Hit Me Baby One More Time

Terry Sawyer

NBC's has-been-celebrity version of American Idol brings to television live music that you'd otherwise have to go to car shows to hear.

Hit Me Baby One More Time

Airtime: Thursdays, 9pm ET,
Cast: Vernon Kay, Arrested Development, Haddaway, Tommy Tutone, The Motels, Vanilla Ice
Network: NBC

NBC's has-been-celebrity version of American Idol brings to television live music that you'd otherwise have to go to car shows or touring carnivals to hear. Competing for the chance to donate to their favorite charity, near-forgotten bands like the Motels and one-hit wonders like Haddaway perform their signature hits and cover current pop songs with the hopes of scoring the greatest share of audience votes.

Hit Me Baby One More Time puts much work into making this stale-on-stale premise seem like Spring Break at Cabo San Lucas, including shots of jumping booby blondes screaming "867-5390" like they're on some mad re-fried ecstasy. Host Vernon Kay sounds like Robin Leach and looks like Ashton Kutcher dressed as Chuck Woolery, all sport coats and jeans, the definition of tight-sphincter casual. He harangues the performers with stilted awards show patter that should reassure Ryan Seacrest his job is safe.

The first two episodes' winners, Arrested Development and Vanilla Ice, suggest the voter demographic is skewed against the sort of nostalgia that might rocket someone like Tommy Tutone to the champion's seat. Still, it's apparently important to snag both 40-plus viewers as well as newly aging Gen-Xers. Perhaps this buckshot approach will grant the show a few extra seconds before sensible network executives slap a toe tag on it.

The performances hardly argue for longevity. Haddaway came on dressed in black, sleeping through his club hit, "What is Love?", like Dean Martin doing a speed metal track. Tommy Tutone sported the night's most road-ravaged body, choked out Jenny's number through what sounded like a phlegm bubble sprinkled with cigar ash. Even my beloved Martha Davis of the Motels, looking like a demented Anne Rice stalker, sang "Only the Lonely" with enough breaking strain to make me wish Simon Cowell could be carted in on the same gurney cage they used to transport Hannibal Lector. The only energetic performance of the night was marred by the fact that it was given by Vanilla Ice, the best argument against this second 15 minutes of unearned limelight. He certainly has butched it up, with copious tats and a serving platter belt buckle, as well as a white towel hanging neatly out of his left back pocket, which, according to my gay bondage dictionary, means he is a novice but open to new experiences.

At least the second half of the hour, where the artists cover a current radio favorite, offers something other than yet another cruise control through greatest hits. Haddaway RuPauled the hell out Britney Spears' "Toxic," making the most painful maneuver of the night by crawling across the stage in a shuddering act of misfired sexiness. It didn't help that, just moments before, we learned that he spends most of his time now playing golf.

These biographical splices served few of the performers well, as Tommy Tutone try to pull off punk-pop defiance by way of Blink 182 just moments after we saw him grousing about his day job designing accounting form software. The Motels lit a sputtering match under Norah Jones' "Don't Know Why," the most innovative cover of the night, though I'm not sure the song works with an "I Fought The Law" cadence revved underneath it. Vanilla Ice re-tooled the Destiny's Child song, "Survivor." (I guess if you're gone be the ass end of a joke, you may as well put the Vaseline on yourself.) He even busted a few of his renowned dance moves, the same mad steez that made Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie such a legend in the world of whitey white choreography.

Hit Me Baby One More Time provides an addendum to Behind The Music's sobering admonitions about the pitfalls of fame. Let's call this chapter "Letting Go." These rusty renderings of pop litter, some great songs and some better forgotten, sounded best in their original contexts. No amount of painful regurgitation will phoenix any dustbin career or make any listener a single day younger. If these performers wish to return to the spotlight, they should write some new shit to show they actually have talent, beyond the radio-friendly scores they made decades ago.

I have little sympathy for the acts here. But since it's all for charity, I'm inclined to be even crueler. After all, great non-profit causes have enough trouble branding themselves without being saddled with curdled guilty pleasures from a past resurrected by the infantilizing forces of kitsch. Fool me once, shame on you. The second time around, it's collective insanity.

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