The New Behind The Music Offers Different Pleasures Than The Old

Even when it was buzzy and cool in the 1990s, VH1’s Behind The Music was an exercise in celebrity blowjobs. Sure, Leif Garrett would show up and have a fascinating reunion with the friend he paralyzed twenty years before, but getting to that scene meant slogging through forty minutes of breathless declarations about what a massive star he was. He was just a moderately successful dude who endured some interesting, if all too familiar consequences.

But whatever, right? It was the '90s, and back then, the world hadn’t mastered the tropes of reality TV. We weren’t used to seeing pop icons bare their souls in self-serving and occasionally interesting ways, so the shock of learning that The Go-Gos were coke fiends was enough to make Behind The Music mandatory viewing.

Now, of course, pop artists get their own reality series without even being famous, which makes Behind The Music seem like a charming memory from a distant past, when Left Eye could break down the music industry in 20 seconds and leave us all gasping with surprise.

Except...oops. Behind The Music is still around. It’s been back since 2009, and like so many of the stars it fellates, it hasn’t recaptured the heat of its glory days.

If you squint, the show seems the same. Pop stars still stroll on to explain how hard their childhoods were and dutifully recall their hit songs and bankruptcy claims. But if you look closer, you realize that the new Behind The Music actually sucks. It replaces the tenuous cred of the original version with pandering crap that insults both its audience and its own legacy. (You could rewrite that sentence to be about Van Halen and have a great episode, but we digress.)

The biggest problem is encapsulated by every episode’s opening scene. While the originals were told chronologically, the new ones begin at the end of the story, with the artist in question working on a new project that will either keep him or her on top or (supposedly) bring them back.

In other words, dramatic tension is replaced with a desperate insistence that everything works out fine. It’s like the show is saying, “Hey, America! These people count! And do you know why? Because they’re still famous! Look at this club they’re performing in! It’s so swanky!”

Granted, focusing on “now” means that the show can land relevant stars like Pink and Train, who have hit records to promote. That’s probably good for ratings, but you know what isn’t very interesting? Hearing that Ne-Yo, who was profiled a few weeks ago, is doing just fine. Even if something is going terribly wrong behind the scenes, he has too much to lose to say anything about it. Back when The Go-Gos were on, they were so washed up, it didn’t matter if they explained how many dudes they screwed in an Atlanta parking garage.

On the other hand, this insistence on “now” makes the episodes about faded stars seem desperate. Toni Braxton hasn’t had a hit in ten years, so when Behind The Music calls her “the ultimate survivor”? And says her un-noteworthy reality show is a “huge success”? And shows her recording a song in what looks like a meat locker? It makes everyone seem pathetic. Expect more of the same from tonight’s episode about T.I. He hasn’t had a hit since 2008, but you can be sure Behind The Music will liken his upcoming album to that time Dylan went electric.

Then there’s this season’s new feature, “Behind The Song,” which comes so early in the episode that it completely wrecks the storytelling. Like...we don’t really need to know the secret history of “Drops Of Jupiter,” but we certainly don’t want to hear about it when, at the last commercial break, Train hadn’t even gotten a record deal. If viewers can’t wait an extra fifteen minutes to learn about “Drops Of Jupiter” in a chronologically sensible fashion, then they don’t deserve to know where it came from.

And yet. Despite this asinine narrative strategy and endless celebrity butt-kissing, juicy moments still slip through. It’s almost worth being told that Nicole Scherzinger has led the U.S. version of The X Factor to “record ratings” just for her blunt explanation of how she was the only talented Pussycat Doll. The show itself might tell us that Toni Braxton is still number one, but in several scenes, she herself seems sanguine about the fact that she’ll “never have it” like she did fifteen years ago. And when Pat Monahan, Train’s lead singer, admits that he always has to work harder than truly gifted musicians, well...it’s so refreshingly honest that we’re almost proud to watch the show. Until the narrator says that “Hey, Soul Sister” is the decade’s most beloved rock anthem. And then the shame sets in.