Why Is It So Hard For TV Shows About Music To Get It Right?

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.

Like Vinyl, Roadies was seemingly designed for a person with precisely my sensibilities. Created by Cameron Crowe, former music journalist and the writer-director of Almost Famous (i.e. the Top Gun of rock criticism), Roadies stars Luke Wilson, Carla Gugino, and Imogen Poots as crew members on tour with the Staton-House Band, an arena group that resembles a cross of Kings of Leon and Stillwater, the fictional band from Almost Famous. But whereas Vinyl was set 40 years in the past, Roadies is about a troupe of true believers fighting to keep the rock dream alive in the present.

As I watched the pilot for Roadies shortly before the show’s premiere last month on Showtime, I looked for signs of promise. I cheered for Poots, a great young actress who deftly upgrades what could’ve been another of Crowe’s Manic Pixie Dream Girls to a more dignified Grounded Cynic With a Heart of Gold. And I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t get chills from a shameless episode-closing montage set to Pearl Jam’s “Given to Fly.” (Crowe is nothing if not a master of shamelessly emotional moments set to rock songs.) Plus, Luis Guzman plays a bus driver named Gooch. How could I dislike this show?

But after watching the first three episodes, Roadies left me feeling unsatisfied, as well as weirdly guilty about not liking it more. Crowe’s intentions, as always, seem noble and kind-hearted. He loves music, darn it, and he’s created characters to proselytize about it on his behalf. Roadies is the kind of show that will stop for a few minutes to dote rapturously on a performance by indie-folk group the Head and the Heart. (Through Crowe follows this up with an incongruous joke about Mumford & Sons, which is like hating on Journey because you’re an REO Speedwagon purist.)

But still, this show is so gentle and non-threatening! Criticizing Roadies is like screaming obscenities at All Songs Considered. (Each episode even has a designated “Song of the Day” that identifies the artist. Shout-out, Frightened Rabbit!) The problem with Roadies is that Crowe seems interested in little else beyond the music, including anything remotely resembling dramatic conflict or witty jokes. In the second episode, a subplot is devoted to the consternation Poots’ character feels about the band using a TelePrompTer. Perhaps aging rock stars having their lyrics fed to them is still a big deal for Crowe, but the rest of the world has moved on.

Then there’s this week’s doozy of an episode, starring Rainn Wilson as a Bob Lefsetz-like blogger who slams the Staton-House Band in his online column, and is subsequently invited to join the band on the road to shore up the bad publicity. Apparently Crowe’s background as a Rolling Stone writer didn’t inform his depiction of Wilson’s character, a typical asshole critic caricature who cackles ominously while typing mean things on his computer. (Though, in fairness, Crowe makes Lefsetz’s prose read better than it does in real life.)

Crowe himself was notoriously deferential to rock stars as a journalist. (After recently re-reading his 1976 Rolling Stone profile of David Bowie, I was surprised to not once see the word “cocaine,” in spite of Bowie’s obviously coked-out behavior.) But he could stand to be a little — well, “meaner” is the wrong word, so let’s just say that Roadies could use an infusion of reality. Part of what makes Almost Famous great is that Stillwater is clearly not intended to be a capital-G great band. The band members are petty and egotistical, and it’s implied that they won’t last beyond a few more years. To use one of Crowe’s favorite words, those shortcomings give Almost Famous authenticity. On Roadies, however, the characters aren’t afforded the space to live and breathe. It treats rock and roll like a mint condition LP collection that never gets played, only bragged about.

During its first season on FX in 2015, Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll seemed like another example of a rock and roll TV show playing in the wrong key. Star and creator Denis Leary plays Johnny Rock, an over-the-hill rock star whose band the Heathens flamed out in the early ’90s. One night in a nightclub, Johnny hits on a woman young enough to be his daughter, and then discovers that she really is his long-lost daughter, Gigi (Elizabeth Gilles). She has tracked down Johnny because she wants him to reform the Heathens and help her become a pop star.

With his peacock hair and lanky frame, Leary could credibly play a rock dude playing out the string on his career. But little else about Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll made sense from a music-perspective. Why would Gigi ask her estranged rocker father of all people to be her Max Martin? How could Dave Grohl credibly claim that the Heathens — whose aesthetic is essentially “Buckcherry lite” — were an influence on Nirvana? Why does Johnny reference Greg Dulli several times per episode? (Greg Dulli is to Denis Leary what Lindsey Buckingham is to Cameron Crowe.) Plus, the dialogue could be very clunky. (My favorite, courtesy of Joan Jett’s memorable cameo: “The whole music scene is talking about you and I had to come down myself to see what all the noise is about.”)

But Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll grew on me by the end of season one, in part because it didn’t take itself all that seriously. Instead, it just felt like a good hang — I grew to like the characters, particularly Flash (John Corbett), the Slash to Johnny’s Axl, and Ava (Elaine Hendrix), Johnny’s girlfriend and a former Bon Jovi groupie. Now in its second season, Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll remains solidly low-stakes summer viewing, though now with an unexpectedly progressive streak that balances out the consistently crass humor. (Hello, semen-in-hair jokes, we’ve missed you since There’s Something About Mary 18 years ago.) In the first five episodes of season two, Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll evolves from a show about Johnny trying to get his groove back to an endearing story about Gigi and Ava’s mother-daughter relationship, and the ways they influence each other to take control of their lives. As Ava’s career starts to take off in a surprising direction, Johnny is forced to confront middle-aged obsolescence, the biggest modern-day rock problem of all.

Presenting a world where women can exist outside of the lives of their boyfriends and bandmates seems a lot better, and truer, than this kind of show is normally capable of. It’s certainly leagues beyond the caveman gender dynamics of Vinyl, which romanticizes an era best left in the rearview. And no matter its occasional clumsiness — did I mention the semen in hair joke? — Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll at least has perspective on what a band like the Heathens signifies in 2016: Not a whole lot, but that’s okay, because it’s only rock and roll.