Since Fox stumbled into a smash hit with “American Idol” five years ago, the rest of the American TV landscape has been scrambling to be the next to catch up. Nobody else has quite figured out how to clone the talent show, but “Rock Star,” back for a second season on CBS this summer, has probably come the closest.
Last year, the show hooked INXS up to the wayback machine and gave the Australian rock band new life. Since Michael Hutchence died under somewhat mysterious circumstances in 1997, the group’s CDs had pretty much been consigned to $5.99 racks at Wal-Mart.
“Rock Star: INXS” was designed to find the band a new singer, but at first the ratings were bad enough that the behind-the-scenes episodes were dropped from CBS to air on VH-1 instead. When that happens in the ratings wasteland that is August, it’s usually a sign that the concept isn’t going anywhere.
But ratings improved, J.D. Fortune won the competition, the band is currently touring, and the advertisers were happy. Not wanting to let a good source of summer programming go, CBS renewed the show for another season.
This time, “Rock Star” is taking a different approach. Rather than pick an established band in need of a singer (early rumors had Queen or Van Halen serving as the group), the show found a group of notable musicians in need of some TV time and got them to agree to work together.
The result? “Rock Star: Supernova,” a new group featuring Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee, Metallica bassist Jason Newsted, and Guns and Roses guitarist Gilby Clarke. It’s Tommy Lee’s second foray into the reality television landscape. His brief stint at the University of Nebraska was profiled in “Tommy Lee Goes to College” on NBC. Apparently his academics weren’t good enough for the natural follow-up: “Tommy Lee Gets His MBA.”
A reality show featuring Lee, Newsted, and Clarke sitting around, drinking adult beverages and swapping life-on-the-road stories would be a guaranteed hit (if former GNR frontman Axl Rose is biting people’s legs now, imagine the stories Clarke could tell about what Rose did when the band was actually popular).
But that kind of show wouldn’t work on CBS, because of that whole FCC thing. Besides, none of the above are established lead singers. That’s where the competition comes in
From rags to rock star
The producers are trying to build on the “Idol” formula: take somebody from nowhere and give them a chance to be a star. That follows the precedent set in the first season, where J.D. Fortune went from living in his car a few years ago to his current status staying in fancy hotels with a major rock band on a world tour. It’s a classic underdog story, made distinct from its rival programs because the candidates aren’t exactly taking leave from Goldman Sachs to try out.
The 15 contestants this season have peddled pizza, packaged aluminum siding, loaded trucks and sold speakers out of the back of a van. Unlike the clean-cut “Idol” crew, the “Rock Star” contestants have the hardscrabble look of people who would kill for the chance to hang out with co-host Dave Navarro.
If the producers are smart, they’ll make that a selling point for this year’s competition. One down side of “Idol” is that after five years, nearly all the candidates are the boy- or girl-next-door types, easy to root for because they’re such nice people. The “Rock Star” contestants don’t look like the types who will wander into the stands and start mugging people, but neither do they resemble the kind of strangers someone would ask for directions to the subway after midnight.
Put it this way: Paris Bennett and Kevin Covais would not be the judges’ darlings on this show. Or look at it like this: “Idol” fourth-place finisher Chris Daughtry was arguably the edgiest performer to make the final 12 in the show’s history. His removal from that show caused bandwidth-crippling conspiracy theories to be launched worldwide. Still, he had tried out for “Rock Star: INXS,” and didn’t make the cut.
Band members told MTV that they were looking for a singer who was a little dangerous, a little edgy. As Newsted put it: “When I go by flying, spitting sweat and blood, they have to be able to hang with that. If I’m screaming in their ear right before they sing, they better sing on time. It’s few and far between that can stand next to us and do that thing.”
Seriously, how could any network doubt the show’s success if that’s the attitude? It’s “Idol” with an outside chance of a major injury happening onstage. It’s the NASCAR of reality shows: some watch for the singing talent, and others for the inevitable car wrecks.
The format of “Rock Star” blends the audience participation that brings “Idol” its success with the recognition that the band itself ought to get some say into who its new singer will be. Every contestant performs each week, and the audience votes for its favorite. The three with the lowest number of votes sing again, and the band members pick which one gets the boot. Similar to last season, CBS will air both a performance show and a results show. The behind-the-scenes show that got bumped to VH-1 last season will now appear only online on MSN.
Unlike last season, this year the show features a different musical celebrity or rock legend guesting each week (“Sammy Hagar, please pick up the white courtesy phone.”).
This season’s promos averages that the winner gets to leave their crummy day job “forever.” Given the short history that has characterized Tommy Lee’s projects since Mötley Crüe, that may be an absurdly optimistic view of the situation.
Craig Berman is a writer in Washington, D.C.