Rock for the young at heart

Special to The Times

IF you’d told me just a few years ago that there’d be a TV show, one on which singers compete to replace Michael Hutchence in INXS less than a decade after his suicide by hanging, I would have laughed. Or maybe cried. And if you’d told me I wouldn’t be able to stop watching it, I might have hit you.

But yes. Three nights a week, the five surviving (for now) mid-40-ish members of INXS, three of whom have the worst examples of facial hair in recent memory, and their guitarist buddy Dave Navarro adjudicate the rock-god-ness of 15 young emulators. The winner will, the band claims, go on tour and join them in their super-famous, glamorous lifestyle. (That INXS still had any money and could fill a stadium has come as a surprise to some.)

The contestants, at this point, range across a spectrum. At one end is Jordis Unga; striking, talented and also young, anxious and untested. At the other is J.D. Fortune: He has great abs, an impressive pelvis grind, and you can practically watch his ambition eating him alive. (On his weblog, he recently wrote that “Growing up I always believed that I would go somewhere. I remember many nights crying myself to sleep because I had come so close to my dreams only to have them vanish before my eyes.” Enough said.)

For the most part, the contestants the show rounded up are poseurs who apparently never met a microphone they wouldn’t slobber on. (Although now midway through the show, the extreme cases have been eliminated.) But it isn’t poor Hutchence they’re imitating; it’s the look and sound of rock itself.


The reason they have to imitate is that rock ‘n’ roll as we once knew it is beyond dead. And the reason I can’t stop watching “Rock Star: INXS” is that, well, I miss rock. Watching these junior anthropologists struggle to reenact rituals invented before they were out of grade school -- and sometimes succeeding -- calls to mind a million things long gone: blue hair, abundant psychedelics, passing out on golf courses, smoking on public transportation....

But the show isn’t intended to deliver real rock antics; instead we get an onslaught of commercial packaging. The show is wildly over-blogged. An official site,, has a blog and message boards. has blogs on which the band members type. The show’s MSN partnership site has contestant blogs -- and even Verizon-branded ringtones.

Nothing feels less “rock” than over-promotion, but evidently some marketing wunderkind told them some horse-pucky about how “Blogs are the future.”

But still, there’s a nostalgia to the show that the fresh-faced contestants aren’t quite aware of. For those of us in our 30s, it’s like traveling to a beach vacation town where the bars play happy ‘70s disco, punky ‘80s new wave. Even the music one hated back then sounds great now -- because it sounds like you’re young again.


As a TV show, though, it’s failing for a simple enough reason: Because the contestants have to sell the idea to INXS that they’d make good, happy bandmates, the show lacks drama. That absence is so apparent that the show’s episode slated for Monday night, the “behind the scenes episode” where the reality-show shenanigans would normally take place, recently and untraditionally moved from CBS to VH1, where it will air on Sundays.

And yet on a recent episode, Unga overcame her young nerves; she nearly burst into tears during her stellar version of David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World.” (As a performance, it was better than even Kurt Cobain’s cover of the song.) And that’s why I tune in, three bloody nights a week, even if the show generally is about as honestly rock ‘n’ roll as an Oxnard-based wedding cover band. Sometimes the contestants do more than make me reminisce; maybe they’ll reinvent rock all afresh.