Just as Star Search faded to black in the 90s, VH1 brought us Bands on the Run, a rock & roll-meets-Survivor type contest (anyone remember Flickerstick?). Soon after, the American Idol concept crossed the Atlantic and, well, damn near changed everything. And that ain't a good thing.
Suddenly, it no longer takes 10-plus years of blood, sweat and tears to become an "overnight sensation." All that's required is landing a spot on a hyped-to-the-max television show that's little more than an elaborate karaoke contest. Now, nearly everyone's in on the act: P. Diddy decided to make the band, Sharon and Ozzy led the battle for Ozzfest, Missy Elliot hit the road to stardom and others continue cashing in. So it was no surprise when one of the kings of reality TV, Mark Burnett (executive producer of Survivor and creator of The Apprentice), brought us Rock Star: INXS.
The concept was simple enough: find a new lead singer for INXS, a band who lost frontman Michael Hutchence unexpectedly to suicide in 1997. And what'd they have to lose? Besides a couple of career retrospectives, INXS hadn't released a new CD since Hutchence's death. Still, over the course of their 25-year-career, this Australian-based group has sold more than 30 million albums worldwide and performed more than 4,000 live shows for more than 25 million people in almost 50 countries. Could reality TV restore the band's success and really create a new rock star? Well, it all depends on whom you ask.
Of course, some folks in the music biz want nothing to do with a show like this or any other for that matter. But American audiences have obviously tuned in -- strong enough for Burnett to have Rock Star: The Series (part 2) already in the works.
Among rockbiz skeptics, longtime band manager Mark Zenow (Cowboy Mouth, Weekend Excursion) thinks that because Rock Star: INXS followed so many other music reality concepts, it didn't have much to offer.
"An original idea, whether farfetched or cool, often ends up being better than any copycat version," Zenow says. "So while American Idol may be extremely popular with certain viewers, I'm not a big fan of many of the shows that came after it. "I mean I liked INXS back in the day, but don't have much interest in what they're doing today," he adds.
Chuck Morrison, founder of Charlotte-based MoRisen Records, hated the show. "My initial thought was this was a cheesy idea. And, after tuning in for five seconds, I still thought it was a cheesy idea," he says.
But what do you do when you're a highly successful band and your lead singer turns up dead one day? "That's about the worst thing that could happen to a band," says Zenow. "The singer is often the identity of a band. I would think that situation would be next to impossible to recover from. But then you realize there are many lives which depend upon the success of the band, and you have to begin to put the business back into action...As they say: the show must go on."
"I could see why the band would do the show," offers local singer-songwriter Carey Sims. "I mean who was going to care if INXS got a new lead singer? A lot of people I talk to who are in their 20s didn't even know who INXS was, but now, since they did this show, they kinda re-identified themselves." Sims adds: "I can't really blame 'em for that. It's the nature of this business."
In fact, Sims auditioned at the local tryouts. "I wanted to do it because I held INXS on a pedestal," he explains. "It wasn't like Quiet Riot was looking for a new lead singer, this was INXS and to me, if I had a chance to take a swing at a home run pitch why shouldn't I take it?"
However, what Sims expected and what went down at the audition didn't jibe. "They were nice, but it wasn't the environment I was expecting," he says. "One of the crew even said, 'It doesn't matter how good you can sing, this is a TV show.'
"It was definitely more along the lines of American Idol than I thought it would be," Sims says. "And once I saw a little bit of the show I was really glad not to be involved."
Despite the criticism, Rock Star spawned a CD, a DVD and a world tour featuring the band with new lead singer/new sensation, J.D. Fortune. Switch, INXS' latest, peaked at No. 17 on the Billboard album charts. As for the tour, most dates are sold out, including the Charlotte stop.
"It doesn't surprise me the show here sold out," quips Morrison. "The herd will follow. And that is what's sad, because these are the same people who don't support local music." He adds: "Local music, what my bands are doing, that's true reality not some kind of forced reality that you can watch on TV."
INXS performs Tuesday, Feb. 21, at Ovens Auditorium. Marty Casey & Lovehammers open. As we mentioned, the show is sold out. Rock Star: The Series, however, returns to CBS this summer. If you're interested, the closest auditions take place on March 6 at Atlanta's Hard Rock Café.