In Defense of VH1s ‘Behind the Music’

“This is probably the best show that was ever on VH-1. I love the fact that it will look at how much of a price today’s rock stars had to pay in order to become as big as they are and the fact that being a rock star isn’t as glamorous as it seems. However, my favorite features have always been the ones that look at a particular year (1968, 1970, 1972 etc.) or the ones that look at cultural phenomenas (Woodstock and Studio 54). I wish VH-1 would bring back this show because it is sorely missed.”

“Reviews and ratings for Behind The Music”, IMDB)

The above was a comment written all the way back in September of 2003 by a user named Brian Washington on the constantly consulted Internet Movie Database regarding one of the single greatest innovations in music television, VH1’s Behind the Music. Well, Brian, in case you have long given up on the notion that the show was going to eventually make its grand return to the airwaves and for the past decade you have decided to remove yourself from all things television, I’ve got some news you may be interested in: It’s back.

Actually, it’s been back for a few weeks, now. That’s right. In its 15th season, VH1’s Behind the Music has already aired the dirt on Train, Ne-Yo and Carrie Underwood. Word has it that Nicole Scherzinger, Toni Braxton and Gym Class Heroes are due up at some point this season and both T.I. and P!nk are going to be put through the BTM machine for a second time, with each artist having their respective episodes updated to address current-day developments.

This is fantastic news. As anyone who lived in the late ’90s and early Aughts can tell you, Behind the Music is the single most interesting thing to ever appear on VH1. It was the quintessential precursor to reality television, a phenomenon that some may argue today is the single most interesting thing to ever appear on, well, television. While the Real Housewives and Kardashians of today’s world are case studies in personal manufactured drama, VH1’s flagship show was a case study in musical manufactured drama — a much more interesting practice for those who either love music or have ever been in a band. It was impossible to turn away from — seeing clips of how Leif Garrett was struggling to keep sober and how Hootie And The Blowfish were struggling to keep, well, to keep people interested in what they were doing. 

But, then it all went away. Or, well, it seemed like it all went away, at least. As it goes, 2006 was the year the series first took a break, allowing only a choice few new episodes to be produced. The network introduced something called “Remastered” and some of the older episodes were reworked, adding a couple minutes onto their runtime that were designed to explain what has happened to the artist at hand since the initial episode regarding the artist hit the air. The desire to re-brand the thing continued with BTM2, a half-hour package that was said to feature only newer artists (though it’s hard to think that A: Counting Crows were a “new artist” sometime in the late 2000s and B: Geri Halliwell deserved a half-hour of anything dedicated to her career). 

That particular experiment didn’t work, and now we are left to feast on this new season after the series marked a return in recent years by profiling everybody from Heart to Ice Cube. This year features the addition of something called “Behind the Song”, a webisode that will concentrate on — you guessed it — a single song written by whichever artist is featured each week. For instance, the season’s first episode — featuring Train — was accompanied by a profile of “Drops of Jupiter” and what went into the writing and production of the track. 

And about that episode …

Here’s the thing: If you’ve ever read this column before, it should be no secret that my love for Train is unwavering, thus my excitement and anticipation for the particular episode that kicked off the season at hand could be labeled as only one word: intense. Now, because I don’t have a proper television cable connection (something else that is no surprise to anyone who has read this thing before), I patiently waited for the episode to hit the Internet. It did. I watched it. It was fabulous (though I still think they should have spent waaaaaay more time on “Hey, Soul Sister” than they did, considering how it essentially saved their musical lives, but hey — that’s another column for another day).  

As I was sitting by my pathetic self watching what some may call a pathetically cheesy pop band pathetically admit to at one point being heavily addicted to coke (who knew?!), something intriguing occurred to me: The success of Behind the Music is almost entirely contingent upon the creation and subsequent sustainability of true, honest-to-goodness rock or pop stars. The problem? The creation and subsequent sustainability of true, honest-to-goodness rock or pop stars, these days, is a practice that is very close to extinction.

Or, in other words, it’s so hard to have people care about the inside stories of massively popular musical acts when nobody has the opportunity to become a massively popular musical act in the traditional sense anymore. Combine this notion with the fact that most current day artists are all marketed with a strong element of transparency — thus eliminating that always-intriguing “inside story” element of the aforementioned equation — and what you have is a demand for Behind The Music that falls so far behind its supply.

Think about it: What made the Motley Crue episode so transfixing, for instance, wasn’t necessarily the story about Nikki Six overdosing on heroin, nearly dying, and then finally rushing to get as high as he could as quickly as he could upon leaving the hospital that hours before had saved his life (though, with that said, and as we all know, that tale is indeed one of the best BTM tales ever told). Instead, that episode became addicting (pun intended) because of exactly how popular the individual members in the band once were. We all knew who Tommy Lee was. We all knew who Vince Neil was. These were characters in a band that bathed in excess because the amount of excess available to stars those days was at an all-time high. The same goes for Def Leppard, Twisted Sister, Poison, Quiet Riot, and any other band from the ’80s with a ton of hair and way more drums than one man ever needed to produce sound. 

It doesn’t stop there, either. Go back to the ’60s, when the Mamas & The Papas and Steppenwolf indulged in more illegal things than an episode of Cops. Even so, both acts allowed for a couple highly entertaining and hypnotic one-hour features that, at least on a small level, were surprisingly scandalous. It continued in the ’70s with Foreigner and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Even the ’90s got in on the fun when acts like Everclear and Lenny Kravitz were among the artists featured. These were all musicians who came up during a time that practically made it impossible for someone to not have to go through the rise, the inevitable fall due to addiction troubles and sagging record sales, and then the rise again, thus allowing these success stories to have heart and emotion. At one point in time, it seemed as though it was in the rock/pop star contract to “Be sure to mess up your career” and then “Hope to god it all works out.”

These days, there simply isn’t enough time for those things to happen. Your rise isn’t as quick as your fall anymore. In fact, the fall is quicker. Artists are lucky to gain 15 seconds of notoriety, let alone 15 minutes, or, God forbid, a half-hour. Such a notion makes it impossible for television production companies to create an hour-long profile of how these acts once ruled the world, why they stopped ruling the world, and what’s going to happen to make sure the possibility of maybe ruling the world again is imminent. 

That’s the thing — musicians can’t rule the world, anymore. Because Facebook does.

And frankly, it’s all kind of sad. These Behind the Music stories not only created hope for the future of yesterday’s stars, but they also allowed the everyday, cover band singer who felt like he or she could relate to these once-superhuman people to have their dreams seem at least the tinniest bit obtainable. This show humanized the part of rock-and-roll that so many people felt so detached from for so long. Sure, it made for great television, but it also legitimized the role of “rock star” in a way that proved both fascinating and cautionary. If you were in a band, you wanted a Behind the Music episode produced about your band. In fact, it made your band a band

So, here’s to the 15th season of VH1’s Behind the Music, and here’s hoping that at least 15 more years are somehow in its future, despite the constantly changing climate of today’s popular music. It’s a show that is as informative as it is intriguing, and as infectious as it is fascinating. Besides — could you even imagine narrator Jim Forbes doing anything else with that golden voice of his at this point in his life, anyway?