I Like to Watch

What ever happened to sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll? Witness your favorite vices, neutered, declawed and trussed up in foolish costumes for mass consumption on network TV.

Published July 9, 2006 1:00PM (EDT)

Nothing's shocking
Remember when the world didn't seem all that dangerous, so we had to make our own danger by indulging in unsafe sex, illicit drugs and stacks of amplifiers loud enough to shatter our eardrums? Those were simpler times, indeed! Long before the towers fell and the globe turned into a giant easy-bake oven and we became ensnared in an unsavory, unphotogenic war that won't even seem romantic in retrospect, the world seemed like a gentle, safe place, the kind of place where a guy could go out and blast some little birdies out of the sky for the hell of it without worrying that his buddy might shoot his face off along the way.

In the good old days, why, you could hear someone yelling, "Sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, baby!" and it didn't even sound like a jingle for some kind of overpriced family theme park staffed by Lollapalooza has-beens. This may seem hard to believe, but back then, you didn't have to feel self-conscious if you happened to pass a doobie to your buddy, or if you got the sudden urge to hold your cigarette lighter aloft! You could watch "The Wizard of Oz" with a "Dark Side of the Moon" soundtrack, you could play air guitar along to Led Zeppelin's "In My Time of Dying," you could do whippets and listen to Yes and make out in the back of your boyfriend's Pinto to "Teenage Wasteland" and you didn't have to consider the demographic implications of any of it.

But once the marketing killjoys invaded our most treasured turf, the rock 'n' roll fantasy was over. We wouldn't want to join any demographic that would have us as members, after all. Around the same time that Beatles songs started to remind us of Nike footwear, we knew that the thrills and spills of our messiest indulgences had finally lost their romance, and all that was left for us was a neutered life of couples therapy, psychotropics and soft jazz.

No sugar tonight
Sure, it was inevitable that someday, we'd stop screaming our guts out at rock shows and throwing up into trash cans, and start flipping through Anne Geddes picture books (Awww!) while sampling soft cheeses and sipping rosé on ice. But it still seems sad, somehow -- not because making out with smelly teenagers in beat-up cars was really all that spectacular, but because, thanks to years and years of being embraced and celebrated, sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll have become as flaccid and empty as we have.

Nothing embodies this regrettable evolution more vividly than CBS' "Rock Star: Supernova" (9 p.m. Tuesdays and 8 p.m. Wednesdays). Like odd little automated puppets that wandered out of the Rock 'n' Rollercoaster at Disney World, Dave Navarro and Tommy Lee gesture and point and say "Sweet!" and "Rock on!" entirely without irony. And while our love of irony may have faded even faster than our love of pot brownies and the Guess Who, we still think that a spoonful of ironic sugar might help the cheesy-postmodern-rocker medicine go down a little bit more smoothly. But Navarro and Lee aren't concerned with doing things in the most delightful way. They want to rock. Because rocking rocks.

And so the tastelessly clad windup doll known as "Brooke Burke" takes the stage and explains that the producers combed the world over to find these 15 rockers who, over the next several weeks, are going to rock their hardest for the chance to join nascent (see also: agent-brokered) rock group "Supernova." Instead of telling us the truth about how a bunch of managers and producers and agents got together and tried to figure out what kind of aging rockers would make a reasonably appealing rock band capable of cross-marketing a CBS hit show, we're meant to believe that Tommy Lee and Gilby Clarke (from Guns N' Roses) and Jason Newsted (of Metallica) are old pals who just recently started rocking out together and then thought, "Hey, we need a lead singer, guys!" at around the same time that CBS needed a new band to replace last year's mediocre band-without-a-face, INXS. Of course, such less-than-authentic roots don't stop the folks at CBS from referring to "the internationally renowned band Supernova," which is a little bit like selling a ride on Disney's Space Mountain by saying it's a ticket for a trip on the Space Shuttle.

Just to round out this thrillingly shiny and horrifying post-postmodern postmortem of rock 'n' roll, we have Dave Navarro, rock 'n' roll's most talented pretty boy, with his camera-ready gestures and his painstakingly applied makeup and his awesome rocker jewelry. As usual, Navarro is more than happy to help CBS do for rock 'n' roll what his wife Carmen Electra's Pussycat Dolls have done for whoring sea donkey-dom. Just as Carmen and the girls found a way to organize a gaggle of common sluts into a seriously talentless Vegas floor show, so too shall CBS form a worldwide-touring band from a gaggle of rocker has-beens with really bad hair and one aspiring, growling, howling rocker 'bot. In truth, Navarro is forgiven, not just because he's a former member of Jane's Addiction, a band that it's never been embarrassing to love unconditionally, but because, once you block out the rocker lingo and the Maybelline eyeshadow in Cappuccino and the pretty wrist bangles, Navarro actually seems like a down-to-earth guy with a good head on his shoulders. Even when he says stuff like "That rocked!" or "Dude, good for you, bringin' it honest-style!" somehow we know what he means, and we usually agree. And look, that's the fun of a show like this, right? To use your instinct to sift through the fakers and the posers and locate the genuine human beings who just happen to be wearing spiked dog collars.

Not that the appropriately rocker-esque fraudience of wannabe actors and extras can tell the difference. They're just anxious to scream and raise their arms in the air every time they see a little fist-pumping, pointing or gyrating onstage. "Did Dave just say rock on? He did? Woohoo! Right on, brother!"

And if you think the fraudience is psyched to rock out, check out the rockers themselves! Oh, those rockers, with their meticulously chosen rock 'n' roll outfits and rock 'n' roll hairstyles! I love how the rockers have big, carefully mussed hairdos and dark, black rocker circles painted under their eyes, but their bodies are pumped up like they've been tossing back wheatgrass shots and flaxseed oil supplements and they just got off the elliptical trainer at Bally's Total Fitness. There's something so deeply delicious about watching a girl with teased blond hair and big fake titties, wearing a hippie outfit made, bizarrely enough, of gold lamé, doing her best impression of Janis Joplin. I think we can safely assume that Janis Joplin, even if she lived to the Vegasy Fat Elvis stage of life, even if she found herself hurling sweaty towels at an aging gaggle of fans, still wouldn't have purchased some fake boobs and then squeezed them into gold lamé. Honestly, if rock 'n' roll weren't already dead, it would've collapsed into a heap of tearful recriminations at such a soul-sucking, plasticized sight, a bastardization of all that was ever real and authentic and slightly trashy about rock 'n' roll in the first place.

But back to our story. Did you know that, on the Rock 'n' Rollercoaster at Disney World, the little cars that you ride in are shaped just like limousines? That's because rockers ride in limos, dude! We all know that, because we know all about rockers! That's how the little actors and wannabes in the fraudience know how to dress and act like rock fans, throwing their hands up and making ye olde "raise hell" sign with their hands, and squealing and throwing their heads around and bending their knees in time with the music. It's great how well they can all act, because it makes the little aspiring rockers, all trussed up in their silly rocker costumes, feel just like actual rock stars might have felt, years ago, rocking out to some serious rock 'n' roll!

It helps that the rockers get to imitate Nirvana and Billy Idol, howling and growling and pumping their fists and dropping to their knees and stuff. And while the vast majority of the rockers are about as talented as the staff of, say, a rock 'n' roll version of Ed Debevic's (think: obnoxious singing waiters), a few of them actually seem to be real human beings. It's tough to tell, since they're all wearing the same costumes and mimicking the same gestures, but among the well-toned mannequins doing their best impressions of rock stars, there are a few flesh-and-blood originals who actually seem to have (gasp) souls.

Needless to say, I hate almost everything about "Rock Star: Supernova" -- the fact that it sells out our fondest memories, signals the demise of our dominance as a culture, and vividly demonstrates how we've become sad little shadows of our former selves, destined to imitate our own peak moments like helpless statues trapped in some sleazy wax museum on Hollywood Boulevard -- and naturally I plan to watch the show faithfully for the rest of the summer. Because in addition to being a gloriously horrid train wreck of visual and sonic clichés, "Rock Star" is good, sporting fun that the whole family can share in, groaning and cringing while separating the seriously cheesy, fist-pumping puppets from those few, genuinely inspired, talented humans. It's exactly the sort of pastime that fits neatly into any neutered, empty, post-rocker lifestyle.

This band was made for you and me
But some of you, for whatever reason, don't delight in the tawdry, deeply false, corporate-sponsored depths to which American pop culture has fallen. I feel your pain, and this week, I even have a viewing recommendation for you: the American Masters biopic of Woody Guthrie airing this week on PBS (9 p.m. on July 12, check local listings).

Unlike the pleather-clad faux-rockers who are to rock 'n' roll what Cap'n Crunch Crunchberries cereal is to fresh raspberries, Woody Guthrie was the genuine article, a man who conjures up the words "down to earth" and "authentic" and "inspiring" without ever having had to gush to Dave Navarro about how inspired he felt when he wrote that song. Guthrie came into his own during the Great Depression, traveled with the displaced farmers from Oklahoma and Texas who lost their land to the dust storms, and sang about their hardships and the lack of help they received from the indifferent residents of California. Not only was Guthrie a champion of the little man, but he felt deeply moved by the natural riches of this great land of ours in a way that's hardly fathomable to cynical, post-ironic jerks like you and me.

In an age when true inspiration is either coated in three inches of makeup, cornered into crappy alliances by greedy agents, or stripped of its originality, pumped full of falseness and marketed too broadly, Woody Guthrie's adherence to his own principles feels downright archaic, if not unthinkable. Within weeks of finally making a living as a songwriter on the radio in New York City, Guthrie decided that he didn't want to adhere to his employer's demands, so he packed up the family and moved on with little or no promise of paying work elsewhere. Eventually, his wife and three kids left him, of course, since following an idealist's whims around the country isn't exactly the sort of life a young family can handle. But there's still something romantic about Guthrie's stubborn commitment to following his own compass.

Wouldn't it be cool if one of the rockers of "Rock Star" quit after an acute realization of the soul-sucking nature of the whole enterprise? Of course, today, we'd just scoff at the guy and say that he was blowing a good thing by letting his silly notions get in the way of his success. The media naturally rises up and tramples all over such an independent thinker -- after all, we're all caught up in this empty game, so how dare someone have the gall to decide it's all a load of hooey?

We're brainwashed to believe that the more hours a person can remain on our TV screens, the better off they are. I feel sorry for the rockers, and for us, because we're a million miles away from the simple pleasures of being a guy like Guthrie, who can stand by his deepest-held beliefs without second-guessing them for a second.

Oh well. At least we have more rosé chilling in the fridge.

Metal heart
For those who are far, far too post-post-post -ironic to enjoy either the gruesome bastardization of rock on "Rock Star" or the deeply heartfelt pursuit of truth in a Woody Guthrie doc, there's Adult Swim's "Metalocalypse" (coming to Cartoon Network in August, check listings), a 15-minute cartoon that would most accurately be described as an animated Norwegian Satanic version of "Spinal Tap."

Brendon Small, creator of "Home Movies," returns with the imaginary metal band "Dethklok." Basically, if you were to cut together all the growling and groaning of "Rock Star," crank the amps up to 11, and then slaughter the assembled fraudience in the most gruesome and bloody manner, you'd have a peek at the charms of "Metalocalypse." Of course Dethklok's hardcore metal fans can't get enough of the mayhem. "In London, some dude chopped off my fingers and threw them up onstage!" one mutilated fan gushes while waiting to get into the show.

After the latest massacre, the members of Dethklok go to the local supermarket in search of nourishment and end up scaring the hell out of some little old ladies by behaving erratically and peeing into the bins of olives. That probably sounds a little bit more wholesome and artistically inspired than "Rock Star," but to me, it's the same old "That's sooo random, dude!" fare that Adult Swim serves up with reckless abandon. Because Adult Swim is custom-made for adults who like stuff that's so post-post-post-ironic that it has no meaning and no story at all and "random" is the highest accolade it can possibly achieve.

Or maybe I'm just the flaccid, unsophisticated sort of aging heifer who's not all that into heavy metal, bloody limbs or gags about peeing in inappropriate places. The basic notion of creepy Norwegian rockers singing unintelligibly and hacking thrilled fans to little pieces will surely be applauded and embraced by a large audience, and large audiences sometimes encourage good writers like Small to up their game. We'll all have to wait until August to see if he can stop pissing into the wind -- or the olives, as it were -- and crank this one up to 12 or 13.

Vice grip
In case I've led you to believe that rock 'n' roll is the only part of the golden triumvirate of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll that's gone sour, here are some more viewing suggestions that are sure to pound home the notion that all of our favorite perversions have lost their flavor.

The third season of A&E's "Intervention" premieres on Sunday night (10 p.m. on July 9), which means that a whole new crowd of desperate, weepy addicts will soon be beguiling us with their excuses, angry outbursts and petty thievery. Oh, but it'll all be OK once a qualified professional enters and publicly manipulates them into getting shipped off to rehab. That sounds way too juicy and upsetting and richly entertaining not to constitute seriously exploitative TV, right? Sure, except when you factor in the thousands of addicts and addicts' families who might be encouraged to get help by watching the show. The truth is, as tough as it is on the addicts themselves to have their lowest moments broadcast nationwide, the process seems to peel off their layers of denial a little bit faster than might be possible if cameras weren't rolling -- and ripping through the denial seems to be a major part of the battle.

Mostly, though, "Intervention" demonstrates just how nasty and ridiculous and self-serving drugs will make us, if we take them at a rapid enough clip -- and that's not to mention the wrinkles and the hair loss and the drab, yellow, saggy skin. Why didn't Rollergirl from "Boogie Nights" ever look sick and sallow like that?

No matter. All that's left in our grab bag of indulgences is sex, which has been systematically demystified and shattered to little pieces by years of pornography's hairless blow-up dolls, banging each other joylessly on an adjustable lawn chair by some pool in the valley. For a brand new taste of the same old thing, look no further than the Playboy Channel's "Foursome," a reality TV show about four strangers, picked to live in a house and have dirty, anonymous sex with each other over the course of a weekend.

But sadly, once people stop being polite and start stripping down to their edible G-strings, it turns out things get less and less sexy, if not less amusing. Unfortunately, the sorts of sea donkeys Playboy can convince to take their clothes off and screw random strangers while the cameras roll aren't the sorts of sea donkeys we necessarily want to see having sex. And even if a particular pairing suits our fickle fancy, we only get disappointingly blurry footage of the real, ass-slapping action. This means most of each episode is taken up by the kind of soft-porn high jinx that could only turn on a horny teenager: The girls have a few drinks, pop their tops off, and start licking chocolate off each others faces, or the guys (who, perhaps not coincidentally, look a lot like the male members of the fraudience on "Rock Star") trade notes on who they want to "bang," then pull out their most hideously awkward moves to convince the ladies to sit on their faces.

OK, fine, this show is awesome. I'll admit it. Even though the sea donkeys involved are usually gross and pathetic and they treat each other like slabs of meat and then insult each other after the fact, it's all so spectacularly stupid and hilarious, you can't quite avert your eyes. My favorite episode (Playboy sent me four of them) featured two alarmingly shy guys and one shy girl, thrown into a house with a raging alcoholic she-devil, the sort of slightly saggy, out-of-control girl who mixes Everclear and Red Bull in a big pitcher, drinks the entire thing, seduces the shy girl, announces her intention to manipulate the other two guys into having sex with the shy girl while she looks on, and then gets belligerent and ends up stumbling around alone, mumbling to herself and posing for the cameras all night long. You're never too old to appreciate a spectacle as debased as that one. You should really have to pay to see something that entertaining!

Oh yeah, you do have to pay for it. Anyway.

Reckless talk
But don't let the inventions of agents and managers and producers distract you from the good life that can be yours, chickens. Don't let the sea donkeys make you think that sex is something sick and sloppy that occurs between strangers after a pitcher of boozy jet fuel. Don't let the trembling addicts give you the impression that every illegal substance leads straight to bad skin and weepy breakdowns in the company of soft-spoken counseling professionals. Don't let a howling fraudience make you believe that rock 'n' roll is the tromping ground of trussed-up, pleather-suited mannequins schooled in the most predictable rocker pantomime. Even though the world is no longer safe enough for sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, even though you're far too old and fragile to indulge in much more than heavy petting to the strains of "Deathcab for Cutie," we can't let the marketing mutants and studio heads trick us into thinking that those soiled and debased times were all just a deluded detour from so-called real life, the variety that's injected into our pop cultural IV's to keep us limp and alienated. Like Woody Guthrie before us, we have to trust our own compasses to decide what's good and pure and what's poisonous and empty -- even if we settle on soft jazz and soft cheeses in the end.

Next week: "Project Runway" returns!

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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