to watching out for the tender young sensibilities of his less-mature customers, Chastain provides the kind of personal service possible only in a small town. Regular customers are asked to give Boulevard Records a "wish list" of their favorite artists. When a release date becomes known for a particular band's album, Chastain will mail out postcards to everybody who might want to know. He also uses the store's PC to calculate his first shipments of hot albums, just so that nobody gets shut out. Still, it's not unusual, he says, for a line to form outside his door (posted opening hour: "10ish") when it is known that a new Metallica record will be delivered that day.
Chastain says that demand for a particular performer or group--once he, she or it has made an appearance on MTV--can be immediate. A young British band called EMF had a hot video in early summer. Chastain says he couldn't keep enough EMF tapes in his store. He will be prepared to send out almost fifty postcards when the long-awaited Guns n' Roses record finally is released. "I love MTV," says Craig Chastain, who is not exactly isolated among local merchants in his high regard for the music network. Local convenience marts and the bigger grocery stores stock a full selection of teen magazines, heavy-metal fanzines, rap reports and such consciousness-raising journals as Spin. Kingman's dozens of beauty parlors gladly stretch their talents to accommodate the latest in video-hair styles. Says one local hairdresser, who taught herself how to carve hairdo stripes after several boys from the town's junior high school asked her to make them look like rapper Vanilla Ice: "MTV is all this little town has." In the fall, communications specialist Jim Vine plans to put on-line several radio translators, which will bring New Age, Top 40 (both from Vegas) and album rock (KDKB from Phoenix) to Kingman listeners. "The kids around here have basically been underserved for quite some time," says Vine. ASKED ABOUT DELETERIOUS influences on the kids in his charge, Kingman High School principal Walter Keller might be tempted to point west, and not at the local cable-TV franchise holder. Californians, not lead singers in heavy-metal bands from hell, may be the worst recent threat to Kingman's peace and quiet. More than 60 percent of the new students at Kingman High are from California. Many don't stay very long. A transient population--attracted by the gaming jobs and easy money of nearby Laughlin, Nevada, and its sister river town of Bullhead City, Arizona--is something new to once-stable Kingman. The school put on a couple of "at-risk" counselors this year, to deal with substance-abusing kids, teen pregnancies, suicides and students with abusive home lives. Keller says the advisers immediately became "swamped" with work. "I did not know we had that many problems," the principal admits. Still, "99.9 percent" of Kingman High's almost 1,300 students are "good kids," Keller says, and school spirit is high. Unlike school officials in Bullhead City, KHS administrators have seen no real gang activity.
Well, there were those guys--California kids--who came in to the school a couple of years ago and made some noises about forming their own little gang. Right away, Keller called them in to his office. "We're not gonna have it," he told them, and the nonsense with the colored bandannas and hand signs went away. "We run a real tight ship," says the principal. Likewise does the Kingman Police Department, which employs Allan "Case" Mullen as outreach officer for local youth.
Mullen says that junior-high-age kids cause the most trouble around town. He regularly hears complaints about Kingman's potential to bore its youngsters, and he sometimes has to deal with the methods they use to kill the dull pain. "They seem to feel there's nothing here for them," says Mullen of the "small percentage" of bad kids. "And they use that as an excuse to do alcohol or drugs." Neither Mullen, who points to the hot local softball scene as an entertainment option preferred by many young adults, nor Keller, who schedules plenty of before- and after-school activities on his campus, blames too many of their problems on MTV.
Mullen, a nineteen-year veteran of the force and an obvious fitness buff, says that he personally does not care for the often violent and negative imagery in the videos shown on MTV, and that he's noticed an increase in such scenes as the network has aged. Keller, a longtime administrator who keeps an old bottle of gag Grouch Control Pills on his desk, is not yet much of a student of the medium. "I watch MTV to pass the channels going to my sports," he says. A SMALL GROUP of Kingman kids is already way too hip for the MTV mainstream. They prefer the "alternative" or "industrial" sounds of EMF, Depeche Mode, the Cure, the Dead Kennedys, Christian Death and other bands. Some of these youngsters sport nose rings and shaved-sidewall hair styles, and generally behave in ways designed to mortify most adults and quite of few of their peers. Several Kingman High students, when asked to expound on their cultural lives, mentioned Angel Johnson, an eighteen-year-old senior and one of the leaders of the alternative group. "You can't miss her," remarked one girl. "She has pink hair today."
Except for 120 Minutes, MTV's weekly nod to offbeat or alternative music and bands, the rest of the network's programming bores Angel and her pals. They'd love to live in a place with radio stations like Phoenix's KUKQ (several even drove down to Chandler for the recent Q-Fest concerts), but otherwise don't think any more or less of Kingman than their less-alternative friends. Angel, who worked as a copy editor on her high school newspaper this past semester, lives in a motel on old Route 66 with her mom and her mom's boyfriend. She says she gets very little grief from her schoolmates over her outrageous appearance, which has recently included white pancake makeup and the fast-becoming-obligatory nose ring. Maybe that's MTV in action, too. When the professionally weird pop icons of the world are broadcast into your home all day and night, perhaps it's not such a big deal when someone like Angel takes the seat next to you in algebra. Or maybe the other students just got used to Angel. "Last year I got laughed at all the time," she says. "Now they're like, really cool. They look up to me. They accept me."
MTV has united the world's fourteen-year-olds in ways that were never before possible.
To hear Kingman folk who were around for the sign-on tell the story, the coming of MTV was like the coming of spacemen. Asked what there is to do in her town, one young woman replies, "Waste gas." "MTV basically provides the brunt of the students' cultural activity."
Kingman's dozens of beauty parlors gladly stretch their talents to accommodate the latest in video-hair styles.
Californians, not lead singers in heavy-metal bands from hell, may be the worst recent threat to Kingman's peace and quiet.