Rock Star: INXS

There was once a sitcom about a talking orangutan who becomes a Washington political adviser. A Roseanne Barr children’s cartoon was produced. One recently aborted reality show featured three white, Christian, Republican families eliminating minority households as potential neighbors. With such stiff competition out there, it was astounding when CBS last year announced what sounded like a shoo-in for worst idea for a TV show of all time: a competition to find a new lead singer for INXS, the 80s band whose front man, Michael Hutchence, hanged himself in 1997 in what many believe was an attempt at autoerotic asphyxiation.

It sounded so bad I had to watch it at least once. And much to my surprise, it was good. Rock Star: INXS, now in its fourth week, comes closer to capturing the energy of live rock ‘n’ roll than any other program I’ve ever seen on television. Unlike American Bandstand and its ilk, where the fun is partly in the absurdity of lip-synching, unlike Saturday Night Live, where the musicians are disconnected from the studio audience, this is a show built around dynamic live musical performances.

The premise is this: 15 singers are brought to a Hollywood mansion where they socialize, participate in clinics, and rehearse. Every week, each performs a cover in a rock club in front of a live audience; former Jane’s Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro, their “rock mentor”; and a panel made up of the surviving members of INXS. Viewers in the U.S., the UK, Canada, Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Hong Kong, and Australia pick their favorites online or via text messaging, and then the three contestants with the fewest votes perform INXS songs for the INXS guys, who decide who goes home.

Obviously the model for the show is American Idol, but what makes Rock Star compelling are the ways it’s different from Idol. Idol has age restrictions–originally contestants had to be 16-26, though last season the cap was raised to 28–while most of the singers on Rock Star are in their late 20s or their 30s. They’re rock-club veterans like Tara Slone, a Canadian vocalist whose band the Joydrops was briefly signed to Tommy Boy in the mid-90s, or Chicago’s Marty Casey, whose band the Lovehammers has been a Double Door fave for most of the past decade. Some of them even list their day job as “musician.” Auditions, good or bad, aren’t part of the show; there’s no time wasted lampooning the pathetic.

Rock Star dangles the predictable carrots in front of its contestants: they’re served chocolate-covered strawberries and champagne, and they’re shown montages of INXS performing for massive crowds. (Bizarrely, Hutchence has mostly been edited out of the footage.) But the main fantasies the show promotes are the same fantasies engaged in by anyone who plays in, or goes to see, local acts at local clubs: All the bands are gonna be good tonight. I look cool in what I’m wearing. Smoking won’t give me cancer. Drinking makes me more charming. (One stiff Rock Star performer was actually encouraged to consider hard liquor.) As a result the show mostly ends up being about the visceral joy of being onstage or in the crowd at a rock show at a human-scale venue. The performances are shot from the perspective of the front row of a packed club, and the cameras capture the energy of the crowd as well as the performance they’re watching. When Aussie pretty boy Mig Ayesa punctuates his version of the Kinks’ “Lola” with some Axl Rose strut and a dramatic drop to the knees, the audience erupts with excitement.

Also, instead of being backed by anonymous studio hacks (in season two, American Idol had Ruben Studdard singing “Sweet Home Alabama” over backing tracks that might as well have been emanating from an ice cream truck) the Rock Star contestants get to front an amazingly talented live band. That they can even play Queen’s “We Are the Champions” convincingly is impressive, but these dudes can also sing the harmonies. They’re some of the industry’s top hired guns (their resumes include stints with huge mainstream acts as diverse as Whitesnake, Cher, Natalie Cole, and Pink) but they don’t sound slick or clinical. Not only does the show not come across as a karaoke contest, it doesn’t even feel like you’re watching a cover band. Since the singers often work out their own arrangements (Mig’s “Lola” was slightly reggaefied), it’s more like walking in on a real band that happens to do a few covers.

Whether by design or accident, the show has little of the cutthroat attitude of The Apprentice or Survivor, two successful reality shows from some of the same people behind Rock Star. When the would-be Hutchences on the side of the stage rock out as their rivals perform they don’t seem to be masking jealousy or faking enthusiasm. Grinning ear to ear, banging their heads, pumping their fists, these people who have spent countless hours in rock clubs watching shitty bands seem to genuinely appreciate how good their colleagues are. When the INXS members offer feedback before reciting the least-likely-to-catch-on catchphrase ever (“You’re just not right for our band . . . INXS”), they seem sincere; at their most critical, they’re constructive. What they are seeking is so specific (no matter how good, should a woman or a mohawked black giant front INXS?) that they can earnestly praise and dismiss someone simultaneously. And when the discharged singers graciously respond by thanking the show for the exposure, I don’t think they’re bullshitting. These are pragmatic professional rockers. They seem to understand that a few weeks on national TV has likely turned a $200-in-your-pocket club gig into a $400-in-your-pocket club gig. “If he doesn’t win,” says Lovehammers bassist Dino Kourelis of his bandmate, “I assume we’ll make more money. But what’s happening already is that we’re getting a lot of cool attention. Over 700 people a day are checking out our Web site and listening to our songs, and we’re getting e-mails that say things like ‘I hope he doesn’t win it, I like your music better than INXS’s.'”

With its positive, even mature vibe, Rock Star is an aberration in a television landscape that markets cruelty to teenyboppers. The show’s biggest problem isn’t its absurd premise but rather its limited appeal. Everyone wants to be famous, but to be 36 years old and still playing Wednesday nights at the Empty Bottle is a fate unimaginable by most teen viewers. And older viewers who’ve never been part of a music scene may wonder why on earth everyone’s being so nice to one another. If the show is going to make it through this season and into the next (Rock Star: Nirvana? Rock Star: The Crickets?), it may need to embrace one more rock ‘n’ roll cliche: sadly, this Rock Star might need to get itself a bad-boy attitude.

Jake Austen is the author of TV-a-Go-Go: Rock on TV From American Bandstand to American Idol, out this week from Chicago Review Press/A Cappella.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/courtesy of CBS.