Go Ahead, Tear Us Apart 

Reality TV has turned Britney Spears, Bobby Brown, Howard Jones, and INXS into fascinating punchlines.

As CBS recently informed us, "All reality is not created equal." Apparently, reality involving celebrities is far, far more entertaining; reality that exploits the vast archive of pop music for its schemes is best of all. Numerous TV shows of this latter type have turned up this summer, and though none of them qualify as "good," they're substantially more thought-provoking than counterparts that involve mating as their central narrative device.

Although this will probably prove a short-lived TV trend -- after all, only so many pop has-beens are willing to participate -- two things make these shows bearable. First off, the "stars" involved (Vanilla Ice, say) are both more prepared for and more worthy of our ridicule, thus making laughing at them somehow feel less mean-spirited. The other, more complicated, appeal has to do with America's collective horror toward the twin crimes of failure and aging. On every reality TV show that uses rock music, this fear is put on display and made humorous. American lives, after all, are supposed to have no second acts, but reality TV can hand 'em out right and left.

From American Idol (wherein wide-eyed eighteen-year-olds give empty renditions of thirty-year-old hits) to the upcoming Tommy Lee Goes to College (wherein the 45-year-old rocker will evidently rush a fraternity and try out for the University of Nebraska drill team), TV has chosen in every instance to pit age against youth in an unwinnable battle. The subtext is always the same: Time waits for no man, but it hounds rock stars even more aggressively. This point is driven home repeatedly on everything from MTV's The Osbournes and Meet the Barkers (in which former rock stars are mocked for attempting to cope with life on earth) to UPN's Britney and Kevin: Chaotic (in which the title characters perform debasing acts of ordinariness in a desperate attempt to short-circuit their incipient loss of popularity), to Bravo's new Being Bobby Brown (in which an aging teen sex symbol and/or punchline embraces both Whitney Houston and his status as a has-been).

But the absolute apex of this trend is CBS' Rock Star INXS, with fifteen contestants vying for the role of the once-mighty Australian band's new lead singer. This prize is hardly worth the effort: INXS peaked in 1987, and the band's hopes of ever charting again died (of alleged auto-erotic asphyxiation) with sexy frontman Michael Hutchence a decade later.

You'd assume that people who want to be lead singer of a thirty-year-old band ought to share that band's age bracket (between fifty and sixty, say). Instead, CBS has culled a bunch of really skinny, pretty people in their early twenties who are strangely adept at singing songs written before they were born. For the premiere, almost all the contestants madly gyrated their bescarved hips while belting out a classic rock song, and were subsequently judged by INXS' Methuselah-like Tim Farriss and, for no apparent reason, Dave Navarro (who had his own MTV reality series with wife Carmen Electra earlier this year). Only two would-be Hutchences sang songs popularized in the '90s -- Mig, who attempted "Smells Like Teen Spirit," was roundly whacked by Navarro for attempting to sound modern. (Odds are on that guy to win though, since he's the only Australian in the bunch.)

There's probably only one thing more pathetic than a perfectly presentable young person trying to join a dinosaur band, and that's when a dinosaur attempts to impersonate a young person. Behold NBC's riotous Hit Me Baby One More Time, which brings together forgotten artists of the past and pits them, quite literally, against the present. Since its early-summer inauguration, the show has featured an increasingly obscure list of acts -- Sophie B. Hawkins, Irene Cara, Glass Tiger, Wang Chung, and Tommy Tutone, to name but a few -- who perform their one hit, then return later to sing something more, ahem, "modern." (Howard Jones performed a Dido number, while Vanilla Ice opted for Destiny's Child's "Survivor.") Then the audience votes for a winner. In between these short performances, we're treated to brief "Where Are They Now?" video biographies, in which said artists tell us how they've spent the last twenty years trying to recapture their short-lived glory.

Hit Me Baby has often reverberated with something slightly deeper than camp, but it never got more surreal than the time Cameo -- the sleazy R&B/funk outfit that slithered through the '70s and mid-'80s -- chose, as its modern hit, "1985," by some Blink 182 soundalike called Bowling for Soup. It's a kind of "Glory Days" for mall rats: She was gonna be an actress/She was gonna be a star/She was gonna shake her ass/On the hood of Whitesnake's car, Bowling for Soup sings in the snotty tones of hip twentysomethings who will never age. She hates time/Make it stop/When did Mötley Crüe become classic rock?/Where's the miniskirt made of snakeskin?/And who's the other guy that's singing in Van Halen? (Or INXS, for that matter.)

"1985" has a single message: Yesterday's fashion, music, and culture sound funny to a new generation. But sung by a bunch of guys who actually embodied the fashion, music, and culture of 1985 -- a group of soul singers who smooth the tune into a sappy ballad -- the hilarious meta-irony of it all is unbearable. This show is reality TV at its best: high-concept, low-budget, and thoroughly suffused with wacky, incidental brilliance. We all love a contest. We all love old songs we know but barely remember. And we all love to laugh; furthermore, there's nothing funnier than old people trying to sound young. NBC has managed to make visible our victory over those who dared to succeed in music at a very young age. Hit Me Baby redounds with delightful schadenfreude, but the sight of these once-ascendant pop stars flailing helplessly is also slightly sad.

But shows like this also address a problem concert promoters have grappled with for years: Ticket sales continue to plummet, thanks to the steady decline in consistent star power and quality of touring acts, which in turn results from the music industry's preference for flashy, single-hit bandwagon acts (Spin Doctors, say, or Third Eye Blind) over artists with true staying power. Hit Me Baby gives the many minor (but not necessarily unworthy) artists the industry produced from 1985 on a venue that is far more beneficial to both audience and artist. Now, instead of shelling out $25 to $50 to see acts like PM Dawn, Sophie B. Hawkins, or Howard Jones at the Chronicle Pavilion -- or even $7 for Greg Kihn, Flock of Seagulls, or Tommy Tutone at the Alameda County Fair -- we get to see these has-beens publicly humiliated in the privacy of our own homes. Granted, it's a mixed blessing, but at least we don't have to pay parking fees and Ticketmaster charges for the privilege of finding out that time waits for no one, and is very much not on our side.



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