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.