THREE messy-tressed, black-clad boys in studded belts nervously stand on stage as a cluster of starry-eyed blonds in bustiers scream for them from the crowd below. They're veritable nobodies. But by summer's end, millions of people are likely to know their names, and one of them just may win the gig of his dreams.
The "stage" is actually an air-conditioned soundstage at CBS studios, and the groupie-esque gals probably got their tickets from Audiences Unlimited, to say nothing of the fact that it's a very un-rock 'n' roll 10 in the morning. Still the tension is real as the trio awaits their fate on the new season of the CBS reality show "Rock Star: Supernova."
There is some irony in the name "Supernova" given that the group is being newly constructed from the detritus of some of rock's most legendary (and infamous) groups -- Motley Crue's Tommy Lee, Metallica's Jason Newsted and Guns N' Roses' Gilby Clarke. Now they're in search of a lead singer, and there are 15 "Rock Star" wannabes vying for that spot.
It might seem like just another in the "American Idol" vein with contestants locked in weekly sing-offs, their future in the hands of an audience armed with phones and a panel of judges. But "Supernova" comes at a good time for rockers, who've seen their music take a back seat to pop and hip-hop -- in sales and media-wise -- for several years.
The rock world has always prided itself on being rebellious and iconoclastic, but these days, a mainstream approach may be the necessary evil that keeps it viable. Dave Navarro, the guitarist for alt-rock's Jane's Addiction, who is back anchoring the panel of judges, agrees. "We're putting rock in the forefront of American prime time culture," he says.
How'd the audition go?
IT is Week 1 of Season 2 for the show. Now they're facing the first elimination round. On this night, the lowest vote getters turn out to be the cute and shaggy, not-quite-bad-boy types, who try to play it cool, huddling like they've been hanging out for years, filling excruciating downtime by showing crew members their ink as cameras circle them. Finally, Lee and his mates take their "judging" couch across the room and announce who will stay and who will go. Lights, camera, action ... and one hopeful's rock star fantasy is over.
Already the contestants seem to be closely bonded, and when cherubic Matt Hoffer is sent home to Chicago (he sang a limp Duran Duran tune) the atmosphere goes from seismic to somber.
The show models its basic structure after "American Idol," even down to host Brooke Burke's suspenseful, Ryan Seacrest-like pauses before announcing who'll be sent packing. The band, the contestants and the producers see this as a genuine -- if widely exposed and extended -- audition. The tattoos, the piercings and the pedigrees, not to mention the notorious pasts, are authentic -- and so is (most of) the talent on stage. The fact that it happens to be on TV is incidental. Or is it?
The show's first season, "Rock Star: INXS," which sought to fill the shoes of the Aussie band's deceased singer, Michael Hutchence, was a hit last summer. It featured three shows a week that pitted a similarly colorful collection of musical miscreants against one another. But some critics felt it was a tasteless and desperate move for the group, which hadn't had a hit since the early '90s, to replace its much-beloved front man via a television show. Others questioned whether the grit and rebelliousness of rock could be maintained and captured within the confines of a reality show lens, especially one produced by a hit powerhouse like Mark Burnett ("Survivor," "The Apprentice").
"God love pop, but at the end of the day, those other shows are shaping somebody into a pop artist," says Navarro. "They tell them to wear their hair differently and give them a new stylist and package them, whereas with a rock star, it's so much about the heart and the soul, there's really no way to teach it. If it's there, it's there; if it's not, it's not."
It's these intangible qualities, even more so than technical vocal ability, that "Supernova" seems to be looking for.
Meet the band
AFTER the taping, Clarke, Newsted and Lee convene in the CBS greenroom, which is done up much like the show's set, an over-the-top hodgepodge of Maya and Moroccan tapestries, pillows and accents. It's packed with personal assistants, PR people and the obligatory hangers-on, all of whom listen intently as each discusses the new band and the show. Whether it started out that way or not, this is more than a made-for-TV grouping. The guys say they've been friends for years and have always wanted to play together.
Lee, who is sprawled amid the pillows on the couch, specializes in being the audacious one. Backstage, he's flirty and pushing the edge, his spiky, multicolored head settling into a visitor's lap for most of the interview. He's charming, child-like and, yes, unpredictable -- qualities that make him extremely watchable on the tube ("Rock Star" is not the drummer's first foray into reality TV; he also starred in NBC's "Tommy Lee Goes to College," in which cameras followed as he attempted to live the life of a typical student). Of course, most of his off-color comments get edited out long before the shows hit the air.
The much-inked (both his body and his life in the tabloids) rocker serves as producer on "Rock Star." He jokes that his main duty is "getting hot girls backstage," but it was in fact his initial talks with Burnett about forming an all-star group that led to the show's return. Rumors about following last year's model with established bands replacing their lead singers both deceased (Alice in Chains) and still alive (Van Halen) never materialized.
Newsted is Lee's polar opposite -- intent, introspective and extremely involved in the process. "We want someone to bring something that we can't bring to the party. Someone who can do something that we can't predict," he says. "It might be very hard for someone to come in, nearly impossible having paid the same dues that we've paid. Taking it all in stride is probably going to be quite a challenge for someone that doesn't have our experience. We're looking for someone who'll be able to handle the challenges."
Clarke, who might be the least known Supernova (he joined Guns during its later years), is also the mellowest. He's actually reading a magazine while Jason ruminates and Tommy plays the jester. He does say that the unknown aspect is what gets him excited about being part of this whole thing. "We want something we can't get from flipping through our collective Rolodex of singers," he says.
One contestant who, at this point anyway, has that "something" is Toronto's Lukas Rossi. The goth-garbed, red-eye-shadow-sporting 29-year-old, like nearly all of the contestants, had a band of his own and took a break from it for "Rock Star." Though he finds shows like "Canadian Idol" "cheesy," he says this one is different.
"I would never in my life be interested in putting my career on the line for anything like that because I don't find that credible. It's more like a behind-the-scenes, build-a-star thing," he says. "Let's not forget this is a real band and they're just looking for someone who can basically be their front man, their muscle. I hope people don't see this as being a washed type of product, because it's not, man."
Still, the reality show, which airs Tuesdays and Wednesdays, will have its share of edited-for-TV drama. Already Rossi's harsh comments about who he thought would go home first were highlighted, making him appear to be as cocky and cutthroat as last year's winner, J.D. Fortune. "Everyone's here to win, and it gets sticky at times," he says later. "But I'm not the type to step on somebody to get to the top."
"We're all put in a very bizarre situation of lockdown with strangers and forced to socialize. There's no television, no music other than what we make ourselves, and no phone calls in the house. So we're forced to write and to interact with one another 24/7," says one of the top female contenders on the show, an intense and saucy redhead from Portland, Ore., named Storm Large. "These people are amazing songwriters and performers, and everybody's strengths are different. The whole act of discovering each other and working things out with the house and the cameras and the endless waiting -- it's very exhausting but also exhilarating."
As for whether a female would be able to hold her own in front of Lee and the gang, Storm -- 37 and with 15 years' experience playing shows and touring with various bands, including her current group the Balls -- thinks "a woman's going to bring a different energy to these three alpha males. She may bring a softness, or she may actually bring an edge."
Looking for the right mix
WHAT exactly the band will sound like is still unknown, which poses an interesting quandary for the contestants when choosing what to sing and how to sing it. (Even the name itself is somewhat up in the air, as a lawsuit has been filed by a Southern California band arguing it was Supernova first.) But there are clues at the beginning of each show when snippets of a Supernova song open the competition. One T. Rex-like riff suggests a sound that's both pumped up and pop-friendly. Though each of the veteran musicians is known for metallic leanings, the bandmates say they're not out to replicate their previous incarnations.
"We all know that the rock foundation is present," says Newsted. "Tommy's bombastic drum things are there, but we're also using some of his electronica turntable stuff to bring that freshness to it. I've got my punk projects going on so I'm in touch with the underground side of things, Gilby's got the American rock influences, and then Butch brings his pop layers in."
Butch is producer Butch Walker, known for his work with Avril Lavigne and Pink and is a pivotal ingredient in Supernova's sonic stew. His singing serves as "stunt vocal" for the band as they work in the studio (they've written about 10 tracks), and he sat in as a guest judge for the premiere. Other scheduled guest judges include Guns N' Roses guitarist Slash, Rob Zombie, singer Macy Gray and electro-whiz Moby.
"It's great for CBS because it brings us a younger audience," says Kelly Kahl, the network's senior vice president of programming. "The ratings for the premiere went down slightly from last year, but summer is getting more competitive reality show-wise. This is the kind of show that builds momentum as the summer continues, and it gives us the opportunity to promote our fall lineup to an audience that we don't normally reach."
In the show's second week, it pulled nearly 1 million more viewers, to reach 6.18 million, and saw the greatest increase among those ages 18 to 34. Last year's viewership ultimately went from 6.1 million to 7.8 million for the performance show and 4.6 million to 6.6 million for the final elimination. "We're not just interested in ratings but also in the water cooler factor," adds Kahl. "It's already getting attention and buzz from radio and Internet outlets."
The remaining hopefuls -- who've come from as far as Iceland and Australia -- range from edgy to downright menacing-looking, but the music they're performing is for the most part classic rock, tunes and artists that music fans of all ages should know (the Who, the Rolling Stones and Janis Joplin were performed alongside newer bands such as Coldplay and Evanescence for the premiere).
Whatever the outcome, the winner, who will be announced during the Sept. 27 finale, will be thrust into the national spotlight. The first Supernova single will drop immediately, then the band will go into the studio to record and rehearse (a New Year's Eve show at the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas will mark the band's live debut).
"Whoever wins this thing is getting a crash course in being under the media microscope," says Navarro. "They're going to be in the eye of the hurricane. What better audition process than to make yourself known in the midst of that hurricane?" Or supernova.