Although this will probably prove a short-lived TV trend, like, well, all other recent TV trends, 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, so laughing at them somehow feels less mean-spirited. The other, more complicated appeal comes from America's collective horror toward the twin crimes of failure and aging. American lives, after all, are supposed to have no second acts, but reality TV can hand 'em out right and left.
The subtext is always the same: Time waits for no man, but it hounds rock stars even more aggressively. This point is obvious on everything from MTV's The Osbournes and Meet the Barkers (in which rock stars are mocked for coping with life on earth) to UPN's Britney and Kevin: Chaotic (in which the title characters act like sex-crazed dolts to short-circuit their incipient loss of popularity) to Bravo's new Being Bobby Brown (in which an aging sex symbol embraces both Whitney Houston and his status as a has-been).
But the apex of this trend is CBS' Rock Star INXS, with 15 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 autoerotic asphyxiation) with frontman Michael Hutchence a decade later.
For the premiere, most of the twentysomething contestants (read: not old enough to rock out to INXS during their prime) madly gyrated their bescarved hips while belting out classic rock songs 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 last year).
There's 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.
The show has featured an increasingly obscure list of acts--Sophie B. Hawkins, Irene Cara, Glass Tiger, Wang Chung, and Tommy Tutone to name a few--who perform their one hit, then return later to sing something more "modern." (Howard Jones performed a Dido number, while Vanilla Ice opted for Destiny's Child's "Survivor.") Then the audience votes for a winner. Between these performances, we're treated to "Where Are They Now?" video biographies in which said artists tell us how they've spent the last 20 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 Dallas' Bowling for Soup. It's "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.)
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 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. The sight of these once-ascendant pop stars flailing helplessly is slightly sad... not sad enough to make us change the channel, of course.
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 single-hit bandwagon acts (Spin Doctors, say, or Third Eye Blind) over artists with staying power. Hit Me Baby delivers the many minor (but not necessarily unworthy) '80s and '90s artists the industry produced 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 Smirnoff--or even $7 for Greg Kihn, Flock of Seagulls or Tommy Tutone at LaGrave Field--we get to see these has-beens publicly humiliated in the privacy of our homes. 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.