Dave Holmes On Mixtapes, His New Book, And The One MTV Moment That Nearly Got Everyone Sued

Dave Holmes was probably never supposed to be here. The host, comedian, and writer became a personality on every teens’ TV screen basically as a fluke, but he grabbed that opportunity and hasn’t stopped running with the ball since. Beyond his TRL days, Dave Holmes has appeared on countless television shows expounding upon his music and pop culture knowledge, and he’s now written a book about his life, Party of One, detailing how important music is to growing up and becoming who you are. Holmes took the time to speak with us about the book, which TRL video is the most iconic of all time, and an infamous moment from MTV history that definitely should have gotten people fired.

Your book, Party of One, is structured like a 21-song mixtape, even including interludes. Why did you choose that format?

Well, it’s always been my favorite way to reach people. Music can do what I’ve felt like I’ve never been able to on a personal level. Music has kind of pushed my life forward — it’s the thing that has been most important to me for the longest — the book was always going to have a musical backbone, so then I thought why not structure it like I would a mixtape or playlist for a friend.

And you even made real mixtapes for pre-orderers?

Yeah! I’m actually a little bit behind. They told me what they wanted for the feel of the mixtape and — it’s funny — when I made the offer, I did not understand how long it was going to take because I want to do it right. I didn’t want to send everybody the same 21 songs; I want to kind of meditate on everyone’s individual situation and give them something that might entertain them because I know how important it’s been for me when someone has made me one. It feels nice when someone writes you a handwritten letter or makes you something. So, I want to make sure that I’m doing it right. It does take a while, but it’s a labor of love.

You explain in the first half of the book how music can help be a social equalizer to break the ice with strangers, but also be a deeply personal thing to help express parts about yourself you couldn’t otherwise explain.

For me, music was really important, because it was important in my family. The first thing I was able to do as well as anyone in my family and fit in was sing-alongs with the radio. And when I got older and things started to get a little tumultuous, in music, you can kind of outsource your emotion. You might not be able to express how you feel or even really know you feel, but you can put on a Smiths song and go to town. It’s like porn for your emotions.

There’s a moment in the book when you attend a diversity seminar as a young student who is freshly out of the closet and is ironically flatly ignored. You had a strange moment where you met one of the most iconic LGBT acts of all time in the Indigo Girls at an Applebees to reassure you. Was it then that you knew that you could be who you wanted to be and that the world had a place for you?

Um, actually that moment came only probably four months ago [laughter]. I knew around then that there was a place for me, but I wasn’t fully comfortable in my own skin until I was 40. I put myself out there and made peace with being different around that time, but I never relaxed into myself until later in life, which probably isn’t uncommon.

You were at MTV at such a pivotal moment in pop culture and how you made it there through I Wanna Be a VJ when you were up against Jesse Camp was so odd. A few stories from that time made it into the book. Did you know when you were there that it would be such a massive cultural touchstone, or did you feel like it was another day at work?

I kind of knew it would be massive just because it felt that way for me personally. And I recalled how important MTV felt when I was 13 and how much time I spent in front of it and all the things from that time I still remember, and the window it gave to a world I didn’t see around me growing up in St. Louis. When there is music and pop culture and excitement and all that, kids really attach themselves to it and love it and it gives them something to dream about.

Everything changed really quickly as soon as I got there. The teen pop explosion happened two months after I started. It became so huge and the studio was besieged by 13-year-old screaming girls and boys, and I never took for granted how exciting that was. There are people who are even in their 30s now who have such vivid memories of the work we did back then.

I have to ask about a moment in the book that refers to an infamously never-aired MTV game show called Dude, This Sucks that involves airborne bodily fluids and all kinds of terrifying grossness. It’s probably the most unspeakably outrageous moment to come from the TRL-era, and — without giving everything away from the book — how was it being on set for that?

It was a really, really, really bad idea. It was a bad idea that just got worse and worse. It was one of those things I kept to myself, outside of stories among friends following many drinks. But a few years ago, I was on a live podcast taping and I could feel the crowd kind of slipping away, and the prior guests on the show had told sort of a disgusting story and that’s typically not me. But I’m a whore for audience attention, so I said, “You know, if it’s ‘poo-poo’ you want, I have a story for you.” And honestly, I wouldn’t ever do it again to a live audience of that size, but I have never seen a crowd react like that. I basically got carried out of the place on people’s shoulders. After that, I realized this is a story that people respond to.

I think there are enough warnings in the chapter that say “if you’re squeamish at all — PLEASE go to the next chapter” and I stand by that. If you are prone to queasiness, this story is not for you. I had to be very careful about all of the wording for legal reasons. I’ll just say… I hope nobody gets mad?

Witnessing something like that in person, was that a watershed moment for you?

So to speak.

Hah, yes. Meaning that maybe you needed to do something else?

It was undeniable at that point that the world was changing, and also I had maybe been there four years and you don’t last real long there unless you’re in the news department. So I had been pondering it, but yeah, that was definitely a catalyst for me.

The way you joined MTV, via a contest, was so strange, and that was your first ever gig. Was it hard to move on?

It was! MTV was really unique in that everything was so urgent and live. If you made a mistake, it didn’t matter, we all sort of were a scrappy friendly group. When I left, I learned that making TV can be so monotonous. It takes nine hours to film a 15-second thing, and you’re standing there while they fix your light, and touch up your makeup and everyone is tired. And MTV was the opposite of that. There was very little waiting, you just did your thing. If someone had a half an idea, we’d just throw it at the wall live on a random afternoon, and if it worked, that’s a show now.

Now that we’re out of the monoculture, with very few watercolor moments, do you miss those times where there was only what was cool and a secret undercurrent which felt like a special counter to that? Like, you talk about discovering Morrissey in your local record store?

Yeah, that was the best part of the monoculture, was when you found a tiny little stream that you could get your stuff from that made you feel special, even though in retrospect, we were being marketed to just as much. It was easy to forget that, but I do miss it. Now everyone has their own individual special stream — and it’s a nice feeling — but I feel like we’re missing something. And yet, a 45-year-old man is always going to feel like the kids are missing something.

If anything is not good, it’s that we keep trying to manufacture those old major moments with everything that goes crazy viral, it’s like we’re trying to have another Thriller and it’s just not going to happen.

There’s an interlude in the book where you talk about how there was a clear divide on TRL between the bubblegum pop music of the day and the nu-metal/post-grunge crowd who also voted in droves. Were there any of those bands in the latter category you actually secretly liked?

Uh, no. [laughter] I hated that music. I hated it. Incubus had a moment? I might have taken home a Deftones album or two, to be fair.

Lastly, in Party of One, you do a sort of 10 most important TRL videos during that whole enormous time at MTV. What do you think was the quintessential music video of that era? The one that represents the whole run of it.

I think it would be “All The Small Things” by Blink-182, because it bridged the gap. It made fun of pop, but it kinda was pop. It showed us that all of the boy band signifiers were familiar enough to be satirized, and let’s be honest, Blink-182 were three pretty boys themselves. So it was parody, but also what they were doing was one degree off from what the boy bands were doing too. That was the moment when all of that stuff in the cultural zeitgeist was centralized into one focused thing. All of these camera moves and outfits and screaming teens and the music we’re playing was the center of the world. It was a great feeling.