I’ve never been a big live music person; in fact, I can probably count on my hands the number of concerts I have attended. That said I *love* musicals, which helps explain why I enjoy watching ABC’s Nashville and Fox’s Empire (though I was late to the game on this one and recently binge-watched the first season).
In many ways both shows are essentially the same– plot lines include guns, sex, disease, jail, drugs, homosexuality, music production, musical sabotage, etc. Both also address topics usually untouched in their respective communities, like mental illness and homosexuality. They also boast casts that are overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly black (can you guess which is which?!).
They are soap operas in the true sense of the word, despite airing in prime time. But while Nashville is a soap opera in the tradition of Dallas or ER (down to the everyone sleeping with everyone they already know phenomenon), Empire has elevated the genre with a combination of Shakespeare, The Godfather, and Bravo camp (can’t you just picture Cookie at a Real Housewives reunion being interviewed by Andy Cohen?!).
As a sociologist of culture one of the things I most appreciate about both shows is the behind-the-scenes element of music creation (though of course this is still over-simplified). You get a taste of the Art World (in the Beckerian sense) that goes into producing a song including writers, performers, musicians, producers and how they interact with not just machines and technology but also business. Time is particularly fluid in both shows– sometimes it seems as if a song is created and recorded in a day, along with a concert or performance– and that almost certainly is not true to life, and at times it doesn’t even work well to dramatic effect. Nonetheless Nashville and Empire hopefully give young kids other types of musical aspirations.
The shows have also offered platforms for talented, yet unknown, performers to showcase their triple threat skills. Empire in particular has created starring roles for relative unknowns– though with some other high profile actors and guest stars– whereas the marquee talent on Nashville is stars, while giving young guns some portion of the spotlight as well.
Two of my favorite recent songs are by “unknowns” from both shows, referenced in the title of this blog post– You’re So Beautiful from Empire (which I love singing and dancing to with my youngest son) and A Life That’s Good (by the heavenly Lennon & Maisy), a song that makes me tear up nearly every time I hear it. Admittedly I don’t normally listen to country, so it’s saying something my iPod reports I’ve listened to it about 40 times.
Both shows could do with paring down some of the story lines in their next seasons, but I’ll continue to keep a season pass for Empire and Nashville while pondering: Is the Lucious Lyon character aspirational, or based on an amalgam of people like Sean Combs, Jay-Z, Quincy Jones (I actually imagine him to be a Michael Jackson like figure, down to criminal issues [though of a different type], if MJ had united his family and started a business empire with them)? Why doesn’t Rayna offer half her liver to Deacon (or why don’t they check Maddie?!)? Will Cookie ever have to deal with the consequences of getting an “innocent” man killed?
On the meantime, back to listening to my TV-inspired iPod playlists…