On the other hand, who can argue with the almighty power of this?
I was meaning to write something about Rock Star: INXS last year, but I never got around to it, mostly because the whole spectacle was just so obvious and grotesque: middle-aged men in Matrix sunglasses and motorcycle jackets looking thoughtfully on as tatted-up kids yowled decrepit rock “classics,” a stage set so full of candles and velvet throw-rugs that you just knew someone’s job was to keep the American Idol rip-off aspect of the show from becoming too obvious, Navarro. And the whole concept was just ridiculous, especially the idea that INXS was this amazing band who only fell out of mainstream fame when their singer, one of the greatest rock stars of all time, died tragically. Michael Hutchence was a pretty good frontman with a few amazing songs (“Never Tear Us Apart” and “Need You Tonight” both earn their five-star ratings on my iPod), but the band was just a passable bunch of Aussie funk-wave supporting players, and they’d faded spectacularly long before Hutchence tried to get a little too freaky in a hotel room one night. But the show still found itself a starry-eyed cast of youngsters who really thought they were doing something amazing and important, and the show turned out to be a success whether because of genuine public interest or pure car-wreck appeal. The new INXS album didn’t sell shit, of course, but that didn’t prevent CBS from convincing another group of has-beens to humiliate themselves on TV once again.
Before the second season of Rock Star, it was fun speculating on what old singerless band would be the one to take the money; my favorite rumor was that Van Halen, whose decades-old singer problems are have reached total slapstick levels over the last few years, would be the ones sitting in the throne-chairs next to Navarro. But no, CBS has gone and put together a whole new supergroup for the occasion. The band is Supernova, and unfortunately it’s not the Supernova that did “Chewbacca” on the Clerks soundtrack. (That was a good song!) It’s a band with no visible chemistry whose most famous member is its drummer (always a bad sign) and who I can’t imagine will ever record a good song, ever. Still, it’s a band with a decent shot to be a success, at least more so than INXS 2.0. The supergroup concept has existed for decades, but in recent years it’s finally proven itself to be a decent business model, if nothing else. Audioslave and Velvet Revolver are both thoroughly workmanlike and just sort of OK, but they both sell records and tickets, and there’s not a huge credibility-gap between those three and Supernova’s assembled parts. Still, it’s a funny group. Tommy Lee is a reality-TV veteran with a proven short attention-span and no success in any non-Crue/non-porn projects he’s tried (that solo album? Methods of Mayhem?). But he’s a good drummer, a distinctive presence, and a celebrity, so that’s something, anyway. He’s looking rough on TV: pronounced wrinkles, Wolverine hair, a troubling habit of looking into cameras and lip-syncing whatever song the contestant is singing. But he’s a good fit for any pre-assembled supergroup, and you can bet VH-1 tried to land him before settling for that Bonham kid. Gilby Clarke also makes for good TV, with his handlebar mustache and visible lack of enthusiasm for the whole circus, but his status as “rock legend” is questionable at best. He’s got like five solo albums that nobody bought, he was in LA Guns for a minute, and he joined Guns N Roses when that band was already well into its tailspin. The only GNR record he actually played on was The Spaghetti Incident?, and that’s all you need to know right there. So of course he was willing to sign up for this thing; what else did he have going on? It’s like M.O.P. signing to G-Unit; it’s lame as fuck, but it’s not like they had a ton of offers on the table.
So the only real mystery here is Jason Newsted, who does not need to be doing this shit. Metallica had already done its best stuff when Newsted joined, but he still played bass on one or maybe two great albums, and he had the good sense to quit the band before they really went and fell the fuck off with St. Anger. In recent years, he’s been content to play with the universally respected art-metal band Voivod and swim around in the Scrooge McDuck money-tank he probably has in his back yard. He seemed to be living a pretty great life; he left Metallica at the exact right moment with both his bank account and his credibility intact, and now he gets to do whatever he wants. So why does he want to do this? After fifteen years with one of the most successful bands in the world, you wouldn’t think he’d need that reality-TV money unless he’s trying to buy an island or some such.
And then there are the contestants, an interchangeable gaggle of bar-band goobers doing their best to work up images that have been ridiculous since long before any of them graduated high school. After the successive takeovers of teenpop and rap, rock stars don’t really exist anymore, thank God. The ones who have stuck around are charismatic figures who have achieved mythic status by hoodwinking the world into thinking that every one of their grand, sweeping gestures actually means something; think Bono or Billie Joe Armstrong. American Idol, which Rock Star constantly bites, judges its contestants on vocal technique and stage presence, nebulous concepts but valuable ones. Rock Star judges its contestants on how well they inhabit cliched, outmoded archetypes; their goatees and piercings matter as much as their voices. The way the show works is that viewers vote contestants into the bottom three each week and then the band decides which one will be leaving. The kid who got kicked off this week sang a god-awful rendition of Coldplay’s “Yellow” and then attempted to redeem himself by doing a pretty good Killersesque version of a Duran Duran song. He was a whole hell of a lot better than the Doors-mewling competition, but the band kicked him off because of “song choice”; Duran Duran wasn’t “rock” enough, whatever that means. Right now, the two frontrunners seem to be the scary-looking girl who snarled all the vulnerability out of Nirvana’s “Lithium” and the stumpy cartoon character with enormous eyebrows who did a nu-metal take on “White Wedding” that might’ve extended Orgy’s career by a few months if they’d thought of it first. What you never learn is what the songs actually mean to the kids who sing them, why they’re all so eager to become the puppet-figurehead of a band that will never release more than one album. They all call each other “baby” and “brother” and spout meaningless platitudes about staying true to their true selves, but it’s never entirely clear what that means. The songs they sing aren’t windows to their souls; they’re opportunities for pantomime.
CBS is putting a lot of faith into this monstrosity, somehow finding a way to stretch its opening across two nights and two and a half hours. And it’ll probably pay off; this stuff does make for compelling TV, and it’s hard to look away from people who are trying so hard in an enterprise so misguided, even if the show is really hurting for lack of a Simon Cowell figure willing to criticize the contestants with more than vague toothlessness. I’ll keep watching, and I’ll keep hating it.
Voice review: Joy Press on Rock Star: INXS