Bands Replace Dead Pop Stars -- on TV

"R U the Girl" for R&B pop group TLC? Do you have excess talent you can lend to Aussie rock band INXS?

Two new shows slated for this summer, "R U the Girl with T-Boz and Chilli," (search) airing on UPN and produced by FOX Television Studios, and "INXS Rock Star," (search) the latest concoction from reality honcho Mark Burnett, will televise the "American Idol"-style auditions these bands are having to replace their deceased bandmates.

But is this a disrespectful, slightly morbid way for bands to move on? Or just a practical and entertaining way for artists to find new talent?

INXS guitarist Tim Farriss believes it's the latter.

“With us so heavily involved, there is no other way we can do it than with respect,” Farriss told from Toronto, where he and bandmate Kirk Pengilly are doing casting calls for their show. "For us, this is really fun — it's the best way we can go about looking under every rock for a rock star."

The fact that the auditions are meant to fill holes left by charismatic artists who passed away — INXS's sexy lead singer, Michael Hutchence (search), who committed suicide in 1997 at age 37, and TLC's outrageous rapper Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes (search), who died in a car accident in 2002 at 30 — has been difficult for some fans to process. And insiders warn the shows must proceed with care.

“You’ve always got to be delicate about something like this,” said Robert Thompson of the Center for the Study of Popular Television (search). "It’s something one has to go about sensitively."

But interestingly, it’s the fans themselves who are auditioning for the open singer spots.

Twenty-year-old Deanna Allen had mixed feelings about trying out to be the third wheel in the Grammy-winning girl group TLC (search), which had hits such as "Waterfalls" and “No Scrubs.”

“At first I was like, ‘No – they can’t ever replace her,'" said Allen, a fan of the group’s eccentric Lopes, who was credited with being the world's fastest female rapper and made headlines in the '90s for stunts like wearing condoms on her clothing to promote safe sex.

But Allen, who’s been singing since she was 3 and has dreams of a career in music, soon had a change of heart: She packed her bags and traveled to New York City to audition for the show.

“I decided it's OK," she said. "I’ve been trying to do this a long time.”

Rumors of a TLC breakup because of arguments between Lopes and fellow members Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas (search) and Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins (search) and the fact that all three were pursuing solo projects when Lopes died fueled the controversy over "R U the Girl."

But Thomas, Watkins and others involved with the show have said they're not out to find another Lopes — they just want to move on with their careers.

"Lisa is irreplaceable. The girls are no longer TLC without Lisa," said Jay Blumenfield, executive producer of "R U the Girl." "The girls have been through a lot. The friendship they had, the bond — that can never be replaced."

INXS fans — including "Rock Star" hopefuls — have been as conflicted as TLC fans, some penning their thoughts on the INXS Web site's “Guestbook for Michael Hutchence."

“Dear Michael ... As of yesterday 1/31/05, I auditioned for INXS here in New York City and sang in front of some of your old mates," James Aymil, Jr., wrote last month. "I hope I can win the contest to succeed you (not replace you) and to help carry on your memory to the fans and keep the music alive.”

Farriss said he was humbled by how many people have turned up for auditions so far. But he, too, is quick to say that Hutchence was one-of-a-kind — and the Burnett production isn't seeking a substitute.

"We're not trying to look for a Michael look-alike or sound-alike. We're looking for someone with 'it,'" he said. "Some [INXS fans] were probably just Michael fans and probably think it's a sacrilege — but in the end, you can't please everybody, or you'll die of frustration or not do anything."

INXS has indeed been struggling since the death of Hutchence, the voice behind hits including "Suicide Blonde," "Devil Inside," "New Sensation," "Never Tear Us Apart" and "Need You Tonight." The band has seen several lead singers come and go, and they haven't recorded a full album since Hutchence died.

So with "American Idol" still getting blockbuster ratings in its fourth season, and P. Diddy's pop music audition reality show "Making the Band" (search) unveiling its third season on March 3, making these auditions into reality shows seems like a good business move.

“Of course, this was inevitable,” Thompson said. “’American Idol’ looks like one of the most enduring of these [reality shows]. … It seems like a no-brainer — do the auditions and turn it into a TV series.”

And the people behind the shows think they memorialize, rather than disrespect, the dead. Blumenfield said "R U the Girl" is a "good way to honor Lisa." And Farriss believes Hutchence would like "INXS Rock Star," which will probably air on CBS.

"In some ways, I think Michael would think this is really funny in a good way," Farriss said.

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