There are six of them in a semicircle. One has a hi-top fade, or at least a white man’s approximation of it. Another has a mullet. Someone’s in a bucket hat. The rest seem to have split the world’s supply of Aqua Net. They’re in baggy white button-up shirts, the kind where the pillowy sleeves are bigger than the average person’s head. They’re staring at you. Practically into you. Then, all at once, they point.
Like pop-music ghosts, these six men in white have haunted Dave Holmes for 30 years. The former MTV VJ and current culture writer and podcast host will never forget the point. It’s seared into him.
It happens in a flash. At approximately 2 minutes and 38 seconds into Boyz II Men’s “Motownphilly” music video, there are five young men standing in a semi-circle around New Edition singer turned producer Michael Bivins. The 1991 smash music video was being used by Bivins to announce his “East Coast Family” roster of new acts, including Bel Biv DeVoe and Another Bad Creation, groups that would go on to produce a slew of memorable ’90s hits. Then there’s the boys in white. The name Sudden Impact appears above them. They point.
“They point at you, as if to say, ‘Here we are. We’re Sudden Impact. Any questions?” Holmes says in his new podcast, Waiting for Impact.
The primo spot in the middle of such a huge video was the kind of introduction for a new act you knew was going to be huge. “I myself could not wait to see what Sudden Impact was going to do next,” Holmes says. “What Sudden Impact did next is disappear. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I have wondered about Sudden Impact ever since.”
Dave Holmes is a pop-culture obsessive—the kind for whom a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it boyband appearance turns into a decades-long compulsion—who turned that into a profession. A member himself of circa-Y2K zeitgeist iconography, Holmes was the runner-up on MTV’s 1998 Wanna Be a VJ? contest, and turned that into a years-long gig as one of the network’s influential VJs, a combination host-interviewer-commentator.
It was a fulcrum moment for music and celebrity, with the likes of Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys, Destiny’s Child, Eminem, and Korn all coexisting in the same fandom pool, a surprisingly diverse surge of life before the monoculture’s last gasping breaths. MTV was a place where, as Holmes says, “knowing Sudden Impact is a talent.” But it’s taken all these years for him to figure out the best way to look for them, to finally ask, “What happened?”
“It sticks out because it was a moment of hope and expectation that was never fulfilled,” Holmes tells The Daily Beast. Why such a preoccupation with a group the rest of us have probably never heard of, or at least don’t remember? “My favorite thing is to take something that you can’t imagine you would care about and make you care about it.”
That, in part, is the mission of Waiting for Impact, which launches Oct. 12. Think of it, in one respect, as a true-crime podcast, except in this case the crime is one of the non-violent, water cooler variety. Here was a boy band that was being positioned through those bizarre few seconds in a Boyz II Men music video to be the Next Big Thing, ostensibly to rival New Kids On the Block—that kind of scale. And yet… they vanished. No major single ever came out. No record. No mall tours or legions of screaming fans. The other acts introduced in that video went on to do big things. Why didn’t the same happen for Sudden Impact? Where did they go?
Holmes was 20 when he first noticed Sudden Impact in the “Motownphilly” video. “I was in college, and not in a great moment in my personal history,” he says. (Holmes’ book, Party of One: A Memoir in 21 Songs, discusses his journey coming out of the closet and how MTV was a sanctuary for him at the time.) “I was definitely using music and TV and all that stuff as a means to escape.”
From sheer repetition, the image of the five boys and Bivins pointing at the camera was burned into his head, to the point that he’d wait for the moment to happen when he watched the video. When enough time went by, he started to get confused. He didn’t understand why he hadn’t heard more about Sudden Impact.
This was 1991, remember. There was no Google. No internet. There weren’t fan forums where people like him who were also baffled—and, later in life, he’d discover there were those people—could find each other, share information, or theorize what happened. The minutiae of record-label dealings weren’t accessible. There was no way to discern the identities of the members and track down their whereabouts. While pop-culture obsession and fandom certainly existed, mainstream access and outlets for it did not. E! News didn’t arrive until the next year.
It can be hard to imagine from today’s perspective. If that “Motownphilly” video dropped this week, Sudden Impact would have been memed. There would be BuzzFeed listicles about them. Through a quick Google search, you could find all the members’ Instagram profiles.
“In 2021, you can’t disappear,” Holmes says in the podcast. But back then? “Not even a Geocities fan site. Nothing. In fact, it is the nothing that makes me want to find them that much. Information about Sudden Impact is the last hard-to-find thing in a world where there is no longer any such thing as scarcity.”
It’s inherently fascinating to investigate Sudden Impact, why they never released any music, and what happened to its members. But through that sleuthing, Waiting for Impact also becomes about nostalgia. It explores what fame and success looked like in the ’90s and what we lost as those things changed.
“Fame in 1991 is something that, if you had it, you had a ton of it,” Holmes says. “Superstars were superstars. If you tried but your project failed, that was bad. That was it. Now there are a million ways to gain an audience, to create a persona and a character and brand. In that way, 1991 was certainly more innocent. There were fewer ways to make it. You needed a Michael Bivins. You needed MTV on your side. You needed the press on your side. You needed a lot of things to line up, so it was easy for something to fall through the cracks.”
There’s something sad, and maybe even sinister, about the way success and failure is treated in regards to artists and entertainers—like, if it doesn’t work out, society expects them to feel an extra level of shame.
The Hollywood narrative of leaving the small town for big-city dreams can apply to lots of professions, not just entertainers. “If you wanted to be a certain kind of doctor, if you didn’t pass that exam and you had to change direction, nobody’s really going to roll their eyes when they talk about it,” Holmes says. “But if you went to be on Broadway and it didn’t happen, there’s this added layer of shame that the world ladles over you that I think is kind of dehumanizing.”
The podcast explores that not just through Sudden Impact’s story, but through other notable figures from that time—some who succeeded, some who didn’t, and all with unique perspectives of what that did to them.
A story about fame is also a story about fandom, specifically in this case. Thirty years ago in 1991, there was no place for people who couldn’t stop thinking about Sudden Impact to find each other. Even admitting to caring about such things would have you dismissed as frivolous. But now there’s an entire internet filled with fan communities that are ravenous, which can be both validating and, at times, toxic.
Still, Holmes says, “It’s hard to overstate how isolating and strange it was to be a culture obsessive 30 years ago. Because now, a trailer comes out and Twitter goes insane for a full day.” But that doesn’t necessarily translate into a shelf life of relevance. “Big stories were made the big stories for weeks at a time. They were late-night monologue jokes for a month. Now, you can be the big story on Twitter and if you go to the movies and don’t check Twitter the whole time you’re there, you could miss it. We go through 20 of these a day.”
From episode one, there are breakthroughs in the search for Sudden Impact, and Holmes teases, without revealing too much about the podcast, that he “made contact with people I’ve been very curious about for a while.” But in opening up the conversation to the broader culture that surrounded Sudden Impact at the time that should have been their meteoric launch, he’s struck by what else, beyond a boyband, disappeared.
The story of Sudden Impact, he says, is a story “about the ’90s and what we left there.”