May 14, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

VH1 rises to the top of the pop charts

A couple of weeks back, my EW colleague Kristen Baldwin used this very same forum to hail MTV?s pretty-boy VJ Carson Daly as a ?deadpan dreamboat.? To which I say, ?Kristen, he?s all yours.? I know, I know, it?s a free country and all that, and usually Kristen and I are pretty simpatico (for instance, we both think the Chucky horror-movie franchise is vastly underrated). But to me, Carson Daly smacks of everything that?s wrong with MTV these days. He?s the Adam Curry of the ?90s minus the feathered Bon Jovi hairdo, whose unlucky lot in life it is to be the smug cheerleader for such acts as the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears — bands so cloyingly synthetic and sugary-sweet that 4 out 5 dentists wouldn?t recommend them.

The point I?m getting at (and there?s really no polite way to put this) is that MTV blows. You can?t really blame them, though. It?s not their fault that most of the bands that rule the charts these days are about as edgy as a box of kittens. But that?s exactly why I?m so indebted to VH1 for making the shrewd decision to ride out the Tiger Beat teen conga line by dipping into rock?s glorious and down-and-dirty past with its ?Legends? and ?The History of Rock n? Roll? series. Still, as addictive as these shows are, the best show on the network, and pound-for-pound the best show on all of TV, is ?Behind the Music.?

Why is this show so damn good? Well, I?ve thought long and hard about this, but ultimately I think it boils down to the simple notion that nothing packs the rubbernecking thrill of watching rock stars crash and burn. Virtually every episode of ?Behind the Music? features some doom-drenched narrator intoning: ?After years of drugs and alcohol abuse, the band tried to pick up the pieces after the tragic loss of its drummer.? And you know what? I never get sick of it. It?s one of those shows that makes you just put the remote down on the coffee table because you know you?re not going anywhere. I mean, what could be more compelling than watching some groupie-indulging guitar hero half-mad on cognac and quaaludes spiraling out of control?

Of all the brilliant ?Behind the Music? episodes I?ve caught, I?ve got a particular soft spot for the following three: Lynyrd Skynyrd (which features byzantine guitar solos, debauchery so insane it would kill a horse, and a tragic plane crash); Leif Garrett (highlighted by a heartbreaking reunion with his childhood friend who was paralyzed in a car accident while Leif was at the wheel); and Janis Joplin (which is given extra emotional heft by the grizzled, southern-fried voice of narrator Kris Kristofferson).

Yet the beauty of ?Behind the Music? is that even when you couldn?t care less about the band being profiled, it still manages to grab you by the collar and pummel you into submission. Take the Mamas and the Papas segment: To me, Mama Cass & company always seemed like more of a punchline than a band. But midway through their ?Behind the Music? — somewhere between the time they dropped out and went to the Caribbean and the time Michelle Phillips got herself ensconced in an internecine hippie love triangle — I was subversively sucked in to their four-part-harmony flytrap. I even gained a certain amount of grudging respect for Stevie Nicks and Jan and Dean after witnessing an hour of their Sisyphean career flameouts.

Frankly, I never thought that one day I?d publicly champion VH1 over MTV. Heck, I never thought I?d even admit to watching VH1. But what was until recently a round-the-clock rotation of wall-to-wall baby-boomer Muzak from the likes of Elton John and Billy Joel, has now become the No. 1 reason why I keep paying my cable bill. And as long as they keep cranking out these inspired voyeuristic falls from grace, I?ll keep the clicker away from MTV. Who knows, maybe some day I?ll be lucky enough to see a ?Behind the Music? double shot on Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys long after they?re thrown onto the pop-music scrap heap. But until that glorious day comes, you?ll know where to find me.

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