JANUARY 2000 | VOL. 4, NO. 1


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

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

The first signs of trouble should have been the advent of the Terrible Two, "Where Are They Now?" and "Before They Were Rock Stars," lesser series which play like spastically absurd spin-offs. The former offers unwelcome updates on obscurities not quite ready for the BTM stage--recent subjects have included Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam, Sir Mix-A-Lot and Gerardo. But the show isn't content simply with one hit wonders; inexplicably, "Where Are They Now?" also asks its not-so-probing question about such common sightings as KISS and Sammy Hagar. With recent albums and tours, these two haven't exactly gone anywhere. So what is the purpose of the show? A teasing if inconsistent warm-up act for BTM? Or just a watered-down version thereof?

"Before They Were Rock Stars" continues the confusion. Its premise, presumably, is to offer a tabloid-type glimpse into a celebrity's pre-glam days via high school yearbooks, snapshot candids, and other personal tidbits. The problem is that the first fifteen minutes of nearly every BTM serves this exact purpose. Thus, when "Before They Were Rock Stars" presents photos of a fledgling Sarah McLachlan, one suspects a full BTM on the rest of her life is likely in development. But "Before They Were Rock Stars" gets more inconsequential yet; its sole yearn and concern is for meaningless trivia, that which would be quickly excised from a BTM not just in the interest of time but in the interest of interest itself. Baseless profiling with a dash of the arcane, "Before They Were Rock Stars" represents re-purposing at its worst.

Still the cloning abounds on VH1, with segments and shows like "Backstory" (a highly abridged BTM shown before a taped performance), "Timeline" (a more schematic BTM, without the talky fun), "VH1 Legends" (BTM hiding behind a pseudonym), and, over on MTV, "Biosphere" (BTM as a thirty minute music video). With each, the distinctions blur, shows cross-referencing and nearly advertising each other amid an incessant stream of factual overflow. The new VH1 may be channel-surfing fun, but it's also a sloppy, overlapping mess. Beneath the muddle, though, re-purposing itself has emerged as something of a quasi-genius idea. In its Internet-like, machine gun-style delivery, VH1 is reveling in the retelling of its and MTV's collective histories, the perfect package to lure re-run ready viewers of persuasion Gen X. And it works. Few over the age of eighteen won't stop the remote control at the sight of Prince's bare posterior (from the MTV Video Awards, circa ten or so years ago), simply because they remember seeing the footage the first time around and likely haven't seen it since. Until now. VH1 specializes in a sort of short attention span nostalgia, one that feeds on the very media explosion of recent decades that bore it and the cable market at large.

But why exactly does the programming leave such a bad taste? Is it because The Smithereens can now be seen not only on "Where Are They Now?" but also on "Before They Were Rock Stars"? Or because both Def Leppard and Donny & Marie have been twice scrutinized, in their own respective BTMs as well as in installments of "Before They Were Rock Stars"? VH1 may not only be the first network to steal from itself but also the first to repeatedly paraphrase its programming in the name of multiplying its show base. The cycle is a vicious one, and it serves only to cheapen BTM, their one true event.

Stacking up layers of re-purposed programming is a jab at the viewer as well. VH1 may well see its revampment as the ultimate postmodern twist--the music video station that scarcely airs any music videos--but it also plays like the canniest of marketing cheats. In an industry run on ratings and the all-important advertising buck, the viewer is surely the highest commodity, and VH1 would be wise to realize that we are not just old highlight clip reels that can be re-used over and over; indeed, we play more than just a small role in their oft-repeated cycle of sameness. When all is said and done, VH1 might resist making a final re-purposed product of us, the audience itself.

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

PICTURES copyright ©1999 MTV Networks

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