Genre Trouble Selecting Hits, Histories, and Bodies on Rock Star: INXS

Genre Trouble Selecting Hits, Histories, and Bodies on Rock Star: INXS
by Laurel Westrup

            Selecting Hits, Histories, and Bodies
            on Rock Star: INXS >>>
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Genre Trouble Selecting Hits, Histories, and Bodies on Rock Star: INXS
             uring the summer of 2005 CBS           and rock stardom as a structuring myth of the
             broadcast Rock Star: INXS, a reality   rock music industry. In attempting to define                  The efforts to
             television show helmed by Mark         the meaning of “rock star” in the first decade
  Burnett (famously the producer of Survivor)       of the twenty-first century, the show begins           distinguish rock as a
  in which contestants competed to take the         by sketching rock as a historical, legitimate,
  helm of waning rock band INXS following the       and pluralistic genre, while finally settling for a         genre separate
  1997 suicide of singer Michael Hutchence.         much narrower definition of the rock star.
  Each week contestants performed rock              	To make claims for rock as a genre                   from pop usually have
  “standards” ranging from songs by the Rolling     is no easy task, partly because the word
  Stones to recent popular hits by such bands       “genre” itself can imply different degrees of                    to do with
  as the Killers. After voting by an at-home        essentialism, exclusion, and mobility. Johan
  audience, the bottom three contestants were       Fornäs elucidates two forms of rock as genre:                 rock’s claims
  called to the stage and asked to perform an       one that is inclusive and indistinct from other
  INXS song. Based on these performances, the       forms of popular music, and one which is                   to authenticity...
  surviving members of INXS made a decision         defined in opposition to non-rock musics such

  about which contestants would be allowed to       as rap, pop, and country.1 In selecting songs
  stay and which would be sent home. On the         and singers, the producers of Rock Star: INXS
  surface the show’s parade of midriff-baring       and the surviving members of INXS had to
  divas and leather-clad impersonators seemed       engage with both concepts of rock-as-genre in
  to offer little more than a laughable homage to   order to define rock in a way which worked
  rock culture à la American Idol, but Rock Star:   for the band, the producers, the network, and
  INXS actually provides a unique barometer of      the fans.
  contemporary industrial and cultural trends       	The efforts to distinguish rock as a genre
  within rock music and media convergence.          separate from pop usually has to do with
  Here I concentrate on the show’s performance      rock’s claims to authenticity, which might be
  of complex, and at times contradictory,           rehearsed in binary oppositions such as rock
  discourses surrounding rock music as a genre      album vs. pop single, rock interiority vs. pop

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shallowness, and rock’s affective value vs.          to popular music scholar Keir Keightley’s idea
     The tension between      pop’s commercial value. While such binary            that, “Pop is understood as popular music that
                              constructions of the rock/pop divide are             isn’t (or doesn’t have to be, or can’t possibly
     constructing rock as     highly problematic, any definition of rock           be) ‘taken seriously’. Rock, in contrast, is
                              must contend with the pop question. Rock             mainstream music that is (or ought to be, or
     an “open” popular        Star: INXS sought to distinguish itself from the     must be) taken seriously.”3 It is precisely this
                              unabashedly “pop” American Idol by having            argument that those involved in getting Rock
     music genre that runs    its contestants perform authentically “rock”         Star: INXS off the ground mobilized in their
                              (read: not pop) songs and, in order to get the       discussions with the artists/rights holders of the
     the gamut from Stevie    rights to these songs (often denied network          songs they wanted to use and this logic was
                              television productions), those involved with         also foundational to the choices the program
     Wonder to Courtney       the show had to convince rights holders that         made in pursuing various songs/artists.
                              the songs would be used for an authentically             While the show initially had to utilize
     Love, and policing the   “rock” (read: not American Idol) show. This          a narrow genre definition of rock in order
                              logic was funneled through claims to rock’s          to bracket itself off from the most insidious
     boundaries of what       seriousness in relation to conceptions of            qualities of pop characterized (or perhaps
                              “pop” music as frivolous. Typical is Variety         caricaturized) by American Idol, this work was
     counts as rock, plays    critic Phil Gallo’s characterization of Rock         only the first prong of a two-pronged genre
                              Star: INXS: “No auditions, no criticism, no          strategy. Having distinguished itself as a rock-
     out throughout Rock      cut-ups–none of the ‘American Idol’ stuff that       oriented show, Rock Star: INXS was then free
                              makes [audiences] convulse with laughter.            to grapple with the question of what such a
     Star: INXS.

                              This is serious business from the start.”2           categorization entailed, ultimately embracing
                              American Idol’s lack of seriousness, often           a concept of rock that was ostensibly open,
                              characterized as “the William Hung factor”           but which paradoxically mandated a more
                              after the hilariously untalented Idol contestant,    narrow concept of who could be a “rock
                              is contrasted with the sincerity of INXS’s efforts   star.” During its search for what executive
                              to find a real rock star. Such rhetoric speaks       producer David Goffin calls “legitimacy,” the

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show was particularly spurred on by obtaining    Fornäs’ manifesto proves prophetic in the case
   the rights to songs that resonated with a        of Rock Star: INXS’s ultimate lineup of songs     Following a campaign
   normative white male conception of rock: he      and performers. One can, indeed, go through
   states, “When we got the Doors, I believe we     the above list and point out performances               of counter-pop
   obtained legitimacy.” The tension between
                                                    of Sam Cooke’s “Bring it on Home to Me”
   constructing rock as an “open” popular music     (Afro-American soul), Bob Marley’s “No                positioning, Rock
   genre that runs the gamut from Stevie Wonder     Woman, No Cry” (reggae), Britney Spears’
   to Courtney Love, and policing the boundaries    “Hit Me Baby One More Time” (female pop),          Star: INXS ultimately
   of what counts as rock, plays out throughout     in addition to a host of other songs which
   Rock Star: INXS.                                 might qualify as “Other” than rock: Stevie          opened its stage to
       Johan Fornäs has argued that generic         Wonder’s “Superstition” (funk), Elvis Presley’s
   openness is essential to the survival of rock,   “Suspicious Minds” (rock’n’roll),6 Bob Dylan’s       a highly pluralistic
   proclaiming:                                     “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” (folk)7, and so
                                                    on. Naturally, Rock Star: INXS also includes             (if not entirely
       Rock will die (petrified into a cliché)      its share of white male rock, and white male
     if its hegemonic line is strong and stiff      performers, but it is important to note that          groundbreaking)
     enough to repress all Others in its efforts    three of the most popular (and long surviving)
     to establish a pure origin and canon. If       contestants on the show were an African                definition of the
     and when rock can be unambiguously             American man with a mohawk (Ty Taylor), a

     defined, then it will be dead. But as long     white Canadian woman (Suzie McNeil), and a                  rock genre.
     as various Others (‘Afro-American’ soul,       Filipino Australian man (MiG Ayesa).
     reggae and rap, ‘female’ pop, non-Anglo-       	The apparent diversity of Rock Star:
     American voices, and so on) fight stylistic    INXS’s conception of the rock genre, and the
     wars with the male, white, Western rock        potential for rock stardom seems to be a point
     heroes for the right to rock, the genre will   of pride for the show, ultimately adding to,
     survive as an open and unpredictable           rather than diminishing its rock legitimacy.
     field. 5
                                                    Consider show co-host and “genuine”

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rock star Dave Navarro’s description of            	The first episode is highly indicative of           by the members of INXS and Dave Navarro.
   the show’s content: “We have songs from            the first phase of the show, which revolves          Navarro is so confounded (perhaps partially
   Nirvana, Living Colour, Courtney Love, the         around remaining “true” to the painstakingly         because of Ty’s uncanny resemblance to Living
   Black Crowes, Rolling Stones, the Who,             gathered tunes the show has access to. The           Colour frontman Corey Glover) that he utters
   to name a few. The songs they’re going to          first episode is somewhat conservative in the        of Ty: “He’s like modern, he’s like classic,
   be performing are real, great rock songs.”8        choices it offers the rockers. None of the initial   he’s like timeless.” It is difficult to overlook
   Navarro is careful here to foreground not          fifteen songs (which do cover a significant          the fact that Ty, the only African American
   only the “white male heroes” of classic            range of music, tracing rock history from Bob        man on the show, begins his Rock Star: INXS
   rock such as the Stones and the Who, but           Dylan to Nirvana) rock the boat, so to speak,        stint by doing a song by one of the best-
   also black hard rock band Living Colour            of rock genre. In the earliest episodes of the       known modern black rock bands. Deanna’s
   and controversial female rocker Courtney           show, the primary goal seems to be not so            treatment of Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart”
   Love within his definition of “real” rock.         much performing as impersonating the star            is perhaps the most convincing impersonation
   Similarly, the media’s scrutiny of the show’s      whose song the contestant has chosen. In the         of all. Deanna’s big, bold voice is well suited
   contestants often favorably emphasized             first episode, the would-be rockers are thus         to “do” Joplin. However, she goes beyond
   the program’s decision to include non-             praised for their ability to cover rock greats or    vocal impersonation, opting to leave her long
   white-male rockers. After the first episode,       punished for their inability to do so. The three     hair down and messy, donning a longish skirt
   one journalist remarked, “Nearly half the          contestants who receive the highest praise on        and allowing her midriff to show. She even
   contestants are women and fortunately,             the first episode, Neal, Ty, and Deanna, also        adds a Joplin-esque “Shut up!” in the middle
   based on just one [performance], several of        emerge as the best suited for impersonating          of a phrase and raunchily grabs her thigh at
   them are stronger than some of the men.            the singers they have chosen for the episode.        one point. Neal, Ty, and Deanna’s successful
   Were they not, their casting would feel            Neal, a lanky New Yorker with longish, curly         performances, or rather impersonations, are
   like an eye-candy decision and nothing             brown hair, is praised for his performance           thrown into sharp contrast by MiG and Dana’s
   more.”9 Following a campaign of counter-           of the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar” after           less successful starts.
   pop positioning, Rock Star: INXS ultimately        convincingly impersonating a swaggering,                 While MiG eventually placed third in
   opened its stage to a highly pluralistic (if not   stomping Mick Jagger. African American singer        the Rock Star: INXS competition, his first
   entirely groundbreaking) definition of the         Ty’s performance of Living Colour’s “Cult of         performance, Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen
   rock genre.                                        Personality” is met with even greater praise         Spirit,” puts him off to a bad start. His

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decidedly un-Kurt Cobain stage presence
   (he cheerfully waves at the audience as
   he sings “Hello, hello, hello…”) causes
   Dave Navarro to cringe and mouth the
   word “no.” MiG is saved from elimination
   by his ability to sing but is chastised for
   picking a song that he could not deliver with
   appropriate reverence.10 Dana, who attacks
   Bob Dylan’s “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,”
   is not so lucky. Her velvet pants and fringed
   shirt do not match Dylan’s image, just as her
   voice does not match his vocal style. When
   the struggling singer lets out a strange growl
   toward the end of the song, the camera cuts
   to reaction shots of horrified contestants and
   the INXS band members, and soon after
   Dana becomes the first one to be cut. INXS       Rock Star: INXS,
   bassist Gary Beers explains that if you are
   going to do “one of the greatest songs” by
   “the greatest songwriter,” you must perform
   it “perfectly.” Perhaps what he means is
   that you must perform it as Dylan would.
   Rock history must be taken seriously and
   a woman (Dana) and Filipino Australian
   (MiG) are deemed unable to live up to the
   standards of the white male rock stars they
   attempt to cover.

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Had Rock Star: INXS continued as an               meant dispensing with a somewhat inclusive          (and that, in turn, the listener’s sense of self
   impersonation show, it is likely that fans (both   interest in genre as interpreted by a variety       may be diminished).”12 JD is authenticated as
   of rock and of television) would have grown        of voices and bodies in favor of an increased       a rock star by his origination of a song that can
   tired of the program’s mere rehearsing (or         focus on white male subjectivity which has,         be circulated creatively and commercially.
   rehashing) of rock history. As one journalist      since the 1960s (when white rock largely            	Even when JD does not write his own
   notes, “Skilled and big-voiced as they may         supplanted black rock’n’roll), been linked to       original songs, he is celebrated for creatively
   be, almost all of them have cloned themselves      the “authentic” production of rock.                 altering the work of others in a way that suits
   on a specific predecessor… the singers of          	Despite the fact that Rock Star: INXS              his (and arguably the show’s) conception of a
   Rock Star have the mannerisms of rock’n’roll       contestant JD Fortune began his career as an        rock star. The Rock Star: INXS website paints
   performance down pat–the rasp, the raunch,         Elvis impersonator, he was ultimately chosen        JD as “the rocker who takes the most chances
   the strut. Their repertoire of hackneyed           to front INXS based not on his ability to           and the most control over his choices.”13 This
   gestures makes Rock Star akin to a TV version      rehash classic rock idols, but to do “his own”      is demonstrated by his performance of Alanis
   of the Jack Black movie The School of Rock–        thing. JD is one of only two performers (both       Morissette’s “Hand in My Pocket,” of which
   except that the humor…[comes from] the             of whom are white men) who wrote and                the site says, “Above a driving Bo Diddley
   contestants’ hopelessly uncool rendition           performed single-worthy songs during the run        beat, he pushes the song forward, singing
   of cool.”11 Uncool or not, this author’s           of Rock Star: INXS. JD’s song, “Pretty Vegas,”      just a little in front of the beat, transforming
   allegations of humor speak to the danger of        a collaboration with INXS member Andrew             the original’s resignation into something that
   contestants straining the generic boundaries       Farriss, became the first single off INXS’s         Dave [Navarro] describes as ‘more masculine.’
   that the show so carefully sets up. While the      post-Rock Star album. The gravity of JD’s           Andrew is impressed with the way JD ‘took
   performances that begin the show are meant         authorship in the context of a show attempting      command.’”14 Here JD’s authorship and
   to solidify rock as a genre and demonstrate        to make claims for the ongoing vitality of          authenticity are expressly connected to
   the contestants’ sincerity in their desire to      rock is explained by Keir Keightley, who            his masculinity, demonstrating the show’s
   rock, Rock Star: INXS must move beyond a           says, “Like ‘authenticity,’ the word ‘author’ is    implication that while women can perform
   somewhat limited definition of rock (great         etymologically related to the ‘self.’ If the rock   rock, only men can master it.
   songs by great songwriters/performers) in          musician’s ‘self’ is not involved in originating        Rock Star: INXS is a complicated document
   order to maintain audience interest and avoid      the text she or he performs, rock believes that     in that it wrestles with the complex history of
   ridicule. In the case of Rock Star: INXS this      self is more likely to be corrupted or alienated    rock which can be mapped onto skirmishes

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between “pop” as frivolous and “rock” as             Notes                                                         11. Press, Joy. “Almost Famous.” Village Voice. July 26,
                                                        1.  Fornäs, Johan. “The future of rock: discourses that            2005: 99.
   serious, as well as the problematic legacy of                                                                      12. Keightley, 134.
                                                            struggle to define a genre.” Popular Music 14, no. 1
   racial borrowing and gendered exclusion. The             (1995).                                                   13. Rock Star: INXS website: http://www.rockstar.msn.
                                                        2. Gallo, Phil. “Rock Star: INXS.” Daily Variety. July 11,         com/recaps/week2/performance.
   relationship between television (a medium                                                                          14. Ibid. An entire study might focus on the
                                                            2005: 6.
   for the masses) and rock music puts further          3. Keightley, Keir. “Reconsidering Rock.” In                       metanarrative of the Rock Star website, which is
                                                            Simon Frith, Will Straw, and John Street, eds.                 careful to orient performance recaps (and video
   pressure on the show and its mission: to                                                                                footage) not only in the context of the show, but in
                                                            The Cambridge Companion to Pop and Rock.
   define the rock star in 2005. The show’s early           Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001: 128.              the context of rock history and criticism.
                                                        4.	Seibel, Deborah Starr. “The Real Story Behind a
   efforts to be inclusive of rock music’s “others”
                                                            Real Turnaround.” The New York Times. Sept. 20,
   are ultimately given the lie by its privileging of       2005: E4.
                                                        5. Fornäs, 121.
   the white male rock star. The show’s “genre
                                                        6. Many critics and scholars, following Charlie Gillett’s
   trouble,” which plays out in the difficulties of         work in The Sound of the City: the Rise of Rock and
                                                            Roll (1970), make a generic distinction between
   locating particular bodies and subjectivities
                                                            1950s “rock and roll” or “rock’n’roll” and “rock,”
   within the ever-changing confines of genre as            which is generally said to begin with the British
                                                            Invasion of the 1960s.
   a historical and discursive formation, provides
                                                        7.	Actually, this song is itself a complicated one to
   a productive case study in understanding the             position generically, since many folk purists consider
                                                            Dylan’s post-1965 electric work to be disqualified
   negotiation of race, gender, and sexuality
                                                            from any meaningful designation as folk.
   within the culture industries.                       8. Quoted in O’Hare, Kate. “INXS Selecting New
                                                            Performer on ‘Rock Star.’” Palm Beach Post. July 10,
                                                            2005: TV Post 3.
   Laurel Westrup is a Ph.D. candidate in the           9. Gallo. It should be noted, however, that Navarro’s
   Cinema and Media Studies Program in the                  behavior toward the women on the show was often
   Department of Film, Television, and Digital              somewhat indistinguishable from sexual harassment.
   Media at UCLA. She received a Center for the             He tells Deanna at one point that after her first
   Study of Women/Graduate Division Irving and              performance (of Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart”)
                                                            that he “needed a cold shower.”
   Jean Stone Dissertation Year Fellowship earlier
                                                        10.	Dave Navarro, having come of rock star age during
   this year.                                               Nirvana’s heyday, is especially critical of the Nirvana
                                                            performances throughout the show. It might be
                                                            argued that by demonstrating his reverence to a
                                                            “real” rock star (the deceased Cobain) Navarro
                                                            effectively bolsters his own rock authenticity.

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