Rock on the tube used to be about rebellion ?- but for Britney, J.Lo, Garth, and Jacko, TV has become mostly about marketing, says Ken Tucker

By Ken Tucker
Updated November 29, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST
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Credit: Britney Spears: Gabe Palacio/ImageDirect

Britney Spears: Live From Las Vegas

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Why most pop stars fail on their TV specials

Despite the title of his new album, Michael Jackson may not be ”invincible” on the record charts any more — the over-stuffed CD has been a relative disappointment compared to the self-proclaimed King of Pop’s glory days — but Jackson has been the shockeroo of the November TV sweeps with his recent special scoring huge ratings.

I’d chalk this up to nostalgia (older fans who aren’t interested in new Michael-music are willing to tune in for a free-TV oldies act), and it’s probably taught the still-shrewd Jackson a lesson: Why spend millions of dollars and years in the recording studio when what your public wants is merely to see your (altered) face, and thrill to the same slinky moves you were making around the time of ”Thriller”?

It used to be thought that TV was the enemy of rock & roll — you know, Elvis was shot above the pelvis on ”The Ed Sullivan Show”; The Rolling Stones were banned from mentioning speed when they performed ”Mother’s Little Helper” on…hey, ”The Ed Sullivan Show” again. But there’s been a gradual change in perception: Pop has replaced rock as the primary commercial force in music, and by its nature, sunnier, more show-bizzy pop music — along with its rural cousin, country music — is more amenable to television exposure, which also offers more outlets than ever to present the songs and the performers’ images.

Thus Madonna and Britney Spears both brought their concert tours into subscribing homes via HBO. Both women would have given the prim Ed Sullivan a heart attack with their wiggly suggestiveness, but on the channel that also brings you ”Sex and the City,” these gals fit right in. Spears’ show was a pretty dodgy spectacle; her apparently-augmented vocal tracks kept dropping in and out of the audio, and as an Elvis fan, I was disappointed that Britney never did don the white late-period-Presley jumpsuit she wore so wittily in print-ads for the show.

Jennifer Lopez’s TV special last week was billed as ”her first concert ever” — as if just showing up on stage was an achievement in itself for the actress-singer. I like Lopez as an actress (well, I thought she was terrifically credible in ”Out of Sight,” at least), but her increasingly generic dance-pop came to life on the Nov. 20 show primarily when she was doing her tribute to the late star Selena, whom Lopez, again, convincingly portrayed in a 1997 movie. The rest of the show was your standard look-at-me-emote presentation that Jackson and Spears resorted to all too often.

Speaking of emotion-for-its-own-sake, how ’bout those Garth Brooks specials CBS keeps shoving in front of our eyes? Brooks has the opposite problem of Jackson; his new ”Scarecrow” album offers some of Brooks’ strongest music ever, yet his first two-out-of-three weekly CBS specials (the third airs Wednesday at 10 p.m.) were low-rated bombs. I enjoy Brooks’ emotionalism on record, where it’s anchored by pointed lyrics and sweeping melodies, but in concert he’s always struck me as less of a scarecrow than just plain scary.

Brooks likes to locate the camera during any show and stare at its with a laser-strong glare, raising his eyebrows in a devillish manner that’s — sorry, Garth — unsettlingly creepy. It’s the gaze of a star trying to engage his audience, and obviously millions of consumers respond to it. I find it almost as distancing as trying to watch the young Spears act like a mature sexpot — they’re both doing things that people sometimes do in private, while staring into a mirror, pretending they’re big stars, pouting and posing.

The great thing about TV is that it’s so intimate; it magnifies small gestures. The great thing about going to a rock concert is that it’s not intimate at all– it’s communal; you join in with your fellow fans all around you to witness the big gestures your idol is making so that he or she can be seen from the cheap seats. TV gives us all front-row seats, and sometimes that proximity proves to be uncomfortably close.

Britney Spears: Live From Las Vegas

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