Wednesday, June 16, 2004

INXS is teaming up with reality TV producer Mark Burnett to create Rock Star, a TV contest to find the band a replacement for their deceased singer Michael Hutchence. Hutchence died in 1997 (Though officially ruled a suicide, evidence suggests it may have been accidental), and the band has worked with a series of guest vocalists for their limited concert schedule since then.

American Idol this ain't, for a variety of reasons. The most basic is that the viewing audience won't have complete control over who wins. Secondly, they aren't just rating the contestants as singers; the judges, including the band members themselves and "leading entertainment industry specialist," will also evaluate them on songwriting, image and production.

But it also hints at the difference between a great singer and a great frontman. The original British incarnation of American Idol is called Pop Idol, and in England there is a distinction between pop stars and rock stars. Pop stars have pretty voices (or these days, software to make their voices pretty). Rock stars don't have to have pretty voices; they have to have interesting voices coupled with charisma to spare, Rod Stewart being the most extreme example of this. Hutchence wasn't a great frontman because he had perfect pitch or could hold a high note for three minutes or whatever other histrionics qualify as talent when Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston are the only yardsticks. Hutchence built his reputation as part of a band and on the strength of their live shows. In concert, he had stage presence to burn, and it was part of an incredibly tight unit. The band went 20 years without a line-up change, and their taut funk-inflected rock is musically more interesting than the schmaltz pedaled by singers just showing off their vocal ranges. Even if the contest yields someone better than, say, Ian Astbury of the Cult filling in for Jim Morrison in a Doors revival, it's still questionable whether the band can ever find someone to mesh as well into their tight knit.

The winner will record an album with the band, their first since Hutchence's death, and "embark on a world tour of major concert arenas." The latter part of the "prize" is questionable since the band's popularity was waning even before they lost their frontman. They may still be an institution in their Australian homeland, but they'd be lucky to sell out a theater tour of the U.S. at this point.

The full details are on the band's web site in the news section. For those with a hankering to audition, "casting" (a disturbingly TV-oriented term, considering the intended outcome) won't begin until later this year.

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