Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Bad-Hair Life

What is it about the 1980s--the Big Eighties--that is alternately so repellent and so fascinating? The 1970s have turned into a revisionist decade, one in which nostalgia trumps ecology and reminiscence surmounts politics. In the same way--minus the fondness--we remember the 1980s as a time of perplexing, unflattering fashion and the biggest, baddest hair. And hair-metal music as exemplified by Poison and its lead singer Bret Michaels.

Poison held court in Hollywood at a time when Hollywood desperately needed a little glamour. There is no other explanation for the Technicolor frenzy of spandex and lipstick that Poison and bands like it detonated on the Sunset Strip. Glamour was at a cinematic low in 1986; top-grossing movies for the year included Platoon and Aliens. Hair metal's response was a gender-bending bouffant of hair spray and hot pink lipstick, with Bret Michaels being the groupies' choice for the prettiest boy on the block.

The hair bands lifted their superabundance of bleach, eyeliner, and lipstick from the strippers at the Body Shop, Los Angeles' most popular exotic dancing emporium. The two cultures had a special symbiosis that was to forever after link that genre of music with gentlemen's entertainment. Hair metal legitimized stripping and made it into the phenomenon it is today. If you are puzzled as to why strippers are now the new girl next door, look no farther than Hollywood's music scene. Bad taste and Hollywood have a long and successful relationship that continues to thrum cheerfully along, especially as respects reality TV.

Michaels is nearing the end of the second season of Rock of Love, the reality series in which the singer attempts to find happily ever after from behind the inflated rafts of some fairly dubious "models." At least that's what most of them are, along with wannabe actresses, singers, low-budget porn performers and the bartender who was the winner of the first season.

Rock of Love isn't an easy show to watch. Those with no taste for close-ups of Michaels' spit or with a need for old-fashioned romance or family entertainment should go watch Country Fried Planet on CMT. Rock of Love makes The Bachelor look Shakespearean by comparison--shall I compare thee to a summer's day or hold your head while you puke? At least once per episode, a contestant performs what for all intents and purposes is a lap dance, while Michaels ogles her breasts and tries very hard not to grab on for dear life. This snake-charming doesn't guarantee one a continuance pass. Elimination leads to a dumbfounded "confessional" in which the contestant either cries that she thought Brett and she were in love or in which she lets fly a harangue of epic epithetical proportions.

Sunday night television is a reality wasteland, a dumping ground for ill-informed career aspiration (Making the Band 4), professionally advised matrimonial preparation (Whose Wedding Is It, Anyway?), and vaguely redneck automotive rehabilitation (Trick My Truck). Rock of Love slots in nicely with these and other voyeuristic pleasures, if only to incite spirited discussion about the realism of Michaels' hair and to further advance the definition of "fame whore." In Michaels' world a contestant is a fame whore if she came on his show disingenuously, not to seek love but to get that 15 minutes of fame Warhol promised we were all entitled to. That, and to hang out with rock stars and the rock stars' factotums.

Now in his mid-forties, Michaels clings to his rock star persona with as much cliché as can be mustered in a 60-minute television show. Does he ever discard this persona or does he really think that axiomatically? He wonders if a girl can keep up with the rock-and-roll lifestyle when she vomits into a bucket; he has a teenager's lust for plastic breasts and confesses as much to the camera; he has blood sugar spells and wonders if a contestant cares about him enough as a normal human being to stab him with insulin and save his life.

The contestants have either applied or have been scouted for their unique qualities, none of which includes any ability to act or to follow a script in other than the most histrionic way. Subtlety is absent in the Rock of Love mansion, and in its place are extreme bitchiness, tears, and some awe-inspiring, coarse vocabulary.

The first winner of Rock of Love was a pink-haired bartender from Chicago who dumped Michaels before the reunion show, stating that he hadn't been in contact except--via his manager-- to ask for his cowboy hat back. She also had a boyfriend back home. Jes Rickleff, the bartender, won Michaels' non-enduring love in a showdown with Heather Chadwell, a Las Vegas stripper. The latter's ability to wear the sleaziest in stripper attire while employing an especially vulgar portmanteau idiom made her a Rock of Love favorite, so when she reappeared on Rock of Love 2 she reinvigorated a sleepily trashy season. To listen to Chadwell blazing away is to take a crash course in neologistic obscenity.

The second season started out well, meaning that the number of mutant lips and breasts outweighed the number of legitimately attractive contestants. The former are important to one's survival on Rock of Love, since you have to be willing to take your clothes off at some point or another and from all appearances Michaels is nothing if not a breast man. Being able to use a stripper pole with medium to advanced skill isn't going to hurt your case either.

You should also have a MySpace and maybe some porn floating around in cyberspace. Last season's Brandi M. had photographs of herself enjoying what is known in the trade as an "amateur facial"; Angelique from Rock of Love 2 had photos that leave no doubt that she knows her away around large and awkward sex toys.

There are no dirty secrets on Rock of Love. When you hit this type of gutter, there is nowhere to go but back to basics. There are only banal, quotidian secrets, such as those held by contestants who are--gasp-- still married or are living with boyfriends, or contestants who might be using the show as a springboard to the type of cheap fame for which L. A. is famous: being recognized in a Hot Topic while shopping for PVC bustiers.

What Michaels is looking for other than reality rebirth is unclear. The scripting isn't clever and the editing is worse. Every episode centers on a fake paranoia in which the elimination depends on whether Michaels can overrule his gut instincts in the face of the jiggling warheads. Incoming! With so much flesh bobbing around, he makes his decisions based on a child's definition of loyalty and a teenager's sense of attractiveness.

The best thing about Rock of Love is its sense of humor, which is to say that it has none and yet is so easy to laugh at. Unlike Flavor of Love, which has some genuine high comedy, Rock of Love seems designed to test the mettle of even the lowest brow viewer, primarily because--unlike Flavor Flav--Michaels appears to take himself and his waning stardom so damn seriously.

So what do the two dozen contestants do in the 13-week span of the show? Besides competing in ridiculous elimination challenges and vying for a one-on-one date with Michaels, they get drunk, hiss, claw, play lesbian, throw glasses, throw up, and wear trashy lingerie like no one's business. Once you've done all of these things there is nothing left to do but trademark your nickname, which is what Daisy, née Vanessa de la Hoya (Oscar's niece), has done. Daisy™ is still living in a one-bedroom apartment with an ex-boyfriend, but she'd like to move out. Or onto Michaels.

A quick leaf through the contestants' MySpace pages shows a great interest in being booked for promotional appearances or perhaps a lead role in the next Coen Brothers film. Early elimination notwithstanding, Angelique claims to make 250K a year. But this is Los Angeles, the city where the impossible becomes the absolute overnight. That's what makes Rock of Love a success. The city thrives on extending 15 minutes of fame so far that you feel as if you've been living with it for an eternity. Which maybe we have; they're making a movie out of the A-Team.


Thomas said...

I keep seeing the commercial for this and every time it hits me again with its extreme...lack. I can't wait to see people buying it on DVD. (Really, who is rewatching episodes of Survivor?)

riz said...

"Rock of Love makes The Bachelor look Shakespearean by comparison"
(giggling with delight!)

I am glad someone could put some kind of intellectual spin on that reality TV 'wasteland'! There's gotta be some kind of larger context for the relentless cropping up of such shows - 'postmodern cultural malaise' almost seems too easy...