“I really hope I have changed a lot since the last time we made this documentary.”
This is a fairly revealing comment from Ricky martin, arriving near the start of the first episode of Behind the music, the new reboot of the VH1 documentary series which for nearly two decades has delved deep into the history and private lives of notable stars from pop music’s past and present. Airing on Paramount +, the newly revived hour-long show kicks off with two episodes, one on Martin and one on LL Cool J, with a third installment, the Huey Lewis and the news, coming next week. Martin’s comment is revealing because it could well double for the culture in general to reply when this series returns: namely, that pop culture has changed quite a bit since the heyday of Behind the music, and what once seemed to be an exclusive, real drama now comes across as simply unnecessary.
It also highlights the recycled nature of the program, which claims to be a reboot, but is actually more of a redesign. There are already episodes of Behind the music that focus on these artists – two, in fact, in the case of Martin and LL Cool J. (The first had a second installment on it in 2011, more than a decade after its first episode in 2004, followed by ‘another in 2013.) And for the first three-quarters of every new episode, all you really get is a slightly remixed version of something that has already aired. This is the same sequence, only interspersed with a new interview with today’s artist, and usually a new interview or two with a currently famous friend, in an obvious attempt to provide some relevance and justification for trotting the same material .
In the case of Ricky Martin, we get Bad bunny, eloquent on its cultural impact. LL Cool J receives kind words from Eminem, and Huey Lewis is stopped by his friend Jimmy kimmel. So already, this “new” series seems terribly outdated. Interviews with artists in the present seldom shed new light on what has already been filmed; in many cases, the camera literally shows them looking at the footage from the original episodes and smiling in acknowledgment, perhaps making a joke or repeating the same thing that was said last time around. Calling it anything other than a replay with a few minutes of “bonus content”, or whatever you like, sounds pretty misleading.
Updates to the intervening years offer little convincing material, as most of it took place in public. There is nothing “behind the scenes” that LL Cool J is now hosting Lip sync battle, or that he recorded a new rap in response to the Black Lives Matter movement last summer, or that he received Kennedy Center Honor. These are activities that he literally did on screen, and therefore not “behind the scenes” of anything. Likewise, Ricky Martin living a happy, healthy life, making a residency in Vegas, and attending a protest in Puerto Rico isn’t just rich drama in and of itself. It’s a testament to the show’s lack of curiosity or effort, that there’s nothing here that you wouldn’t know just by following Martin’s career – or even just Google searching for him. And Huey Lewis, who had a truly moving life event via his hearing loss in 2018, and therefore arguably deserves an update on his 2001 episode, doesn’t really seem like he needs to reveal his story: Anyone reading pop culture news at the time could be as knowledgeable as they wanted about it, and nothing in his episode added much. Lewis did not hide anything.
This is ultimately what makes Behind the music feel so inessential in 2021. All of this information is already available to the world now, for anyone who cares to watch. At the time of its premiere, and for several years afterwards, the series told stories that had never been told before and exposed the private lives of artists in a way that had never been done before. The very first episode, on Milli Vanilli, actually involved a lot of detective work, because no one knew where the ex-hosts were at the time. Hearing about the personal tragedies and struggles of music stars when they weren’t on stage was still a minor eye-opener as we couldn’t get it anywhere else.
It hardly needs to be said, but it is no longer the case. The world of pop culture journalism has grown incredibly large and ever-expanding since the 2000s, bluntly. If you want to know an artist’s story, chances are, someone has already done their homework and published it. But above all, the artists themselves are already sharing their lives in revealing ways – via social media, live broadcasts and many other outlets that bring them into our homes in ways that have never happened before. Pop culture online has rendered the need for something like Behind the music. Musical documentaries and oral histories will always be needed, and the show may have found new relevance by focusing on the most recently created stars over the past decade. Not necessarily rising stars – the show has tried and failed once, in the 2000s BTM2– but just newly established artists who don’t elicit responses of “Haven’t we seen this one before?” But these stars are make their own docs these days, and this series in particular, with its outdated hardware, compelling lack of format and, worse yet, no desire to offer anything new, proves that some models are best left in the past.