The unlikely MVP of summer TV
I didn’t stop watching it. I did stop hating it, sort of.
Rock Star: Supernova isn’t the grand social experiment that Rock Star: INXS was, mostly because nobody died to make it possible and because nobody has to pull off the grand PR coup of convincing the world that a faded group of mediocre supporting players were a legendary band. Rock Star: INXS was just a bit much to handle; on the scale of ridiculous attention-grabbing reality-show stunts, it was only a notch or two lower than the competing-races season of Survivor. Stunts like this usually work, and Rock Star: INXS drew bigger ratings than any show about INXS had any right to. This season’s ratings have been steadily improving, but it’s still not drawing as many viewers as last year’s show, and that probably has something to do with its general lack of shock appeal. It’s a weirdly compelling moment whenever a band replaces its dead frontman, but nobody had ever attempted a stunt as garish as the one INXS managed when it replaced Michael Hutchence in the tackiest way possible. I didn’t watch much of last year’s season, possibly because I just couldn’t handle that level of tastelessness. But this year’s season is only slightly less tasteless, and it’s completely sucked me in.
In the column I wrote about this season immediately after its debut, I had a whole lot of problems with the show’s concept and execution: nobody gives half a shit about Tommy Lee or Jason Newsted or Gilby Clarke, none of them is willing to step up and play the asshole Simon Cowell role, we never learn anything about the connections between the songs and the people singing them. A few months later, every one of those objections has slowly fallen away. Tommy Lee is basically still a giant clown, and he seems to be involved in a hard-fought war with Dave Navarro over who can manage the most cringeworthy shirtlessness. Jason Newsted isn’t too much better; he wears fingerless gloves every single night, and his criticisms never advance much beyond his constant entreaties to “open up your throat” or “crush it” or sometimes “open up your throat and crush it.” But Gilby Clarke actually comes off as being totally articulate and smart and likable. He seems to know exactly what he’s looking for in a singer, and he’s willing to absolutely shit on the singers who can’t seem to figure that out. When he’s not feeling a performance, he watches it with a hilarious hangdog blankness. He’s pretty much the only person in the show’s two-season history who I wouldn’t mind having over for dinner, and he’s more responsible than anyone else for the show’s consistent tolerability. The contestants generally don’t say a whole lot about how much the songs mean to them, but it’s almost better that way. They’re all competing to be hood-ornaments, after all, not frontmen of actual functioning rock bands. When they do have emotional connections with the songs, it’s generally pretty embarrassing. A well-sung version of “Baba O’Reilly” is infinitely more enjoyable than a contestant sending “Every Breath You Take” out to her estranged mother. In its way, this show is as much about technique as American Idol is (though it’s depressingly tolerant of the sort of post-grunge mewling that went out when the world realized how much it hated Creed); whenever the contestants get to sing their own originals, they’re invariably totally forgettable.
And it certainly helps that the show has weeded out almost all of its most unbearable contestants. It was a great day when they finally decided to send home the smirking coffeehouse fratboy Josh, who somehow managed to stick around for a long-ass time by insisting that he had “soul” and that the band could use some of this “soul.” The finale is next week, and right now the only absolute pariah remaining is the hulking Australian goofball Toby Rand, whose greatest moment came last night, when he dedicated a song to the Crocodile Hunter. Reality shows are like that: you start out hating everyone, but everyone is competing against everyone else, so you figure out your favorites and gradually come to actually like them. And everyone who’s left can actually sing and perform credibly. The show’s played-out flames-and-leather fashion was initially a pretty huge stumbling block; it made it damn near impossible to take these people seriously. But then, you don’t really need to take these people seriously, and the oversized sunglasses and purple fake eyelashes don’t grate as horribly after a few weeks. Right now, the show only has a couple of big problems: its apparently severely limited song-choices and its treatment of its female contestants. I don’t know if they could only get the rights to a certain number of songs, but the singers seem to pick the same songs over and over, and it’s getting tiresome. Nobody’s tried Zeppelin or Sabbath yet, but we’ve been treated to something like five versions of “White Wedding,” and it’s getting to be a bit much. And both Dave Navarro, the show’s cohost, and Tommy Lee are always making skeezy old-man comments about every single girl on the show; Navarro seriously calls girls “honey.” It’s gross.
Supernova the band will lose its relevance at the exact moment when it picks a singer. Supergroups in general tend to feel like thrown-together nonentities, last-ditch attempts for their members to make a few bucks before fading away altogether; this one is a made-for-TV supergroup, and it’s hard to imagine anyone giving much of a shit about it. The few songs they’ve debuted on the show have all been thoroughly unremarkable. The people on the show are all competing to be the singer of this band, and it doesn’t seem like much of a prize. The journey here is a lot more interesting than the destination; I almost wish nobody ended up winning this thing. This show might be just another step on rock music’s journey toward cultural obsolescence and empty pantomime, but it’s not like there’s been anything better on TV this summer.
Voice review: Joy Press on Rock Star: INXS