In 1998, St. Louisan Dave Holmes woke up feeling ambitious. A boldness inside him that morning compelled him to audition for MTV's Wanna Be a VJ contest. It turned out to be a life-changing decision.
Holmes made it past the grueling audition process on live television, ultimately finishing in second place. Thanks to his charm, freakish knowledge of random music trivia and ability to perform under pressure, he was quickly offered the gig and went on to host various MTV shows and events until leaving the network in 2002.
When looking at his career, you could argue he was the contest's real winner. The exposure was the boost he needed to make his lifelong obsession with pop culture a sustainable career. He is currently a writer and editor-at-large for Esquire, wrote a memoir titled Party of One, was recently a talking head in the documentary Woodstock '99 Peace, Love, and Rage, and continues to be the host of a handful of podcasts, such as Homophilia and International Waters. His newest podcast, Waiting for Impact: A Dave Holmes Passion Project, explores three seconds of music video history.
"It's about an investigation into the whereabouts of a boy band called Sudden Impact, who made a three-second cameo appearance Boys II Men's 'Motown Philly' video, and then that's all they did. Or at least that's all that we ever saw them do," Holmes says. "That video was huge in 1991 when I was sort of at my peak video-watching years. Michael Bivins of New Edition and Bell Biv DeVoe had a development deal with Motown. You know, he brought Boys II Men into the world, and they became the biggest-selling R&B group of all time. Bell Biv DeVoe was huge for a few years. There was a group called Another Bad Creation that had a couple of hit singles. All these acts are in 'Motown Philly.' And then for three seconds, there's Sudden Impact, who are these five guys in matching shirts and neckties, and they pointed the camera boldly like, 'Get ready for Sudden Impact!' and I was like, 'Hell yeah, I'm ready for Sudden Impact!' And then nothing happened."
In 1991, Holmes didn't have the internet to seek out information on Sudden Impact. All he knew was that they were a bunch of white guys outfitted in dress shirts and ties that resembled the dress code of Vianney High School. It was a time when, as Holmes says, "You could have a moment of fame and then vanish and not leave a trail of digital crumbs the way that you do now."
"At the time, I was just kind of like, 'I wonder when that album is coming out,' and it never did. As life went on, it was just something that I would think of every few months, and I always kind of felt that there was a story there. I really did believe deep down that it's not only the story of this band; it's [a] story about resilience, and it's about dashed hopes and what you do with them. It's about '90s pop culture and how utterly different it is from our world right now. It touches on so many things that I'm interested in, and the story of this group, on top of it, it turns out to be really interesting as well."
Over the course of ten episodes, Holmes interviews folks that aspired to reach a level of fame Sudden Impact seemed poised to seize, along with people whose careers were heading down a similar path before they pivoted to something that worked better. The podcast's structure frames the early '90s as a time when everyone experienced things as a monoculture, meaning altogether — a time before the internet shattered popular culture into millions of niche categories that seem near infinitely impossible to know.
As someone who, only seven years after Sudden Impact's toe touch in popular culture, landed his own place in the pantheon, Holmes reflects on what it was like for a kid from St. Louis to suddenly be in front of the entire world on MTV at the height of TRL and boy-band popularity.
"It was completely insane, obviously," Holmes says. "I remember when I first started at MTV, once they got past the audition and the contest, and once I started hosting, specifically hosting live shows, it was very strange. I felt very calm for the first time in my life. If your interests run in this direction, you grow up a little anxious about how you're going to make a living, whether you're normal and all of these things that are crazy from where I am now. But to wake up and go to work and the fact that you've got a brain that retains the three seconds of Sudden Impact from a 1991 video that goes from being an embarrassing quirk to being a job skill for, like, a really cool job. That was incredible.
"Walking in during the audition and seeing the studio, feeling the excitement and all the PAs running around with headsets and clipboards and all of the chaos. It just really felt like the mothership came down to pick me up. And once I got that job and started being able to do it and use my skills — and stuff that I didn't even know were skills — I really just relaxed into it in a way that I had never really relaxed in any kind of job before.
"Growing up in west county and going to an all-boys school where pretty much everybody was your stereotypical football-playing male and being somebody who wasn't, that definitely was a bit isolating and a bit terrifying. But in adulthood, the sort of anxiety of my youth has transformed into an insatiable need to create and to succeed and to be heard and understood. I feel like I have a restlessness from my youth that has turned into kind of a crazy work ethic, so I'm happy for that."
Waiting for Impact: A Dave Holmes Passion Project is out now on Exactly R!ght Media.
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