Thursday, April 10, 2008

“Rock the Cradle” is “Idol” for Kids Lucky (or Unlucky) Enough to Have Pop Star Parents

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

Sitting in front of the series debut of “Rock the Cradle” (first airings on Thursdays at 10 p.m. Eastern on MTV, subsequent airings at numerous times all over the MTV empire), I watched as the performers I enjoyed, disliked and/or laughed at when I was in my school years paraded in front of the camera to sing ... the praises of their offspring. Yes, “Rock the Cradle” is a singing contest for the adult children of music stars, specifically Bobby Brown, Tom Johnston (Doobie Brothers), MC Hammer, Kenny Loggins, Eddie Money, Olivia Newton-John, Dee Snider (Twisted Sister), Al B. Sure! (his exclamation point, not mine) and Joe Walsh (the Eagles).

These people have children old enough to compete in an “American Idol” knock-off. How can that be? Give me a second to step back off of the ledge. Okay. Back to my thoughts on the show.

Before I could even figure out if I liked “Rock the Cradle” or not, I had to get past the fact that these aging pop stars, most of whom are long past their expiration dates, seemed more than happy to squeeze out another 15 minutes of fame by pimping out their kids. I’m sure the parents are rationalizing the decision by telling themselves that they’re doing it to help their children, but you have to figure that strategically placed phone calls to key producers and record executives would do far more for the long-term success of their sons and daughters’ budding music careers than sending them to compete on a cheesy basic cable singing competition.

Kudos, by the way, to Joe Walsh, who was “busy touring” in Europe and did not appear on the first episode. I checked the Eagles Web site, and the band was, indeed, in Europe. Let’s hope the U.S. leg of the Eagles’ tour continues to keep Joe, one of the few parents on the show who can still sell out an arena, away from the Los Angeles faux theater where “Rock the Cradle” is based.

“Rock the Cradle” is the latest in the growing list of musical competition programs, sending its contestants out to perform, get evaluated by judges, and then wait a week to find out the results of viewer voting, with the lowest polling singer sent back to his/her cushy, celebrity-offspring life. What is the twist of “Rock the Cradle”? You mean beside the fact that the contestants all lead cushy, celebrity-offspring lives? Well, not much. The judges do have some extra clout, actually giving numerical scores to the performers instead of just making comments. And the highest-ranking singer with the judges gets immunity from the audience vote. Other than that, there is nothing new here.

Except maybe the host, Ryan Devlin, who makes Ryan Seacrest look like Ed Sullivan. With his baby face and calculatedly hipster wardrobe (sorry, but none of my twentysomething friends wear an argyle sweater/hoodie combo under a blazer, especially indoors under hot lights), Devlin looks like a sophomore in high school who has raided his college freshman brother’s closet. In the debut, he often tripped over his words, maintained a constant tone of false excitement, and demonstrated all the life and charisma of Gen. David Petraeus testifying to Congress. Only Petraues showed more spontaneity.

The judges are suitably bland. Go-Go’s frontwoman Belinda Carlisle was brutally honest about how she felt, but I was distracted by how she looked. While admittedly beautiful, she also resembled a creation by Madame Tussauds. Choreographer Jamie King and stylist June Ambrose were a bit too smug for my taste, as was manager Larry Rudolph, although having turned Britney Spears into a star, he pretty much has proved that he could take any of the nine contestants and find a way to ensure that they had a singing career. Paul Mirkovich, the stellar musical director of the backing band on “Rock Star: INXS” and “Rock Star: Supervova,” does an equally great job leading the crack ensemble on “Rock the Cradle.”

To me, the presence of the parents felt weird. Whether they were hands-on stage fathers (yeah, I’m looking at you Eddie Money and Tom Johnston) or clearly not significant parts of their children’s lives (do I have to even write Bobby Brown’s name here?), they all seemed to be horning in on their kids’ moments. And what is the point of asking the parents after the performances how their offspring performed? Shockingly, they were all proud, supportive and moved. Not exactly great television.

On the flip side, the privileged status of the singers made them less relatable as competitors. We hear Olivia Newton-John’s daughter talk about growing up in “big empty houses,” and Al B. Sure! say that he always spoiled his son, and, suddenly, you are feeling, “Who cares if this person wins?” On most of the “Idol” knock-offs, you know that if a contestant makes it to the top, it will really change his or her life. That is half the fun of watching. And that issue is nearly irrelevant on “Rock the Cradle.”

Now to the $64,000 question: Can the offspring of the former stars sing? Too often, I felt like I was watching a high school talent contest, something that occurred to me before Rudolph made that very observation to Newton-John’s daughter, Chloe Lattanzi. But Lattanzi’s performance of “Never Tear Us Apart” by INXS demonstrated how limited a show like “Rock the Cradle” is. With her zeppelin-like lips and anime-reminiscent eyes, Lattanzi’s appearance is way too exotic for her to become a bland pop sensation in the “Idol” tradition. And her quirky, off-kilter performance of the INXS ballad (more Siouxsie Sioux than Kelly Clarkson) seemed like a misfire in the context of “Rock the Cradle.” But so what? When did becoming a bland pop star become the most important ambition for a singer? I’m not sure if Lattanzi has something interesting to offer, but my point is that we won’t know from “Rock the Cradle.”

I thought better candidates for high school talent show allusions were Eddie Money’s daughter Jesse (an oversung take on “When I’m Gone” by 3 Doors Down), 17-year-old Lara Johnston (Avril Lavigne’s treacley ballad “I’m With You”) and Landon Brown (a laid back to the point of Valium take on Seal’s “Crazy”). It’s not that these performers had no talent, but there are a lot of people in this country who can sing a little. I just didn’t see anything in these three that would allow them to emerge from the herd.

Slightly better were Al B. Sure!’s son, who, hands down, has the best name on the show, Lil B. Sure! (again, his exclamation mark, not mine; he took on Donny Hathaway’s “A Song for You”), and A'Keiba Burrell, Hammer’s daughter (credited on-screen as A'Keiba Burrell-Hammer, which was very entertaining in and of itself; she performed “Love You I Do,” sung by Jennifer Hudson in “Dreamgirls”), although I’m not sure they have what it takes to be stars, either.

Crosby Loggins, a dead ringer for his father, unfortunately seems to have inherited his dad’s inherent blandness, rendering his edgeless rendition of Elvis Costello’s “(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” totally forgettable. Maybe Loggins has a career ahead of him as a Jack Johnson/John Mayer sensitive boy type, although part of the appeal of this group of singer-songwriters is their boyish good looks, and Loggins can only lay claim to the boyish part of the equation.

Which leaves the unquestioned high and low of the night. The best performer in the debut episode, hands down, was Lucy Walsh. She chose a song by her father’s bandmate, Don Henley (“Heart of the Matter”), and knocked it out of the park, finding the right balance of sadness and strength in the ballad, not an easy skill to perfect. The judges rightfully awarded her the highest scores, ensuring that no matter how the public votes, Walsh will survive for next week.

And the worst celebrity spawn? Easy. Jesse Snider’s take on Led Zeppelin’s classic stomper “Rock and Roll” was so bad, you had to see it to believe it. Watching Snider cockily claim he could do justice to Robert Plant’s performance, and then butchering it beyond recognition, was like watching a little leaguer try and hit a Joba Chamberlain fastball. He wasn’t even close. Dee Snider said he personally contacted the band to get permission for his son to perform “Rock and Roll” on “Rock the Cradle.” I really wish the Zeppelin boys would have just said no. With his platinum-dyed hair, eruption of hair on his chin, and open shirt, exposing his hairless, workout-fanatic chest and abs, Jesse Snider looked less like the heir apparent to Plant than like a reality show contestant trying to be the next Nick Lachey. I think rock fans should petition for a restraining order keeping the younger Snider at least 100 yards from any rock and roll classic.

To me, the question of whether I enjoy watching any of these music contest shows essentially comes down to if the singers are doing a credible job covering songs I like. I’m not much of a pop guy, so I’m not an “American Idol” fan. On the other hand, I enjoyed both “Rock Star: INXS” and “Rock Star: Supernova,” since decent singers routinely took a shot at an array of classic and modern rock hits, even if the results ranged from awful to great.

“Rock the Cradle” falls somewhere in the middle for me. And that’s not enough to get past the fact that these nine performers are getting their shot at a place in the music business solely because of who contributed the DNA for their creation. There is a lot of talk of “making it on my own” on the show, as if the contestants survived some kind of audition process. Making it on their own would mean trying to get on “Idol” or one of its many knock-offs. “Rock the Cradle” is, in fact, about these kids making it on their parents’ coattails. Well, that and how desperately the older generation is trying to grab onto another few hours in the spotlight. None of which adds up to much fun.

Aside from Lucy Walsh, I’m not sure there is any reason to watch “Rock the Cradle.” Then again, if Joe Walsh doesn’t see fit to be present, I have to wonder, why should I?