Singin' Like Thieves 

It's not easy to steal the spotlight from late INXS frontman Michael Hutchence.

Reality TV has ruined an entire generation of aspiring rock singers for life, leaving behind a teenage wasteland of American Idol junkies convinced that true vocalists swear by the Vietnam Approach, i.e. To Save the Song, We Must Destroy It. The Mariah Carey napalm-blast philosophy wherein you stare down the camera and bleat as loudly, flamboyantly, and histrionically as possible is endemic now. That's the only path to fame nowadays -- either that or transforming yourself into a William Hung Gong Show atrocity. Music on TV hasn't been this hideous since Cop Rock.

The Vietnam Approach is tolerable if confined to Idol and its ilk, but Rock Star INXS was another, far more alarming beast, combining two loathsome rock concepts -- Idol-caliber singers vying to replace an iconic frontman whose death should've broken up the band for good. Not that we ascribed biblical reverence to INXS, pleasantly cheesy Aussies with an awkward PG-13 sexuality and a string of smash '80s hits -- the still quite rousing "Don't Change" for the rockers, the weepy synth ballad "Never Tear Us Apart" for the balladeers, the lurid "Need You Tonight" for an uneasy truce between the two. But purring frontman Michael Hutchence's death in 1997 -- hanging, apparent suicide, no jokes please -- closed down the circus, and the band's scheme to replace him seven years later via a hokey reality show horrified die-hard fans.

Undaunted, Rock Star INXS winner (and former Elvis impersonator) J.D. Fortune prevailed with a simple formula: Act a little cocky, and don't belt everything as if you're trying to wake Michael from the dead.

"Rock 'n' roll singing and rock 'n' roll singing competitions are two different things," J.D. advises. "A few competitors on that show, it was almost like they were singing really high and really loud because they were angry at something, like they needed therapy. Because, maybe, uh, their parents didn't pay them enough attention."

J.D. evidently was raised in a loving environment, and gradually overcame his natural urge to launch vocal Tet Offensives. "I think that this whole experience has changed my belief," he explains. "I come from a very old-school, Iron Maiden approach, where he who could go [insert warbly soprano] Run to the hills! -- he with the loudest and highest voice -- was the winner, like Axl Rose and Freddie Mercury. It just became a metal sort of thing. What's funny is nowadays, it's more like the Killers and Franz Ferdinand. Stuff like that. It's really cool because it's just really natural."

Not that anything about Rock Star INXS was remotely natural, with Vegas-style, live-audience auditions that were, it must be said, absolutely hilarious. Watching dewy-eyed, photogenic hipsters moaning "Heart-Shaped Box" and "Losing My Religion" as if they were holy writ brought the LOLs, as your younger brother might say. For a while it looked as if Hutchence's understudy would be another Idol worshiper, all cheese and no meat, all lungs and no heart.

J.D. prevailed by focusing on other body parts. His performances differed in one crucial area -- instead of staring straight at the cameras, Mr. Fortune ignored them and hammed it up for the rather hot ladies in the front row. "Everyone else on that show looked right down the barrel, 'cause they were told by the producers that if they stared down the camera, they'd probably get more votes," he says. "I would watch the other contestants, the last five or six of us, and it was really boring to watch them just staring right down a camera."

J.D.'s horndog tendencies, harmless cockiness, and ladykiller pandering make him an ideal match for INXS, especially now that the band is touring -- he charmed the band members and idle TV-watchers, but now he's gotta win over diehard fans, whom he openly fears will show up in "Where's Michael?" T-shirts. It will be interesting to note whether Hutchence die-hards are thrilled or repulsed by how similar Fortune sounds -- he has that purring baritone down to a science, although he insists it's not science at all. "I've sounded this way my whole life," he insists. "I think because it's with INXS, people's ears go to the familiar and they go, 'Oh wow.' One guy said, 'It's eerie at points,' and I went, 'Well, dude, I don't know what to tell you, man. Gimme a break. I'm just tryin' to sing and do my own thing.'"

The dude probably meant it as a compliment, though, and judging by the hastily assembled new INXS disc, Switch, the band's strength for the moment lies in its similarity to its former self -- Switch has slightly lurid overtones (there's a song called "Hot Girls" that isn't remotely metaphorical, and goofy lyrics such as We are burning wax melting all over each other), but it "rocks" in a manner that won't threaten or offend your mom. It can't compete with classic INXS, but it sounds like classic INXS, which works for now.

As for the "INXS died with Michael Hutchence purists," J.D. suggests you just relax and give him a shot. "I would go see the Doors with Ian Astbury," he offers by way of comparison. "Solely because, for one, I used to be a big Cult fan. And two, I'm a huge Doors fan. So if I went to see the concert, I could say, 'I saw the Doors. I didn't see Jim Morrison, but I saw the Doors play.'"

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