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VH1's Behind The Music:
Cautionary Tales For a New Millenium

boy george

Boy George

gloria gaynor

Gloria Gaynor

Photos courtesy of VH1

By 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 programming.

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 suggests, "…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 recover."

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.

The 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 moralistic tenor.

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 for show schedules.

Ben Patrick Johnson is a journalist and novelist based in Los Angeles. He is currently writing a book about Hollywood.

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