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JANUARY 2000 | VOL. 4, NO. 1



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VHI spreads itself thin with recycled, reworked "content."

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  I Quote Me:  VH1 and the Vicious Cycle of Sameness
Joe Elliot, Vanilla Ice, Michael Hutchence
Britney Spears, Jewel

 
Behind the Music BEHIND THE MUSIC
VH1
Everyday, various times
This Month: Michael Hutchence, Genesis, Partridge Family, Barry White, Melissa Etheridge

RICK CONNELLY

"I'll never get through this if I don't do some coke," says Stevie Nicks.

"I woke up," quoth Nikki Sixx, "and the needle was still in my arm."

Such are the auspicious, semi-epic starts to two of VH1's installments of "Behind the Music," the deadpan, one-note series that inflates the trials of music's most fallible characters to Greek tragic proportions.

The stories, VH1 would have you believe, are astounding: Def Leppard rules the world with a one-armed drummer. (Cue headlines.) The Black Crowes get swindled in a dead-end contract deal. (Cue millionaire boo-hooing.) Best friend dies. (Cue slow-mo sniffles.) Lead singer gets a tube of glue stuck in his left nostril. (Cue remote control... or, if suitably hooked, cue microwave for express popcorn popping.)

Sure, the names and incidents in each saga start to blur with success and downfall tugging at each other for equal air time. But VH1 scores in these potboilers with their own brand of non-specific omniscience, staging within the BTM series the conflicts of everyone from Cher to Shania to Grand Funk Railroad, all in the same baited breath. The results? Often melodramatic, always hyperbolic--soapy sensationalism at its emptiest. Yet it makes for great television, as addictive as a big bag of Redenbacher Lite.

VH1's new dramatic direction isn't without its downside, though. BTM forms not just a flagship for the network but also something of a fulcrum; their entire programming base emulates its in-depth, non-fictional, talking-head-spliced-with-concert-footage style. It's a motif that has revolutionized the network from cushy baby boomer backdrop to newsy music television alternative, a sort of pop-umentary paradise.

Obviously, the series hasn't broken new ground, and if anything, it's just a rolling stone's throw from A&E's famously successful pre-cursor, "Biography." Instead of the story of Mussolini, we're here given Madonna. Forget Jesus Christ, it's time for the rise and fall of Vanilla Ice. Sketching out biographical detail is big business across cable markets these days with each channel laying claim to its own distinctive style of storytelling. Yet with every new variation--from Lifetime's "Intimate Portrait" to E!'s "Celebrity Profile" to MSNBC's "Headliners & Legends"--the subjects start to seem familiar, the narrative voice more and more formula.

The economic backbone of these shows is the same, with the entire bio-based genre converging on an industry practice known as "re-purposing." In short, re-purposing is devising a way to present existing footage and archival material within a new framework. Budgetary constraints cause cable executives to be pragmatic; thus, for VH1, the task of depicting a Blondie or a Bette Midler is greatly abated by access to sister station MTV's vaults. After chronologically sorting photos and footage, digging up some dirt, and slapping on narration, low-cost storytelling becomes a cinch.

A compelling show need be greater than its recycled parts, though; an hour's worth of Culture Club clips can only as good as the dramatic ties that binds them together. (Drama is perhaps the one quality not lacking in the Boy George episode.) But with inter-band theatrics to spare, what can be the limits to a premise as presumably perfect as BTM? Nothing, at least according to VH1, which has branded their re-purposing style into an entire stable of similar shows and segments. In this case, too much of a good thing is too much indeed for VH1, as their profiling tendencies are bogging the network down in tiresome redundancy.

[ MORE: first signs of trouble ]

FEEDBACK: Are "Behind the Music" and its offspring worthwile and informative news programs?


RICK CONNELLY is the staff television writer for Renaissance Online Magazine. He can be reached at rconnelly@renaissancemag.com

PICTURES copyright ©1999 MTV Networks



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