Monday, November 07, 2005

Rock Star – reality TV in excess

reality bites

Every once in a while, a star is born, destined to dazzle everyone who catches a glimpse of it, only to disappear just as quickly as it emerged. And Michael Hutchence was the very personification of this phenomenon. The main force behind the rise (and subsequent fall) of his band INXS, Hutchence was a captivating frontman, the likes of which are very hard to come by, and his untimely death effectively marked the end for INXS – or so we thought. Just like Alice In Chains, The Doors, Nirvana, and many other bands that have lost their vocalist, no one expected to hear from INXS again, but then a reality TV mogul stepped in. Mark Burnett saw the chance of cashing in on the opportunity and selling some more mindless junk in the name of reality television, and Rock Star was born. First season: INXS.

Elegantly wasted
The story of INXS began in Sydney in 1977 when high school buddies Michael Hutchence and Andrew Farriss started a band called The Farriss Brothers with Garry Gary Beers, Kirk Pengilly and Andrew's brothers Tim and Jon. They eventually changed the band's name to INXS, just prior to the release of their self–titled debut album and first single 'Simple Simon'. Their international breakthrough came a couple of albums later in the form of their 1987 release 'Kick' that included the single 'Need You Tonight', the band's biggest hit to date. INXS was at the peak of its success during the late 80s and early 90s, but interest in the band soon dwindled and their popularity waned. A couple of commercially unsuccessful albums followed, and their comeback album, 1997's 'Elegantly Wasted', had just come out when tragedy struck and Hutchence was found hanging in a hotel room in Sydney. And it's been a downward spiral for the surviving members of the band since then.

Calling all nations
After Hutchence's death, INXS tried to continue with various temporary vocalists, including ex–Noiseworks singer Jon Stevens, who appeared with the band at the closing ceremony of the Sydney Olympics in a performance that went largely unnoticed by the international audience. Jon was officially named a member of INXS in 2002 but left in 2003, after recording just one song with the band. In 2004, INXS announced that they were going to find a new vocalist for the band through a reality television show called 'Rock Star: INXS'. Chosen by the band from all over the world, and housed in a Hollywood mansion, 15 contestants were to vie for the position of the band's lead singer. The show turned out to be everything that an INXS fan would label cringe worthy.

Fabricate. Emulate.
Irrespective of the mess his personal life turned out to be, Michael Hutchence was, without a doubt, one of the most charismatic frontman the world has ever seen. So the mere idea of having a whole Big Brother meets American Idol setting to find someone to fill Hutchence's shoes was enough to generate ridicule. But that didn't stop the surviving members of INXS from lurching clumsily down that road.
The news that INXS had signed on to do 'Rock Star' was met with disbelief, so the fact that the show initially generated low ratings hardly came as a surprise, and it's quite easy to see why the show got such a lukewarm response. To begin with, many have argued whether a reality TV show (and all the melodrama that comes with it) is a legitimate way for a rock band to find a new lead singer. Whatever happened to good old non–televised auditions that bands normally have? And to someone who isn't a big fan of covers, the very concept of the show appears to be highly flawed. Just how does the performance of cover versions of Rolling Stones, Queen, and Radiohead tracks merit a place as the frontman of INXS? And why would the rest of us want to hear someone else's rendition of a Pink Floyd classic when we (thankfully) have the original version?
Here's yet another thing that was wrong with the show – the hosts. Everything from Brooke Burke's outfits (or lack thereof), to her shrieking voice and tendency to over-pronounce every proper noun that appeared on the teleprompter, left one cursing the person who had picked her as the host. And one could easily spend half the show wondering what former Red Hot Chili Peppers and Jane's Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro was doing there. They might as well have had Carmen Electra along with Dave instead of Brooke. It would've made more sense anyway.
As for the competition, well, as with all television shows, we'll never know if they even considered the votes or if the bottom three were actually determined by the viewers, not that it really mattered – look closely and you'll see how the outcome of the show was completely under the band's control at all times.

Old world, new world
The contestants on the show were a mixed bag. Some of them could transform a pop song into a haunting rock anthem, but, highlighting the pitfall of the plan, the others could just as easily make a rock classic sound like a pop ditty. And it finally came down to choosing between a former Elvis impersonator, a theater performer, and someone who has been termed the 'mad conductor'. Yeah, a really tough decision indeed.
Sarcasm aside, it was hard to picture most of these contestants fronting INXS, and it came as little surprise when, after everyone else had been told that they were 'just not right for the band', Jason Dean Bennison a.k.a. J.D. Fortune was chosen as the winner. Quite obviously, the fans of the other fourteen contestants weren't all too pleased about it, and conspiracy theorists even allege that JD had been chosen long before the show's finale, and that 'Rock Star' was nothing more than a publicity ploy by the now forgotten INXS members to return to the public eye. And in all honesty, I really can't think of any other reason the band would attach themselves to such a show either.

Are you ready for a new sensation?
So whether we like it or not, J.D. Fortune is the new vocalist of INXS, and their new album, 'Switch', their first album in eight years, will be out on November 29th. But I still think the surviving members of INXS should've moved on – in their own lives and in their own ways - just like so many others have. Look at how Joy Division morphed into New Order after Ian Curtis' suicide, and how Nirvana gave way to the Foo Fighters and Sweet 75. Perhaps it would have been better to bow out gracefully.
Quite predictably, the majority of those who followed the first season of 'Rock Star' were completely indifferent to INXS and more interested in the contestants than in the band. As for the INXS fans, they really don't want to listen to the back catalogue in someone else's voice, and they didn't want this show. Sure there was the "nostalgia from the time that INXS was at top of their game", as Dave Navarro put it, but the show left a bitter aftertaste for those of us who actually saw the band in its prime. Then again, it's obvious that the show wasn't aimed for that faction. For them there is no INXS without Michael Hutchence. And the 'new look' INXS might turn out to be a 'new sensation', but that's exactly what it'll be: a 'new sensation', not what we knew as INXS. The band has alienated a huge portion of their original fan base by doing the show, and for me, 'Rock Star: INXS' was nothing more than a marketing gimmick and a disgrace to Michael Hutchence's memory, for the INXS that we know died the day Michael Hutchence did.

- By Sameen Amer

Instep, The News - 6th November, 2005

No comments: