By Liane Bonin
December 22, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

Why Garth Brooks’ latest project is misunderstood

It probably comes as no surprise that, after the commercial and critical drubbing Garth Brooks took for his pseudo-rocker persona, Chris Gaines, the country star is now hinting that he may hang up his music career for good next year. That’s fine by me, but not because all I know about country could fit into a Dixie (Chicks) cup. I’m hoping good ol’ Garth will use his time to pursue his greatest gift — a flair for satire.

When the Chris Gaines persona popped up last spring, pretty much everyone was left scratching his head at the freakiest display of Method acting since Brando tripped out on the set of ”Apocalypse Now.” Garth’s Goth Lite look and tepid album of MOR rock rehash, all in the service of getting into character for his starring role in the yet-to-be-filmed movie, ”The Lamb,” was too far out for his country fans and too tame for true rock aficionados. I was convinced that the G-Man was ready for a rubber-lined room until the Chris Gaines ”Behind the Music” special hit VH1. Only then was Garth’s true genius revealed.

On the show, as on every ”Behind the Music,” Chris Gaines travels the well-worn path of rock superstardom and destruction without missing a trick. Troubled home life? Check. Petty squabbles with his record label? Check. A phoenix-like career comeback? Check. A self-indulgent return to his musical roots? Check. For good measure, Garth throws in a hilarious bout with sex addiction (the funniest line from a former flame: ”I’m not as limber as I look”), a Malibu house fire, a disfiguring car crash, and some of the lamest album titles ever penned, from the pretentious ”Apostle” to the ’80s glam-garbage ”Fornucopia.”

He even adds a star cameo from Billy Joel for that final touch of authenticity. Through it all, Garth sulks and spews inane pseudo-psycho babble about growth and regret, and tries to convince us that a limp remake of the old chestnut ”Right Now” is actually a protest song. To his eternal credit, he delivers some brilliant one-liners — on his sex addiction: ”I just like communicating (with women), however that may be” — without cracking a smirk.

By the end of the show, I’d discovered that the life of Chris Gaines is really the story of a self-absorbed, paranoid half-wit who refuses to grow up, blames his past, his record label, and his bad luck for all his self-destructive behavior, and wants our sympathy on top of it all just for trying not to be a jerk at the end of the day. And suddenly it was just darn hard not to think about some of the other, cheesier real-life ”Behind the Music” subjects who’ve hit the same false notes while airing out their dirty laundry (Leif Garrett, anyone?). By faking it, Garth does a pretty good job of pointing out how predictable the whole rise-and-fall-and-rise-again arc of this show can be. How many times have we heard that tinkly piano music when the rocker’s life hits the skids, and where exactly do they find all that grainy, hand-held footage of nothing in particular?

Maybe Garth’s biggest mistake wasn’t unveiling Chris Gaines but trying to convince us that his alter-ego was a tribute to rock and roll. Intentional or not, he’s driven a well-aimed spike through rocker pretentiousness and given us a sharp prod for our own guilty pleasure in watching our idols keen and wail over their past excesses and mistakes.