Spangles, top hats, affected shimmying – these are not rock ‘n’ roll items. But they are in the bright orange world of the CBS summer reality laugher “Rock Star: INXS.” 14 vocalists of various midline and also-ran renown – the former frontwoman of 90s alt rockers Joydrop, for example, or a commune-raised hippy blues howler who I swear was on “Big Brother” once – these are what the remaining members of INXS have to choose from. One will be their new lead singer, picked to replace the infamously deceased Michael Hutchence (Suicide? Well…), who on the show is always spoken of with reverence and then a pause. Yes, the man died prematurely. But to “Rock Star” he’s an intersecting apparition of Jesus and Jim Morrison. If host Brooke Burke had a 40, she’d pour a little out on her Edmundo Castillos. The godhead eulogizing of Hutchence and the contestants’ high wattage rock affectations (expect plenty of mascara abuse and no shirt/vest combos) are part of the show’s overplayed sense. But figure in the usual amounts of forced reality TV drama – “Have you ever heard of nodules?” one hopeful asks another with vindictive concern in her eyes – and it’s difficult to see how any of this will land INXS a legitimate lead vocalist. Still, in the fallows of summertime programming, “Rock Star” is better than a “Two and a Half Men” marathon.
On the show, the hopefuls perform obvious classic rock and alternative era nuggets for a crowd of busty ringers seemingly imported from the “Hit Me Baby” set. They SCREAM with rabid enthusiasm for each contestant – it’s just like the adulation for, say, Glass Tiger on “Hit Me Baby,” and just as suspect. Burke appears periodically in curvy fringe to say things like “That rocked,” “This guy rocks,” and “Are you ready to rock?,” and INXS themselves sit on a raised platform out in the room, which resembles a rock club version of Jabba’s lair on Tatooine. They observe the contestants’ performances with the house band, who play with the precision and lack of soul unique to studio professionals, and after each abbreviated version of “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” or “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” advise with the usual “Watch your pitch” Randy Jacksonisms.
There’s always a mansion in reality TV, and “Rock Star” is no different. Between performances the gaggle of five o’clock shadows and exposed bra straps retire to a cavernous Spanish-style manse complete with hot tubs, drama nooks, and a view of the Hollywood Hills. They’re musicians, so acoustic guitars come out and “jam sessions” ensue; there are hugs and handshakes, but it’s creepy because you know 90% of these types will get the boot soon enough. Then again, they’re all part of the desperation fraternity (“Didn’t I see you at the “Star Search” audition?”), so some mutual respect is expected. “Rock Star” also allows viewers a vote, though it stresses that INXS will make the final decision. No word on whether exec producer Mark Burnett has been installed alongside the Farriss brothers and Kirk Pengilly’s moustache as a tambourine player/”consultant.”
And then there’s Dave Navarro. The Jane’s Addiction and RHCP guitar wailer acts as an emissary from the land of rock and articulated facial hair, helping along the contestants and making weird reactive comments to their performances like (holding up a tattooed paw) “See this? Chills, sugar, chills.” He’s kind of like Paula, only shirtless. Navarro’s a cartoon, but there’s something likable about him, too. It’s the same quality that saved his MTV show with wife Carmen Electra; it’s the “I know this is bullshit but fuck it” wink that catatonic inkblot Travis Barker never had on “Meet the Barkers.”
The guys in INXS seem sincere about this. And in the early going (the third episode airs tonight) Jordis and Brandon have the most potential behind the posturing. Her voice is effortlessly powerful, and he actually sounds a little like Hutchence. But all the contestants sing with an amplified gusto that’s out of phase with rock and roll in the 21st century. They flail wildly; they consult the stage moves manual backstage. In episode two Jessica – a blond everygirl from Chicago – actually did the running skip/shoulder shuffle combo, and a catwalk provides the dudes with ample opportunity for pelvic swagger. It’s like the producers want a general rock aesthetic, a black leather reaction to the hammy sugar of “American Idol.” Problem is, the overstated performances and shoehorned-in reality melodrama always remind us of the show’s two-dimensionality. We don’t really care who wins; the contestants are just Harlows or Soulcrackers to us, flickersticking their way through another heavyhanded reality showdown. And INXS has to live with the consequences. Good luck with all that. “Rock Star: INXS” – with this kind of sickening guilty pleasure, it’s hard to believe we need a place called hell.