One old rocker's views on INXS. A must read!
Perhaps the only viewers of RockStar INXS are people like me: 40ish former rockers.
We still play airdrums on the center of the steering wheel while driving down the street whenever KISS or X or the Motels or The Clash come through the speakers.
We own original copies of Ian Dury’s “Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll,” get the inside joke in Alison Moyet’s “Love Resurrection,” lost our hearing watching Santana live in concert, had a blind date to see Bruce Springsteen, wanted to name our first born boy or girl Rhiannon and saw Flo and Eddie perform the 200 Motels Tour with Frank Zappa.
It died during disco, but then there was the great light, Nirvana. Or was it great darkness? All I know is it smelled like a new deodorant. Pearl Jam continued the renaissance. Somewhere along the times we had kids, bought SUVs, and watched with sadness when vinyl, the audio mainstay of our parents’ generation, became tape became CDs became MP3s.
Honestly, INXS wasn’t the favorite band of the time. The first song many of us remember was “I Need You Tonight.” It was the first time I could put the band’s name to a song. I bought the tape. I played it over and over, and finally took the time to listen to the other cuts. Why hadn’t I listened to them before?
Fast forward to 2005. The band members, born in the late 50s, sit on the sidelines of the new Mark Burnett show “RockStar: INXS. They aren’t the young, wiry, adrenalin induced group they were in the late 80s. They wear bifocals. Instead of skin tight sleeveless muscle shirts, they wear jackets and long sleeved button downs.
And while they once commanded the stage, now they appear as couch potatoes adorning the tattooed arms of Dave Navarro, the skinny, wiry, tattooed, muscle shirt-wearing younger rock star who hosts the show. Occasionally they get up to play drums with the younger, rocking house band, but mostly the guys are shown sitting somewhere. Not the guys of the 80s who prided themselves on living, loving, and partying in excess.
The premise is simple: they are looking for a new lead singer to front their band during another comeback. Their best know lead singer, Michael Hutchence, died somewhat mysteriously over 10 years ago.
Hutchence’s shoes have been hard to fill since his death by hanging a decade ago. One of the band’s strengths clearly was its lead singer’s versatility. From haunting ballads, to brassy rock numbers, to white funk, Hutchence had a strong, passionate voice. It wasn’t about drama; it was about arousal and creating a heartfelt sound. His ability to control his voice while unleashing his emotions made him a force in rock and roll.
Back to 2005: Fellow Aussie Mark Burnett takes on the task of a global search to replace Hutchence. He announces an audition schedule including more than 20 cities across six continents. The list favors English speaking locales like Auckland, Liverpool, London, Los Angeles, New York, Sydney, and Toronto. Yet the program displayed no footage of these many stops and singers; the program itself seems populated with folks from the states and from Canada except for the one Aussie now residing in London.
The episodes began in early July with 15 vocalists trying for the lead singer position. The elimination process differs from other reality shows. It has an audience vote component to let viewers interact and participate.
The program runs three nights per week. The first night, a ratings dog, reveals behind the scenes life in the mansion where the singers are housed this summer. Sheet music is mysteriously posted on a bulletin board equaling one song for each singer left standing; each must negotiate so every one sings a different tune for night 2, performance night. The three lowest vote getters must compete in night 3, sing-off night, where the band itself chooses a person who is ultimately cast off. The highlight of night 3 is an encore performance of the best song from the night before.
Like other shows, contestants stay away from the public until elimination; contestants who remain in contention live in a mansion together where they eat, sing, and relax together in front of the rolling cameras. Unlike Big Brother, romantic liaisons have not been part of the show. But like the first season of Big Brother, the one season critics called “boring,” the candidates all get along, support each other, and have long since figured out only one of them will win, so it is best to come away from this experience with friends. They are like a grad school cohort or an army unit—bonded by their shared experience and common talents. For many, this is their life peak experience.
The contestants themselves are a colorful group. The least memorable singers went away quickly: Dana, Wil, Neal, and Tara. One double elimination evening ended the chances for ethereal Heather, whose clear sweet voice shot like a bullet through wafting melodies. Her performances were a highlight of the show, but it was difficult to see her as a rockstar. As she was leaving, she said something about taking her autoharp, washboard and spoons on the road to do some impromptu singing, or something like that.
Daphna, most noted for showing her machismo side by plodding around the stage in army boots, often during sensitive ballads, had pitch problems to blame for her dismissal. The women on the show have a tendency to try to act like male rockers. The open leg stomping and gesturing is downright strange. Perhaps the weirdest was Daphna’s version of Rock the Casbah, more reminiscent of a paratrooper than a camel. Wearing what looked like a chiffon wedding dress underscored by high topped army boots, Daphna stomped her way off the show and back into obscurity.
Yet the next week, Deanna shoved through the crowd singing “I’m the Only One” to do a memorable bump and grind inches away from the couch potato judges. They’re old guys. She was young and almost half naked. Her thighs were far apart from each other. They loved it. INXS even said they loved it, while sitting in their sideline seats.
Perhaps one of the problems with he show is the outcome. Everyone seems to know the end and has for awhile. It will come down to Jordis, J.D., Mig, and Ty. The excitement within the past few episodes is the emergence of Marty Casey. From apparent also-ran status, Marty is surging as a contender for the job. Jordis is beautiful, sings powerfully, and shows her emotion in each lyric. J.D. is the crowd pleaser, going from Freddie Mercury to Elvis to wow the audience. Mig is a natural, a good-looking Mick Jagger. Ty is the art college grad, the scene-stealer, facing the fact that the band wants a lot of the glory and needs a frontman, not a scene stealer.
At first, Marty seemed like a mismatch for the show. He seemed like a guy who made it through prep schools and private universities—the type who probably let down his hair by entertaining his buddies with drunken rock vocals. He looks like he spends his days in a sales office and stops by the TV show at night to sing his songs.
Yet each time Marty sings, it is better and better. Judged the best vocalist of the night when he sang Nirvana’s Lithium, Marty had every person in the crowd on their toes, on edge from his first words “I’m so happy” they were all waiting, anticipating his final rendering of the words “I’m not going to crack.” He appears to be a premeditated singer, starting the song cautiously with a clear direction and game plan, then carefully abandoning his safe zone to pour his feelings through his vocals into the microphone.
That makes Marty the quintessential front man. He allows his song to complement the band’s instrumentations, resembling a unitary force rather than a disjointed disconnect between the singer and the band. While others look for ways to interact with the bass player while he plays his solo, Marty tries to find ways to accomplish unity between the fire of his voice and the sounds coming from the instruments behind him. He is a thinking man’s rock and roller, knowing how to maintain a balance between himself and his band, while appropriately losing himself to the song, its meaning, and its intensity. For this band and its many specific preconditions and needs, Marty might just be THE ONE.
The best singers continue in contention. Adding in Heather might delineate the cream of this crop. Here is the remaining lineup, according to their chances of winning:
#1: Marty Casey, Chicago, Illinois
Marty has it all: the voice, the disinterest in wardrobe, the look of a martyr, and a voice that can go anywhere he wants it to go. He doesn’t stand out in a crowd, but gently dominates the stage. He’ll win.
# 2: Jordis Unga, St. Paul, Minnesota
This lady has it all: strength, range, control, confidence, presence, and an enchanting tone that emanates from her vocal chords. The judges ask the contestants to just stand there and sing a song, and she is one of the best with a variety of musical styles. Each performance is memorable. But is Jordis Unga the right person to front INXS? It seems like the band should look for a guy as many of the songs lyrics take a male perspective. Should Mark Burnett have only cast men on this competition? Probably, but look at the benefit of having both genders: now the audience knows the lush vocal articulations of Miss Jordis Unga.
#3: Mig Ayesa, London via Sydney
Mig could win it all. He has so many of the desired qualities: fits in well (he’s from Australia), not about to be distracted by groupies (he’s married), apparently hard working, can work wonders with almost any song, stirs up the stage, can do a mean strip tease, and can do a good Jagger imitation. Though watchable, likable, and he sings a mean song, Mig is otherwise invisible. In the at home in the mansion segments of the show, he interacts little with the others, what other reality shows call “under the radar.” One segment showed him calling his wife in London after the recent bus and subway bombings, telling her to avoid public transportation. Except for that he is not controversial, doesn’t show temper, has no conflicts over song choices, and says little about his housemates. In other words, other than his two minutes on stage each week, he’s really boring. With Mig, the producers give us nothing to watch. If he wins, it will explain why the show has low ratings.
#4: Ty Taylor, New Jersey
Ty already is a professional singer. From Baptist choirs to a performing arts high school to a top private fine arts university, he had the best training. Already, he has toured with Clapton, starred in Broadway shows and landed a recording contract with a top label. If the band was an employment agency, Ty would get the post because he has the most applicable experience toward the actual job requirements.
Truly, he has the experience and discipline to be a top performer, but what does he want with INXS? Though close to his beloved Clash, it seems like Ty can do better on his own, after this TV series is off the air, by merely banking on his current popularity and exposure.
#5: J.D. Fortune, Oakville, Ontario
Part of the Canadian contingent (with Deanna, Suzie and Tara), JD doesn’t understand the others aren’t playing reality show rules. Acting as if he were on Survivor, he tells the camera each bit of strategy and deceit he is using to try to win the game. Only it isn’t a game; the outcome will be the best match for a group going on tour seeking vocal and social harmony. So JD doesn’t understand that a scheming loose cannon won’t sit well inside a studio with a bunch of middle aged men. We think he can have a future in rock and roll, but not until he gets a few more miles under his belt.
Out of Contention But Still There:
Deanna Johnston, Kingston, Ontario
Deanna answers the question: how long can producers keep someone really bad on a reality show? Last seasons “vote for the worst” campaign to keep Scott on American Idol put it to a test, only to be answered by RockStar: INXS. Her mission to act like a man on stage, without knowing HOW a man acts onstage, has led to some horrific performances, most notably last week’s aforementioned bump and grind. Sometimes, she sings well, but it is masked by her bizarre gyrations and behavior on stage.
Suzie McNeil, Toronto, Ontario
Suzie isn’t the best singer on the show, but she is very likable. The “at home in the mansion” segments of the program sneaks a peak at a very human, caring, upright lady. Like Jordis, she remains within gender boundaries on stage and gives watchable, intense performances.
Jessica Robinson, Chicago, Illinois
Jessica isn’t the best singer on the show and she knows it. She might be the prettiest. She knows her weaknesses and now fully expects to be in the bottom three each week based on her performances. Though others have called her the “dumb blonde,” she has proven herself a survivor by learning nakedness works with the members of INXS. Notice she dresses nicely for the showcase night, but hardly wears a thread on elimination night. So far, this disrobing routine has saved her with the judges who merely say, “Jessica sure can sing INXS songs well,” as if they were actually listening to her sing instead of looking at the Emperor’s New Clothes. Maybe they’ll hire her as a backup singer.
Brandon Calhoun, Beaverton, Michigan
Will a guy from Michigan with an all-American name like Calhoun find success with an Aussie 80s band? We think not. Brandon is more Neil Young than Michael Hutchence; more Eagles than KISS. He could turn country on us at any moment. Gifted with a powerful voice, instrumental talents, and barefoot sensibility, it seems like Brandon wouldn’t fit with the boa and fur wearing couch potatoes who judge him. It’s not that Brandon isn’t good, it’s just he isn’t INXS.
What should come next? We hope some other underexposed band won’t go public with their search for a new lead singer to regain lost fame. Yet I want INXS to be successful with the new ensemble. Since a girl singer is unlikely, perhaps the ladies will join ranks and form a new girl group. It’s time, isn’t it? More Bangles than Martha and the Vandellas, more Exene Cervenka than Enya, wouldn’t it be great to see Jordis at the mike backed by Suzie, Deanna on base, Jessica on guitar, and Heather on washboard?
For me, I look forward to each episode. Nice guys in their late 40s who rock and roll are fine for me. But I wish Gary, Tim, Andrew, and Kirk wouldn’t judge the women with little Gary, little Tim, little Andrew, and little Kirk.
I don’t care if they are couch potatoes, what great man my age isn’t? These men are entertaining, and the songs contestants sing are my old faves. But then the same episode that gave me a redo of my favorite Because the Night came at the price of a god awful Rock the Casbah. But that’s the price you pay for watching RockStar INXS. Great vintage rock from young healthy voices who sometimes destroy your favorite tunes. It’s nice to know that although we are growing old and the music of our time is aging, it is not forgotten.