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Southern Exposure 

INXS is looking for someone to replace the face in the middle. It could have been you. I'm not going to turn them down if they say, 'You're going to Hollywood.'"

It wasn't even 8 a.m. on Monday, Feb. 14, and Margie was one of the 20 or so people starting Valentine's Day lined up outside of Tipitina's waiting to audition for Rock Star: INXS, the new reality show premiering at 8 p.m. Monday, July 11. The show features the members of INXS searching for a new lead singer, but Margie, 40, didn't sound confident that she could replace Michael Hutchence, who died under mysterious circumstances in 1997. Kaye from New Orleans spoke for Margie and many in line when she said, "I'm really just here to get my music heard."

Mike from Biloxi, Miss., on the other hand, said, "I didn't take a day off work and come here to lose." He was feeling lucky because he won a radio drawing recently, but his luck ran out. His audition wasn't bad -- you realize watching the tryouts that American Idol has to look as hard for comically bad singers as they do for good ones -- but he wasn't going to have to remember the lyrics to "New Sensation" anytime soon.

In other cities, 200 or more hopefuls turned up to audition at each stop; perhaps 60 showed up in New Orleans, and most looked more ready to make groceries than front INXS. Then again, Casey from Florida wore a lace-up white shirt, black vinyl pants and lavender cowboy boots. He looked old enough to have been a fan of INXS in its heyday, and he emoted his way through "It's My Life" as if he were playing the Superdome with guitarists blasting through Marshall stacks behind him. There weren't any guitarists, though. He sang a cappella, and there was no one to cover his passionately missed notes. Without a band, a light show and tens of thousands of screaming fans, his theatrical performance looked a little odd. Then again, singing rock 'n' roll is a little odd, and at least he thought about what a lead singer does. Many of those dressed to shop stood more or less motionless on Tipitina's stage with only two associate producers and a few hands preparing contestants for an audience.

Casey finished the verse and chorus of the Bon Jovi hit he chose to sing, which is more than many contestants managed. They were told to prepare three songs, but most heard, "Thank you very much" as the associate producers cut them off before finishing one. Supervising producer David Goffin emphasized that Rock Star: INXS isn't like American Idol, and that there won't be any bitchy rejections or William Hungs. "If we cut you off," an associate producer said, "don't be insulted. It means we get it."

He said he wanted energy and personality, but he saw little of either. He did see a strong singer from Florida (who slept in his car) hit the high notes in Journey's "Open Arms," and he saw a woman who is likely a great karaoke singer nail a Joplin-esque "Me and Bobby McGee" before changing voices entirely to sound like Avril Lavigne singing "Happy Ending." She seemed to recognize the importance of a trademark voice, but she didn't get the importance of having one herself.

Then again, few who performed appeared conscious of the difference between themselves and the stars they saw in videos and heard on CDs. Perhaps those auditioning didn't hear how they really sounded (a legitimate possibility), or they assumed that stars' voices are so tricked up by studio technology that their voices aren't any good, either (also probably true), or they hoped that whatever they had was good enough in the blind, vague way that people buy lottery tickets.

I got the feeling watching the proceedings that the whole "getting discovered" business is sufficiently shrouded in mystery that most were really taking a shot in the dark and hoping that somehow, "exposure" would occur. They figured someone inside Tipitina's could do something for them, and whatever that was could be the start of something better. Many hopefuls gave the doorman business cards and home-burned CDs in case he might be a player. He wasn't, but how could they know? Maybe they hoped members of INXS would be inside -- they were supposed to be, but weren't -- and thought they might know another band looking for a singer, or want to use their influence to convince their label they should sign a beer-pudgy party dude, or ... who knows what possible scenarios people constructed? There's a good chance few thought at all about how auditioning would work for them; they just hoped somehow it would.

The next day was for those whose tryouts had been arranged in advance. The saddest case was Ted from Chicago who felt he auditioned poorly there, so he quit his job and came to New Orleans. Once onstage, he couldn't get his guitar in tune and his guitar player had the sense not to quit, so the singer was on his own. An associate producer got the guitar in tune, but Ted still couldn't play it, so he sang to the backing tracks of INXS's "Never Tear Us Apart." Throughout the song's lengthy intro, he sputtered syllables as he repeatedly jumped in too early. He eventually did a mediocre Michael Hutchence impression, and it became clear he believed anything can happen, you can't win if you don't play, and any number of similar slogans carnies use to separate suckers from their money.

Most of those auditioning were semi-pro singers recommended by club owners (full disclosure: I recommended some as well). That Tuesday, performing style was more of a concern than the voices of those auditioning. Two members of INXS were on hand, and one videotaped each contestant. One woman from Memphis sang well but slowly, unconsciously backing up while singing, ending just before the back wall. A local blues singer got genuine, enthusiastic applause when he finished, but more because he played music the band members like than because he represented a direction they wanted to go.

My bum's rush came after a few hours when a producer in knee-high socks asked, "You have enough now, don't you?" in a way that told me she thought I did. Tipitina's staff quietly said they'd fill me in but clammed up once they were asked to sign confidentiality agreements, and an oft-discussed INXS interview never materialized. At some point, my emails stopped being answered.

All of that seems odd, but not as odd as the show's basic premise. David Goffin explained that INXS would never be able to audition as many singers as Mark Burnett Productions -- the show's producer -- could, so process would find the best singer. That assumes, though, that the best singer for the band is someone with minimal experience, someone who is a blank slate in many ways.

It would be nice if Rock Star: INXS portrayed rock 'n' roll accurately, but the CBS.com photo of the finalists -- none of which came from the New Orleans auditions -- doesn't bode well. The contestants are dressed more outrageously than Michael Hutchence ever did, looking like corny television versions of rock stars in sitcoms and crime dramas. Maybe INXS didn't do this to revive a flagging career and maybe it will find a real new lead singer. My unpleasant suspicion, though, is that when music and television come together, television always wins.

click to enlarge Last Valentine's Day, New Orleans hopefuls - auditioned for Rock Star: INXS - to make their rock 'n' roll dreams come true ... or - something like that.
  • Last Valentine's Day, New Orleans hopefuls auditioned for Rock Star: INXS to make their rock 'n' roll dreams come true ... or something like that.
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