(Originally appeared in Radar on Feb. 26, 2007)
The Flaming Lips’s guest spot on Beverly Hills, 90210 (Steve Sanders’s painfully early-’90s pronouncement: “I’ve never been a big fan of alternative music, but these guys rocked the house!”) seemed harmless at the time, but let’s take stock of what that seminal moment has brought us in the realm of musicians playing themselves on TV shows.
In its four seasons, The O.C. force-fed a surprisingly varied and obscure mix of indie-rock down the gullets of 16-year-old suburban girls, even dipping into the “live performance” well when the gang went to a show by California rockers Rooney and let slip some Steve Sanders-inspired bon mots. To wit: “Which one’s Rooney?” “They’re all Rooney!”
The appearance kick-started Rooney’s sales, and a slew of cigarette-skinny, shaggy-haired bands followed suit. But as gimmicks like this became the norm, the show’s popularity took a nose-dive. You’d think TV producers would have learned their lesson …
Or not. Aaron Sorkin’s on-hiatus-or-probably-canceled Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip has landed a few big names—notably Sting—who do double-duty by performing on both the fake and real shows. (Matthew Perry’s deathless line while listening to the lute-backed rendition of “Fields of Gold”: “I like this song. Reminds me of something.”)
But more amusing is the lineup of musicians (Jessica Simpson, Gwen Stefani) supposedly performing on the fake show who never appear in the real show, and the White Stripes canceling on the fake show twice at the last minute and also not acting on the real show (the first cancellation is due to Jack White’s tonsillitis, the second is never even explained). The unwillingness of these performers to embarrass themselves by visiting the real Studio 60 set partially explains the show’s demise, and perhaps spells the end of bands on dramatic series.
But the real question is, when you can get away with saying anyone is performing so long as they don’t actually have to perform, why stop at disposable pop stars? Think of the NBC promos that could have been: “This week on Studio 60, musical guest the Beatles, resurrected and reunited, accompanied by Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, the Clash, and Mozart!” And, if Matthew Perry stopped spewing NPR-isms for a minute, he might have said something like, “I’ve never been a big fan of British invasion-folk-soul-punk-classical-fusion, but these guys rocked the house!”