What's wrong with Treme?

HBO’s Treme returns for a third series later this month, but will anyone watch it?

Treme, David Simon’s follow-up to The Wire, will return for a third series in the US later this month. The show, which tracks the efforts of New Orleanians (in particular musicians) to rebuild their city in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, has been celebrated by the majority of TV critics, yet continues to suffered abysmal viewing figures.

On average only 25,000 people tuned in to watch series two on Sky Atlantic in the UK. As with other HBO shows such as Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Sopranos, the show is expected to fare better in DVD box set sales. But given the pseudo-religious zeal with which devotees consumed and spread The Wire, the question emerges why such a large gulf has opened between “a true gift, a way to finally appreciate and embrace one of our most beloved but neglected cities” (Salon.com) and an audience who are failing to take note.

Treme is slower and noticeably more lush and light of touch than its predecessor. It also has a lot more music. “The music in Treme is like Chinese water torture. It’s death by jazz”, writes The Mirror’s TV critic Jim Shelley, who calls aspects of the show “dull”, “annoying and – characteristically of Simon – elitist”. Simon operates with the same level of affectionate fastidiousness Martin Scorsese does in his documentaries on blues music and the history of cinema. And as ever, his dictum remains: “Fuck the casual viewer.” The former Baltimore Sun journalist clearly admires New Orleans for its ballsy rhythms and carnival culture. “Music – unstructured, unfiltered, spontaneous and sometimes discordant – is, after all, what first made the world take note of New Orleans,” writes USA Today’s Robert Bianco, praising the show’s treatment of the city.

In Treme, Simon and his writing team have utilised real New Orleans stories from the six years following Katrina to form the “spine” of the show and create a “singular and elemental” experience. It is unlike anything else on television in terms of scope and ambition. But even admirers will need to stand back in order to appreciate the show’s overall architecture. The scene-to-scene movement has been criticised as slow and frustrating, cutting away from moments of intense drama to catch up on less pressing matters and keep the whole ensemble busy.

In 2010 the 80-minute pilot attracted a measly 65,000 viewers (a 0.5% share). This despite a press campaign the likes of which The Wire could never have imagined. Yet this is significant and in no way a judgment on the show. Most people had made the decision not to tune in before the show had even started.

Simon has revealed that he and co-creator Eric Overmyer have written story arcs taking Treme’s characters as far as a fourth and maybe even fifth series – covering the BP oil spill, the election of city mayor Mitch Landrieu and historic Super Bowl victory by the New Orleans Saints. “We want David to finish his novel,” HBO’s co-president Richard Plepler said over the summer. “When he tells us he’s finished with his artistic expression of this, that’s when we’re done, and then we’ll turn to him and say, ‘What’s next?’”.

Perhaps the problem arises from using Simon’s other projects, which also include The Corner and Generation Kill, as a measure of his current one. Treme is far better than most of the schlock on TV, and is far more ambitious and insightful than the latest period drama or improbable cop show carefully devised by a committee at the BBC. Treme must grow if it is to survive, but viewers need to persevere in order to enjoy its fruits. They need to give it a chance. The figures reveal most of us still haven’t.

Treme co-creators Eric Overmyer and David Simon get ready for Mardi Gras. Photograph: Getty Images.

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Women don’t make concept albums: how BBC Four’s When Pop Went Epic erases popular music’s diverse history

Why are the only albums blessed with the grandiose description of “conceptual” the ones made by white men?

Tonight, BBC Four airs a documentary exploring the history of the concept album called When Pop Went Epic: The Crazy World of the Concept Album. Presented by prog rock veteran Rick Wakeman, the programme set out to “examine the roots of the concept album in its various forms”, as well as cycling through the greatest examples of the musical phenomenon.

“Tracing the story of the concept album is like going through a maze,” says dear old Rick incredulously, while ambling round a literal maze on screen, just so we fully get the symbolism. But if the history of concept albums is a labyrinth, Wakeman has chosen a gymnastic route through it, one filled with diversions and shortcuts that studiously avoid the diversity of the format’s history. He imagines the concept album to begin with Woody Guthrie’s 1940s record about poverty and class struggle in America, Dust Bowl Ballads, following on with Frank Sinatra’s Only the Lonely (1958) and The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1966), before moving on to big hitters like Sgt Pepper and Tommy. It quickly seems apparent that the first albums blessed with the grandiose description “conceptual” are the ones made by white men, and Wakeman’s history credits them with inventing the form.

What about Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige (1943-58), a history of American blackness? Miles Davis’s Milestones, a 1958 LP-length experiment with modal harmonies? Sun Ra’s particular blend of science fiction and Egyptian mythology on albums like The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra (1961)? When Wakeman reaches what he considers to be the first from a black artist, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On , he notes that it “comes from a musical culture where the concept album was quite alien”.

Certainly, Motown was a towering monument to the power of the single, not the album, but we know that one of Gaye’s greatest inflences was Nat King Cole: why not mention his 1960 concept album, centring  on a protagonist’s varied attempts to find The One, Wild Is Love? Wakeman does recognise the importance of black concept albums, from Parliament’s Mothership Connection to Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, but his history suggest black concept albums begin with Gaye, who is building on the work of his white predecessors.

It takes rather longer for Wakeman to pay his respects to any conceptual woman. 53 minutes into this 59 minute documentary, we discover our first concept album by a woman: Lady Gaga’s The Fame. The only other female artist discussed is Laura Marling, who, perhaps not coincidentally, is also a talking head on the documentary. That’s two albums by women out of the 25 discussed, given cursory attention in the last five minutes of the programme. It feels like a brief footnote in the epic history of conceptual albums.

Jean Shepherd’s Songs of a Love Affair is perhaps the earliest example of a female-led concept album that springs to my mind. A chronological narrative work exploring the breakdown of a marriage following an affair, it was released in 1956: Shepherd has a whole two years on Sinatra. Perhaps this is a little obscure, but far more mainstream and influential works are equally passed over: from themed covers albums like Mavis Staples’ duet record Boy Meets Girl to more conventionally conceptual works.

The Seventies was a decade that did not solely belong to pasty men rambling about fantasy worlds. Female-fronted concept albums flourished, from Manhole by Grace Slick, conceived as a soundtrack to a non-existent movie of the same name (1974) and Joni Mitchell’s mediations on travel in Hejira (1976), to Bjork’s debut, an Icelandic covers album (1977), and Heart’s Dog & Butterfly (1978).

The Eighties were no different, featuring gems like Grace Jones’ Slave to the Rhythm (1985), which pulled a single track into a wild variety of different songs; the Japanese distorted vocal experiment Fushigi by Akina Nakamori (1986), and Kate Bush’s playful faithfulness to A and B sides of a record, producing “The Ninth Wave” as a kind of mini concept album on Hounds of Love (1985).

Wakeman skips over the Nineties in his programme, arguing that conceptual works felt hackneyed and uncool at this time; but the decade is peppered with women making thematically unified works from Madonna’s Erotica (1992) to Hole’s mediations on physical beauty and trauma, Live Through This (1994) and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998).

Since then, women arguably led the field of conceptual albums, whether through the creation of alter egos in works like Marina and the Diamonds’ Electra Heart, Beyoncé’s I Am… Sasha Fierce or through focusing on a very specific theme, like Kate Bush’s 50 Words for Snow or in their storytelling, like Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown and Aimee Mann’s The Forgotten Arm. Wakeman includes no black women artists in his programme, but today, black women are making the most experimental and influential conceptual records in modern pop, from Janelle Monáe and Kelis to Erykah Badu, and, of course, Beyoncé. It’s no coincidence that Lemonade, which would have been considered an abstract conceptual album from a male artist, was immediately regarded as a confessional piece by most tabloids. This issue extends far beyond one documentary, embedded in the fabric of music writing even today.

Of course, concept album is a slippery term that is largely subjective and impossible to strictly define: many will not agree that all my examples count as truly conceptual. But in his programme, Wakeman laments that the phrase should be so narrowly defined, saddened that “the dreaded words ‘the concept album’ probably conjure up visions of straggly-haired rockers jabbering on about unicorns, goblins and the end of the world”. Unfortunately, he only confirms this narrative with a self-serving programme that celebrates his musical peers and friends, and ignores the pioneers who would bring variety and colour to his limited classification. 

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.