courtesy of VH1
Ben Patrick Johnson
LOS ANGELES, 1 November 2000 - "I
want my MTV," Sting sirened in 1984 at the beginning of Dire
Straits' hit song "Money For Nothing". And while much of the
free world was clamoring for its fill of heavy metal and pop music
videos with what seemed an insatiable appetite, the programmers at the
nascent cable network were looking to expand their audience beyond the
12- to 24-year old demographic that was embracing MTV's format in
something tantamount to a cultural revolution.
Thus, in 1985,
the minds and wallets behind MTV launched VH1, a more sedate older
sibling aimed at the tastes of those put off by MTV's roaring electric
guitars and anarchic spray paint logo. It presented a meandering array
of questionable music videos aimed at grown-ups as well as shows such as
New Visions, a hodge-podge of ambient new age noodling hosted by
glib pianist Ben Sidran. The overall result was, essentially, musical
wallpaper. And few watched.
After a decade of low ratings and
slim profits, MTV Networks (which by then had branched out with
additional channels such as Nickelodeon, aimed at children) decided to
relaunch VH1 with a new look and feel.
This time, the audience
was more sympathetic.
Today, with a prospective viewership of
seventy million households, VH1 is a shiny, throbbing amalgam of sights
and sounds, something hardly recognizable from its clumsy origins. It
brings to mind the contrast between pictures of Hollywood heartthrobs
and their pinched-faced, pimpled teenage yearbook photos perennially
surfacing in tabloid newspapers.
A few music video clips
remain in VH1's lineups, but they seem almost filler between the
channel's offering of concerts, made-for-TV movies and original
Perhaps most notable in VH1's redefinition is the
series Behind the Music. As the program kicks off its fourth
season, it has aired over 120 hour-long high gloss documentaries
examining the careers and private lives of the biggest players in the
world of pop music. Subjects have ranged from the hard rock group
Metallica to histrionic belter Bette Midler to rock-and-roll radio
pioneer Alan Fried.
Behind the Music's episodes are to
the traditional documentary what carbonated cola is to a good wine. Its
flavor is less complex, its drama more immediately apparent, and it sits
more easily on the untrained stomach. In accordance with their design,
the program's producers have succeeded in concocting a formula that is
palatable to a broad audience.
Behind the Music
advertises the opportunity for music fans to hear the stories of hard
luck and the excesses of fame that have shaped the lives of an array of
pop music performers they idolize. The program delivers this. But more
significantly, what it presents is a collection of morality tales,
portraits of sin and redemption. While its context in the rock-and-roll
tableau is not incidental, neither is it essential. The show isn't about
rock music. It's about rectitude. At times, its condemnation of
bacchanalia and extollment of temperance take on fundamentalist fervency
seldom seen outside a Southern American Baptist Church revival meeting.
The narrative pattern is clear:
In advertising a program about
seminal English pop singer Marianne Faithful, VH1 notes, " The
miscarriage of her and Jagger's baby sent Marianne over the edge, and
she became a full-fledged heroin addict just 6 years after her ascent to
stardom. Years spent literally on the streets forced this talented but
aimless woman to take a hard look at herself and her life, and she chose
to live, triumphing in 1979 with Broken English..." In its program
on flamboyant Culture Club front man Boy George, Behind the Music
the singer rapidly descended into an abyss of
heroin addiction. At a 1986 anti-apartheid benefit, George was so out of
it that fellow pop stars recoiled from him. After his brother publicly
spoke of George's problems, the singer finally took the steps to
And the following is said of disco pioneer
Gloria Gaynor. "After relying on cocaine to keep up with the
whirlwind disco lifestyle, Gloria Gaynor realized her life had spiraled
beyond her control. Gaynor's quest for faith led her to become born
again, a decision which upset her marriage but ultimately saved it."
It is interesting to note that Behind the Music is one
of the television programs eluded to in a recent scandal involving the
American Federal Government's "War on Drugs" campaign and
revelations of money paid to broadcasters to include anti-drug use
messages in their program content. But the series' thematic embrace of
retribution and redemption extend beyond the realm of drugs and alcohol.
Seldom does the series show hard work unrewarded, and even less
frequently do debauchers and the arrogant come out unpunished, as
evidenced by episodes chronicling the lip-synching scandal that ruined
the career of the German pop duo Milli Vanilli, poor business decisions
that plunged rap artist MC Hammer into poverty and the life and untimely
death of 1970s easy-listening favorite Karen Carpenter.
viewing audience is engrossed, heated by voyeuristic curiosity and
chilled by cautionary chidings of the authoritative narrators and the
performers who have absolved themselves of vice and are, in apparent -
and astonishing - uniformity, leading happier, more fulfilled lives. In
the previously mentioned image of a Baptist revival, such testament of
salvation would be accompanied by hands held high to heaven amid a
communal, wailed, "Amen" from enraptured congregants in the
front row. In this instance, however, the sound is something more like
the mechanical roll and bell of a ratings cash register. Like its
archetypal predecessor, a new generation of teenagers wants its MTV,
with its current crop of bikini-clad beach dancers and irreverent game
shows. Meanwhile, their parents are interested in something of a more
And Behind the Music is more than
happy to supply it.
Currently-airing episodes of
Behind the Music examine the Canadian pop band Barenaked Ladies, the
seminal 70s group Chicago, of-late-Islamic Cat Stevens, and the
ever-rebelious Sinead O'Connor. Check with your cable or satellite
provider for channel availability, and visit
www.vh1.com for show
Johnson is a journalist and novelist based in Los Angeles. He is
currently writing a book about Hollywood.