If Disneyland ever opens a ”Salute to MTV” exhibit, it won’t have to build an animatronic version of Jesse Camp; all it’ll need to do is hire Camp himself. Watching the scarecrow doofus jabber on during his stint as a VJ, it was often hard to tell if we were watching an actual human or a mechanical object. Everything about the former Josh Camp — his blissed-stoner delivery, exploded-haystack ‘do, body language — felt artificial. Even at a time when artifice can be art, something about the sight of Camp was strangely disturbing.
Although he made his mark as an overnight-sensation VJ, hyping videos and fawning over rock stars (his chats with them inadvertently echoed the late Chris Farley’s hilariously awestruck ”interview” with Paul McCartney on Saturday Night Live), Camp has a secret. Deep inside his floss-thin frame is a rocker dying to burst out, someone who needs to sing to express himself! And with his first album, Jesse & the 8th Street Kidz, he’s been given that opportunity.
The good news about Jesse & the 8th Street Kidz, relatively speaking, is that it’s marginally easier to listen to Camp than to watch him. From its name producer (Rob Cavallo, who has the Goo Goo Dolls and Green Day on his resume) to its musicians (cult-hero guitarists Steve Hunter and Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen), the album isn’t a Bruce Willis-style novelty; it begs to be taken seriously. Loud and brawny, the music is a pumped-up salute to the gospel of old-school punk and hard rock. Tracks like ”Break It,” ”I Want You and I Need You,” and the first single, ”See You Around,” are goaded by raw, greasy guitars that foist themselves on you like a boor at a party (you can practically see the smiles on the musicians’ faces for being paid to play this style of music in 1999). The melodies are hooky in a dumbed-down way, like the most annoying songs chanted by crowds at sports events. And like any respectable headbanger album, the disc includes the requisite, I’m-sensitive-too acoustic ballad: ”My Little Saviour,” which finds Stevie Nicks, the witch who should knoweth better, harmonizing along.
With their sha-la-la choirs and Chuck Berry-via-Slash licks, the songs are, at their most innocuous, quaint party-time rock. Camp has expressed his admiration for previous sleaze-rock kings like Guns N’ Roses and Hanoi Rocks, but as with his image, Camp’s music is a toothless variation on those bands’ drug-fueled mayhem. If anything, comparisons of Jesse & the 8th Street Kidz with anything by Rage Against the Machine, Rammstein, or Korn reveal how hard hard rock and metal have grown since the days when Axl Rose still seemed important. For all his recent put-downs of boy-band pop, Camp’s idea of authentic rock ironically feels more buffoonish than most of the current Top 40.
If Camp’s lyrics haven’t been mentioned up until now, there’s a reason: His scrawny caterwaul, a tamer version of Rose’s razor-throated delivery, is either slurred or buried (intentionally?) beneath layers of Hungry-Man rock. When Camp’s words are decipherable, it’s clear he sees himself as an antiestablishment street urchin who graduated not from a Connecticut private school but from some mythical hard-knock life. He sings about the glories of being a squatter (”So Down”), cutting class and making out ”in the woods” (”See You Around”), and the heinous hangers-on in the same business that made him a star (”Griftin”’). (Thankfully, he doesn’t take himself with the utmost seriousness: ”I can’t coast on my looks,” he moans in ”So Down.”)
Jesse & the 8th Street Kidz is clearly meant to be uplifting and inspirational. Camp wants to show his fans that he’s just like them, the kind of person who wants to ”have my youth and I wanna have my fun,” and who comforts a girlfriend with lines like ”When we got each other’s lovin’/They can’t make us run.” Yet the album mainly reinforces the sense that Camp’s T-shirted-wastrel shtick, on TV and on record, is a condescending parody of the same people who count on rock & roll to alleviate the tedium of another drive to the same mall while slogging away at the same day jobs. Coming from an ersatz celebrity, it’s hardly shocking that Jesse & the 8th Street Kidz is ersatz rock — all guns and poses. C-