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Tuesday, May 21

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Rock Star: INXS, CBS, 8:30pm Mondays, 9pm Tuesdays, 8pm Wednesdays

Michael Hutchence, the lead singer of INXS, was my first rock star imaginary boyfriend. Sure, I crushed on Duran Duran's John Taylor (oh, those cheekbones), but that was mere puppy love. My feelings for Michael were decidedly less, er, sweet. The cassette tape of The Swing that I pilfered from my older sister never left my car — unless it was in my Walkman. I played it so often that the text wore off. I saw INXS live twice: first on the Kick tour in 1988, when I screamed like the teenage girl I was, and then in the mid-'90s, when I was no longer as susceptible to those swiveling hips and smoldering glances. If I had to choose one band to represent the soundtrack of my life during my junior high and high school years, it would be INXS.

So I approached Mark Burnett's new reality show Rock Star: INXS with more than a little trepidation. The premise is simple: the surviving band members — Hutchence's 1997 death was ruled a suicide, although no note was found — are putting together a new album and a concert tour. They need a new lead singer, so why not hitch their fading star to the reality show bandwagon to find a replacement for Hutchence? Guitar player Tim Farriss explains, "The best way to preserve Michael's legacy is to keep his music alive." The band wants to find someone to "inspire" them. A worldwide search (local auditions were held at at Schuba's in February) narrowed the field to 15 finalists: eight women and seven men from the United States, Canada, and Australia.

CBS touts Rock Star: INXS as "Rock and Roll" meets Survivor, which is also not-so-coincidentally also produced by Burnett. Please. It's an American Idol rip-off with a few differences. The audience votes for their favorites, but the three people who receive the fewest votes have a chance to save themselves by singing INXS songs live chosen by the band members. So at least the band won't, in theory, be stuck with someone that they loathe at the end of this. Monday nights are reserved for behind-the-scenes footage and "challenges" (tonight's is something about an image makeover — groan!). The singers perform non-INXS songs with a house band on Tuesday nights, and Wednesday nights are the live results show. When the band makes its decision, Tim Farriss delivers the clunky line, "I'm sorry. You're just not right for our band, INXS." He either strings it all together as one word — ourbandinexcess — or pauses awkwardly: "our band [wait, what's the name of my band again? oh yeah] INXS." Perhaps he will become more comfortable as the show progresses.

In addition to the original INXSians, CBS saddles us with co-hosts Brooke Burke and Dave Navarro. Brooke has all of the animation of an unplugged waffle iron as she tonelessly commands the crowd to "give it up" for the rockers or gives the singers instructions back at the "Rock and Roll Mansion" they'll call home during the audition process. She also calls Navarro "one of alternative rock's first true guitar heroes." No. Just, no. Everything about the man is... pointy. He waffles between giving solid advice to the male singers and skeevily commenting about the sex appeal of some of the women. "I had to go take a cold shower," he smarms of one and "couldn't help but ponder" the sexual inclinations of another who didn't change the lyrics to an Eagles song. Then again, Navarro eloquently said, "He's like modern, he's like classic, he's like timeless," about one contestant. I won't be putting too much stock in his opinion.

Of course, the editing is already revealing "personalities" on the show. One contestant, J.D., is being groomed as an underdog. They mentioned that he lived in his car (like Jewel?) and was homeless in the first two episodes. The first big fake-out of the series came when they called J.D. onstage during the results show not because he was in danger of leaving but because they just loved his cover of "California Dreaming" so much that they wanted to hear it again. Uh huh. The "villain" so far is Suzie, who tried to psyche out Chicagoan Marty by suggesting that he might have polyps on his vocal chords. She also was the only contestant — so far — to forget the words to the song she was singing. Oops. She was in the bottom three twice but has squeaked by so far. Chicago singers Marty and Jessica have acquitted themselves well so far. Marty's performance of Franz Ferdinand's "Take Me Out" killed the crowd and brought his competitors to their feet. Jessica got kudos for being the first contestant to acknowledge the house band and work with them.

However, Rock Star: INXS is decidedly more affirmative than American Idol. There's no Simon Cowell equivalent, and for the most part, the comments from INXS are either out-and-out positive ("You continue to blow me away, and I think I love you!") or practical ("There are better ways to channel that nervous energy.") One singer's spastic dance moves weren't openly mocked by the guys but explained away as being "high on adrenaline." When Navarro isn't drooling over the admittedly hot women rockers, he praises contestants who follow direction. Several competitors who were criticized for pitch or playing to the front rows rather than the entire crowd adjusted their performances and improved dramatically.

I also like how the other contestants genuinely rock out during some of the other people's auditions. They all obviously love the music and enjoy a good tune even if it's wailed by their biggest competitor. Offstage, group sing-a-longs break out, and after praising the variety of harmonies, punky Heather says, "It's kind of like being at church. But with alcohol."

Most importantly, we didn't have to wade through the schadenfreude of the trademark awful screechings that fill up the first few weeks of Idol. The finalists all have damn good chops, and even if I don't like a particular singer, I can still appreciate the talent.

Still, after a cover of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," bass player Garry Gary Beers comments, "He's a great singer, but the thing is, it made me realize what a great singer Kurt Cobain is." Replace "Kurt Cobain" with "Michael Hutchence" and you've got it in one, Gary. Michael Hutchence made this band. Andrew Farris co-wrote most of their biggest hits with him, but it was Michael's voice and presence that really pushed INXS to the forefront. There's no substitute, no matter how talented the contestants are.

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About the Author(s)

As a child, Dee Stiffler was only allowed to watch one hour of television a day. She usually chose Sesame Street. Today, she overcompensates by knowing far too much about the WB's lineup as well as pop culture in general. Email her at

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