HAVE YOU EVER HAD THE experience where, like, you had these great girlfriends, and the three of you did everything together; you had this intense friendship and everybody thought of you as, like, a unit? Then things went sour and you split up, only to discover that you had something together that none of you has alone, such as the ability to make wildly lucrative hit singles? And so you reunite? And record again? And everything is better than ever?
That's why I'm finding, in this new year -- traditionally a period of rejuvenation and fresh beginnings -- there is nothing so gratifying as sitting slack-jawed on the couch after the kids have gone to bed, watching VH1's "Behind the Music." I'm serious. Like a couple of friends who told me about their own uncontrollable habits, I've become addicted to the lowbrow genre of the rock-and-roll documentary -- any rock documentary, but especially the ones that air on VH1. It's hard to explain why, except to say that as you sit there pondering the ravages of life and resolving to make something of yourself in 2000, there is something strangely reassuring about channel-surfing and hearing the voice of the VH1 narrator, recalling that "Cher was nearing 40 years old, with a career in decline, two kids to raise and a husband in rehab!" or that "TLC's relationship with their onetime mentor was gone for good!" or that "In 1997, Dr. Dre was putting his life back together" or that "Like so many rock 'n' roll stories, this one ended in court."
To be sure, part of the perverse pleasure of watching rockumentaries lies in witnessing the ultimate debasement of the documentary form, something that's been inevitable ever since Ken Burns's Civil War series spawned a host of lesser imitations, including some by Burns himself. Now, thanks to cable, cheap documentaries are everywhere, from the History Channel to MSNBC's cheesy new Matt Lauer series, "Headliners and Legends," which recently profiled -- in agonizing detail -- Donnie Osmond's devastating struggles with adulthood. Most cable documentaries are bad ("Donnie feels badly about pushing his brothers aside!") but VH1 documentaries are so bad they're priceless, offering as they do the opportunity to see Jennifer Lopez interviewed, at length and in all seriousness, by her own sister; to hear deadpan analyses by the inevitable embittered ex-managers/colleagues/lovers ("Whenever they need help, I'm still available, 24-7!"); to savor the stupid teasers ("Genesis: The drummer takes over!"); and to hear the musicians themselves, articulate as golden retrievers, illuminate their artistry with insights such as, "As far as concepts, it's just, like, rock," and, "When I first heard our song on the radio it was, like, wow, yeah! You had to dig!"
But best of all are the exhaustive career histories, which always seem to be about the same five people: Stevie Nicks, Cher, Stevie Nicks, Stevie Nicks and Stevie Nicks, with occasional looks at newcomers like Shania Twain ("Next! Shania goes toe-to-toe with the good old boys!"). I think what I find mesmerizing about them is the same thing my daughter likes about Disney videos: the comforting repetitiveness of the plot, an eternal Jungian archetype of obscurity, success, excess, bottoming-out, despair and rebirth. It's "King Lear," really, a story of how one can get lost in the wilderness but eventually stage a comeback. Or something. Mostly, what I like is how they illuminate the myriad ways in which life can go wrong: Stevie Nicks getting fat, Sonny and Cher splitting up, pretty much everybody tanking out on drugs, and of course that old perennial, an overpaid person going bankrupt. One of my favorite installments is one where members of TLC try to figure out where, exactly, all their money went, explaining that even if a record makes $10 million the group only gets about half, out of which you have to pay production, and lawyers, and managers, after which, as one of them observes, "We really did not have anything!" Of course! Don't you know just how that feels? Looking at your paycheck and seeing what all those payroll deductions have done to it?
And yet persevering! More than anything, that's what I love: Stevie Nicks in seclusion, trying to lose those darned 10 pounds. And doing it. And touring again. And getting back with Lindsay. It's beautiful. And you know what? Sometimes it really is -- it really is moving to hear Shania Twain talk about raising her younger siblings after her parents were killed; to hear Dr. Dre talk about missing his dead brother or Eric Clapton mourning his son; even to hear Cher talk about how she had to lock her knees to keep from fainting at Sonny's funeral. These are large lives, as it happens, so large they're operatic; most of us don't have lives that yaw so magnificently from crest to bottom. And even if rock documentaries do cater to the midlife fantasies of exhausted parents (hence the ads for collagen-and-elastin hand cream and Pillsbury crescent rolls), there are worse things to dream about than facing the millennium with the durability of Cher -- that is to say, facing it with wild clothes, ridiculously young boyfriends and yet another hit video in the clubs.
Liza Mundy's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.