Sunday, September 23, 2012

After the Behind the Music

Wikipedia tells me that the 15th season of VH1's Behind the Music began a couple of weeks ago.  This was a surprise to me; I had assumed that BTM had gone the way of MTV's TRL long ago.  Although these two shows appealed to different audiences, in the pre-social networking era of music they were the dominant means by which artists were presented to the public as "important" or "relevant."  I never watched an episode of TRL from start to finish, but at the turn of the century I never passed up an opportunity  to watch BTM.  I've always been a sucker for narrative expositions of artist's careers packaged with retrospective soundtracks and the booming voiceovers reminiscent of National Geographic filmmstrips.  BTM was so successful for VH1, that predictably it led to overexposure (for some reason, it is indelibly linked in my mind with the Regis Philbin version of Who Wants to be a Millionarie?, another turn-of-the-century ratings hit and cultural phenomenon that was run into the ground by its network).  But it wasn't just overexposure that led to a backlash against BTM.  It also suffered from its formulaic storytelling.  Every band or artists was portrayed in a three-act play, with the first act consisting of the "rise of the underdog," the second act was a descent into debauchery and tragedy, and in the final act, the band or artist found redemption through perspective and maturity (and invariably, recorded new material which was always inferior to that produced in the first two acts).

The problem with sticking anyone's life into a classically mythic narrative structure, though, is that the "Hero's Journey" is a fiction.  This fiction has conditioned us to believe that once anyone has ascended from a low point, they wouldn't return to the depths.  I remember feeling vaguely betrayed by Leif Garrett.  The Leif Garrett BTM in 1999 featured an emotional and uplifting reunion between a repentant Garrett and a friend who he had rendered a paraplegic when he had crashed his car high on drugs twenty years prior.  Of course, not long after the episode aired, Garrett was busted for trying to buy drugs  (he's been arrested twice subsequently for similar offenses, most recently in 2010).  Of course, it was ridiculous of me to have any expectations that Leif Garrett's behavior would conform to the behavior we expect from fictional characters.  In a fictional story, the child star perpetrator of a tragic car crash would either die or repent and live an exemplary life.  A series of less spectacular relapses as the character rescinds into obscurity would not be on the table.

What precipitated my trip to BTM's Wikipedia page in the first place?  Two news stories this week once again reminded me that the BTM narrative structure is too convenient for reality.  First, apparently Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong had an on-stage meltdown and is now in rehab.  I don't remember ever seeing the Green Day BTM, but I know that this does not fit that narrative.  This would have been acceptable for Billie Joe Armstrong back in the days when he was being arrested for public indecency for mooning a Milwaukee audience.  The Dookie-era punk rocking Billie Joe Armstrong would have been a good candidate for such a happening.  But not the 40-year-old father of two Habitat for Humanity volunteer and political advocate.  Likewise, news headlines yesterday trumpeted a drug arrest for Fiona Apple.  I hadn't thought about Fiona Apple for years (I somehow missed that she had released a critically acclaimed album this summer...maybe because I had a busy summer).  But a Fiona Apple drug arrest would have fit in with the narrative of the young rebel who told off the world after upsetting Hanson at the 1997 MTV Video Music Awards.  It does not fit the narrative of a 30-something woman who is touring behind an album that features celesta, bouzouki, and auto harp. 

But if this weekend never had happened, there would still have been more than enough evidence that the BTM narrative was a construct.  Two examples that come immediately to mind: Some Kind of Monster-era Metallica, in which the members somehow found a way to display adolescent growing pains despite having famously cut their hair several years prior, and Brian Wilson, who despite being declared "back" in 1976, proceeded to decades of oscillating between mental and physical states of vigor and infirmity.

So in the final analysis, we should all know by now that real people's lives, especially lives that have had the dramatic amplification of the trappings and affects of celebrity, can't be collapsed into mythological narrative frameworks.  But as our engagement with actual myths recedes and our fascination with celebrity and dubious "reality" converge, we end up projecting such structures where they oughtn't be projected.  Perhaps our only hope is that such narratives reach such a saturation point that we be forced to admit that at least in American rock star lives, there are no third acts.


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