Once upon a time, in the misty years before the internet, integrity was the currency of rock and roll. It was something rock bands lived and breathed, to be all about the music and the fan loyalty and yet also try to make a living in a business famous for leaving the weak to die like dogs under the crushing expectations of charts and singles. Sellout is an expression used to denote nary an empty seat in the concert hall, but also refers to a band that took its cool and sold it down the river for a quick buck.
In the '80s, the line in the sketchy grey between solid and sellout wavered, as Robert Plant took his song Tall Cool One to Pepsi—also showing up in the ad to sing it as well—and Lou Reed, in his post-VU leathers, hawked motor scooters in print ads. There were a few who did their bit to make certain they'd never get into that Big Muddy: Bruce Springsteen refused to license his songs to Muzak, Tom Waits sued Frito-Lay for their use of a vocal sound-alike (and won), and is rumoured to have said he'd dance on the graves of every musician who sold their songs to advertising.
Pop music was a little more forgiving. Considered disposable anyway, what difference did it make if Michael Jackson did the Pepsi thing?
It was in this environment, the glossy, material world of the 1980s, that INXS blossomed. The six-piece rock band—three instrumentalists were brothers—matriculated in the pubs of Australia in the late '70s, where two locally released albums did well enough to launch an international career. From Shabooh Shoobah, the Nile Rogers-produced The Swing, right through to the mega-platinum Kick in 1987, INXS straddled the rock and pop world with a funky blend of guitar riffs and a few uncannily hooky R&B tropes, aided and abetted by sparkling synths and horns. Lead singer Michael Hutchence was a magnetic amalgam of Mick Jagger, Jim Morrison and any number of New Wave romantics, a metrosexual before culture got around to the term. INXS had the style of Duran Duran but the credentials of rockers like The Cult. They were U2 without the soul and distracting politics. In university pubs across the western world in 1988-91, INXS were ubiquitous with songs such as "New Sensation," "The Devil Inside," "Never Tear Us Apart" and "Bitter Tears," all of which white guys could dance to without fear of depleting of their masculinity. INXS' popularity peaked with the tour supporting the follow-up to Kick, called X, and a live album recorded at London's needs-its-own-time-zone Wembley Stadium.
The 90s were a less kind time for INXS, as they were for any band that seemed to trade a bit too much on gloss and eyeliner. Grunge was, above all, earnest, and the anti-fashion plaid statement became synonymous with honesty and truth. Overnight, INXS looked glam and synthetic, and a series of poorly received albums dimmed their prospects. A late career upswing with the record Elegantly Wasted was scuppered in November 1997 when Hutchence was found hanged in a Sydney hotel room. Already a tabloid favourite due to his having "stolen" British TV personality Paula Yates away from her husband Bob Geldof, the papers had a field day over Hutchence's death, promoting theories of both suicide and erotic asphyxiation gone wrong. Whichever way it went down, INXS looked cooked.
Strangely, despite the loss of their charismatic singer, the band went on. In 1999, they briefly tried another 80s refugee, Terence Trent D'Arby, who sounded nothing like Hutchence, but his addition to the act made a weird sort of sense. It didn't last, and neither did other fill-ins.
Now it's the new millennium. INXS' old hits are shiny and retro in a youth culture hungry for the cheap thrills that 80s pop offered, having missed the "fun" the first time around. Enjoying the refracted glow of old glory in new eyes wasn't doing it for the remaining members of the band. Without a lead singer, the middle-aged Aussie musicians hooked up with reality TV kingpin Mark Burnett and Rock Star was created, a TV show on which potential lead singers were auditioned over interminable weeks in a kind of popular INXS karaoke. The show blended nostalgia for a so-called simpler time with an American Idol audience base. Maybe they felt they had nothing left to lose, but anything INXS had left resembling rock integrity was snuffed out in the oh-so perfectly lit studio and the snappy patter laid out by hosts Brooke Burke and Dave Navarro (who, as a veteran of both Jane's Addiction and Red Hot Chili Peppers, should really have known better).
In a world where ecological activist Sting can promote Jaguar automobiles, where Moby can license every single one of his songs to advertisers, what is left to be said or done? Are we to be proud that the Rock Star winner, former Elvis impersonator JD Fortune is a Nova Scotia native? Or do we shudder when we hear the new single "It Ain't Pretty," with its eerily Hutchence-alike vocals that would impress the regulars at The Oasis but sound strangely ghoulish when riding over the very familiar riffology of a band still calling itself INXS? Maybe INXS, weaned on the pink and black values of the Me Decade, never subscribed to outdated concepts of rock 'n roll integrity, where the idea of holding a contest on TV to find a new singer would be the anathema of cool. After all, time has marched past the bad business decisions of Mssrs. Plant and Reed, leaving their recorded work intact.
But in terms of selling out your music to potato chip magnates or reality television wizards, it was Neil Young who said, "That was a battle we lost".
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