There’s an old axiom attributed to Frank Zappa, Elvis Costello, Steve Martin, Miles Davis and many others that’s long been a favorite of self-hating rock critics: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Put another way: It’s easy to sound stupid when you’re talking about music. In fact, it’s pretty much inevitable that somebody will think you’re a moron no matter what you say.
Unfortunately, this isn’t just a problem for rock critics. In fact, it’s probably worse for TV writers. From The Partridge Family to Hannah Montana, from Zack Attack to Jesse and the Rippers, capturing the essence of pop music in fictional television shows has for decades proven frustratingly elusive. All the intangibles — the bristling sound of a live concert, the aloof carriage of a pop star, the digressive arc of a passionate debate among music geeks — often feel slightly (or wildly) wrong on television shows. And yet these details are essential for verisimilitude. Unconvincing lip-syncing, pained on-stage posturing, or a reference to the wrong Iggy Pop record are as conspicuous on music TV shows as wonky-looking special effects on Game of Thrones.
The most successful pop-related show on television, Empire, has addressed this problem by bringing in ringers to help with the music (Timbaland, Jim Beanz) and, perhaps more important, utilizing a soap-opera format that gives the show an outrageously operatic emotional tenor. As silly as Empire can be, its emotional truth rings true. Empire might not closely resemble the real-life pop industry, but watching it often feels like listening to pop music. (This is also true of Nashville, recently canceled by ABC and more recently revived by the cable network CMT.)
Any successful pop artist must have an intuitive understanding of what the audience wants from the music they love, and the same goes for TV shows about pop artists. Of all the many problems with HBO’s $100-million one-season wonder Vinyl, one of the biggest flops in TV history, this issue might have been the most profound. As a 38-year-old straight white male raised on classic rock radio, I couldn’t totally hate Vinyl — I am the core demographic for subplots about contract negotiations with Led Zeppelin and jokes about England Dan and John Ford Coley. But even I couldn’t stomach the pontificating of the show’s lead character, Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale), about how rock and roll with balls and grit can make the hair on the back of your neck stand up, motherf*cker!
The premise of Vinyl — a man who does cocaine all day long and hangs with Alice Cooper is inherently important — was fatally flawed for a TV show in 2016. Whether it was due to ignorance, arrogance, or a toxic mix of both, the makers of Vinyl didn’t understand that an anachronistic character like Richie must be explained, and his supposed awesomeness contextualized, for contemporary audiences.
I wonder now if Vinyl would’ve worked better as a comedy in the mold of Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story or this year’s underrated Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, both of which use parody as a trojan horse for sharp insights about the highs, lows, and middles of pop stardom. Vinyl would’ve required just a slight nudge to become a full-on farce. Think about when Richie declares in the pilot, “I had a golden ear, a silver tongue, and a pair of brass balls. But the problem became my nose and everything I put up it.” That’s funny, especially coming from a blowhard in a leisure suit. Richie could have been a rock and roll Ron Burgundy, if only Vinyl had understood its own joke.