Go Ahead, Tear Us Apart

Reality TV turns pop has-beens into fascinating punch lines.

Rock School Cinematheque Screens Thursday and Sunday
They need you tonight: The currently rudderless INXS.
They need you tonight: The currently rudderless INXS.
As CBS recently informed us, "All reality is not created equal." Apparently, reality involving celebrities is far, far more entertaining; reality that exploits the vast archive of pop music for its schemes is best of all. Numerous TV shows of the latter type have turned up this summer, and though none of them qualifies as "good," they're substantially more thought-provoking than counterparts that involve mating as their central narrative device.

Although this will probably prove a short-lived TV trend -- after all, only so many pop has-beens are willing to participate -- two things make these shows bearable. First off, the "stars" involved (Vanilla Ice, say) are both more prepared for and more worthy of our ridicule, thus making laughing at them feel somehow less mean-spirited. The other, more complicated appeal has to do with America's collective horror at the twin crimes of failure and aging. On every reality-TV show that uses rock music, this fear is put on display and made humorous. American lives, after all, are supposed to have no second acts, but reality TV can hand 'em out right and left.

From American Idol (in which wide-eyed 18-year-olds give empty renditions of 30-year-old hits) to Tommy Lee Goes to College (in which the 45-year-old rocker attempts to stay awake in physics class and tries out for the University of Nebraska drill team), TV has chosen in every instance to pit age against youth in an unwinnable battle. The subtext is always the same: Time waits for no man, but it hounds rock stars even more aggressively. This point is driven home repeatedly on everything from UPN's Britney and Kevin: Chaotic (in which the title characters perform debasing acts of ordinariness, in a desperate attempt to short-circuit their incipient loss of popularity) to Bravo's Being Bobby Brown (in which an aging teen sex symbol and/or punch line embraces both Whitney Houston and his status as a has-been).

But the absolute apex of this trend is CBS' Rock Star INXS, with 15 contestants vying for the role of the once-mighty Australian band's new lead singer. This prize is hardly worth the effort: INXS peaked in 1987, and the band's hopes of ever charting again died (of alleged autoerotic asphyxiation) with sexy frontman Michael Hutchence a decade later.

You'd assume that people who want to be lead singer of a 30-year-old band ought to share that band's age bracket (between 50 and 60, say). Instead, CBS has culled a bunch of really skinny, pretty people in their early 20s, who are strangely adept at singing songs written before they were born. For the premiere, almost all the contestants madly gyrated their bescarved hips while belting out a classic-rock song and were subsequently judged by INXS' Methuselah-like Tim Farriss and, for no apparent reason, Dave Navarro (who had his own MTV reality series with wife Carmen Electra earlier this year). Only two would-be Hutchences sang songs popularized in the '90s -- Mig, who attempted "Smells Like Teen Spirit," was roundly whacked by Navarro for attempting to sound modern.

Still, there is one thing more pathetic than a perfectly presentable young person trying to join a dinosaur band, and that's when a dinosaur attempts to impersonate a young person. Behold NBC's riotous, recently wrapped Hit Me Baby One More Time, which brought together forgotten artists of the past and pitted them against the present. The show featured an increasingly obscure list of acts -- Sophie B. Hawkins, Irene Cara, Glass Tiger, Wang Chung, and Tommy Tutone, to name but a few -- who performed their one hit, then returned later to sing something more, ahem, "modern." (Howard Jones performed a Dido number, while Vanilla Ice opted for Destiny's Child's "Survivor.") Then the audience selected a winner. (PM Dawn took top honors this season.) Between these short performances, viewers were treated to brief "Where Are They Now?" video biographies, in which said artists told us how they've spent the last 20 years trying to recapture their short-lived glory.

Hit Me Baby often reverberated with something slightly deeper than camp, but it never got more surreal than the time Cameo -- the sleazy R&B/funk outfit that slithered through the '70s and mid-'80s -- chose, as its modern hit, "1985," by Blink-182 sound-alike Bowling for Soup. The song is a "Glory Days" for mall rats: "She was gonna be an actress/She was gonna be a star/She was gonna shake her ass/On the hood of Whitesnake's car," Bowling for Soup sings in the snotty tones of hip twentysomethings who will never age. "She hates time/Make it stop/When did Mötley Crüe become classic rock?/Where's the miniskirt made of snakeskin?/And who's the other guy that's singing in Van Halen?" (Or INXS, for that matter.)

"1985" has a single message: Yesterday's fashion, music, and culture sound funny to a new generation. But sung by a bunch of guys who actually embodied the fashion, music, and culture of 1985 -- a group of soul singers who smooth the tune into a sappy ballad -- the hilarious meta-irony of it all was unbearable. This show is reality TV at its best: high-concept, low-budget, and thoroughly suffused with wacky, incidental brilliance. We all love a contest. We all love old songs we know but barely remember. And we all love to laugh. Furthermore, there's nothing funnier than old people trying to sound young.

But shows like this also address a problem concert promoters have grappled with for years: Ticket sales continue to plummet, thanks to the steady decline in consistent star power, which in turn results from the music industry's preference for flashy, single-hit bandwagon acts (Spin Doctors, say, or Third Eye Blind) over artists with true staying power. Hit Me Baby gives the many minor (but not necessarily unworthy) artists the industry produced since 1985 a venue that is far more beneficial to both audience and artist. Now, instead of shelling out $15 to see acts like PM Dawn, Sophie B. Hawkins, or Howard Jones at the rib cook-off, we get to see these has-beens publicly humiliated in the privacy of our own homes. Granted, it's a mixed blessing, but at least we don't have to pay parking fees and Ticketmaster charges for the privilege of finding out that time waits for no one.

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