In the autumn of 1999, the approach of the millennium inspired a wave of rebirth: dissatisfied fortysomethings shed marriages and jobs; cultists made for the woods armed with bowie knives and Campbell’s soup; and Garth Brooks—the Recording Industry Association of America’s bestselling solo artist of all time—grew a soul patch, donned a black wig, and re-emerged as “Chris Gaines,” brooding, sex-addicted alt-rocker. The character was a publicity stunt. Brooks was set to star in a mystery-thriller called The Lamb, with a script from Die Hard screenwriter Jeb Stuart, about a dead rock star and his obsessed fan, hell-bent on proving foul play. To promote the film, Brooks starred in a VH1 mockumentary about Gaines and released a magnificently average, faux-greatest hits record: Garth Brooks Presents...The Life of Chris Gaines.
The album dropped like a brick. It sold just 2 million copies—a spectacular bust for an artist who had garnered more than 95 million sales—so bad, his label offered retailers a rebate on each copy sold. “The massively popular country icon is confronting some serious identity issues,” critic David Wild wrote in Rolling Stone. In The A.V. Club, Stephen Thompson called the record “corny schmaltz” and “flaccid would-be funk.” Entertainment Weekly’s David Browne gave Gaines a new name: “Wimp Bizcuit.” Meager sales and critical ridicule killed the project. The Lamb was never released, Brooks returned to country, and Gaines slunk into ’90s pop-rock obscurity. These days, the album doesn’t appear in Brooks’ anthology or on his website. When I called his publicist to request an interview, she declined: “Garth doesn’t talk about Chris Gaines anymore.”
But on the eve of Gaines’ 20th anniversary, it’s worth revisiting—in the past two decades, the project has transformed from industry embarrassment to hilarious artifact of CD-boom-era excesses. The character’s cult following stems mostly from the mockumentary, a parody of VH1’s Behind the Music series, with a Billy Joel cameo and the pithy one-liners of an ’80s movie trailer. (“He was a rocker who liked fast cars and even faster women.”) The 40-minute feature tracks Gaines’ extremely detailed fictional biography, from his origins in Brisbane, Australia through his imperiled music career, hit by cartoonish tragedy, debilitating sex addiction, and the textbook greed of industry executives. “Chris Gaines’ music took him to the top of the charts,” a voice-over drones in the opening credits, “then his manager took him to the cleaners.”
In this world, Gaines—born the only child of an Olympic swimmer mom and a withholding, swim coach father—defies his parents’ expectations by dropping out of high school. Instead, the young musician, played by an actor best known as “Young Brad Pitt” from Seven Years in Tibet, goes on to tour with Crush, a band he formed with his best friend, a virginal, yet inexplicably licensed pilot named Tommy Levitz. The group goes supernova, but their tour gets cut short when Tommy dies tragically in a plane crash. Consumed by grief but under pressure from his manager, Gaines releases a chart-topping solo album—and yet, he can’t catch a break. His manager steals his money; his father dies from cancer (leaving Gaines with an anger he channels into a sophomore album called, amazingly, Fornucopia); and in 1992, Gaines crashes his Corvette, disfiguring his face, and requiring extensive plastic surgery.
After the accident, Gaines, now played by a cheek-sucking Brooks, who dropped nearly 40 pounds for the role, enters a reclusive phase without tours, photos, or public appearances. But he finally reemerges, saved by his back-up dancer girlfriend, who forgives him for his sex addiction. In 1999, the year the film takes place, Gaines puts together a greatest hits album to take him into Y2K, and to prepare the world for his magnum opus: The Lamb. “Critics are already predicting” the album’s press kit reads, The Lamb “will be the definitive album of the new millennium.”
Taken alone, the mockumentary is a pitch-perfect riff on rockist self-seriousness: a haphazard montage of soap opera interviews, exaggerated hints at Gaines’ daddy issues, and regular asides about how much he loves sex. “Sex,” Gaines muses in an early scene. “It’s the best part of being a musician.” The movie undercuts Gaines’ inept critiques of corporate music culture with absurdist touches, like his run of increasingly unhinged album covers. (One shows Gaines in a hospital room, flanked by two nurses, acting out a close approximation of Spinal Tap’s Smell the Glove; in another, he poses in a top hat over an animated pair of B-cups). In one of the less explicable scenes, a friend remembers walking in on Gaines packing a chainsaw into his bag. “Yeah,” Gaines broods. “There was a chainsaw.”
But when the episode and album dropped, few fans thought Brooks was joking. “Clearly, this guy got run over by the crazy truck,” Rob Sheffield wrote in Rolling Stone, “and I’m talking all eighteen wheels.” The fans had a point. The accompanying album doesn’t fit the mockumentary. The Life of Chris Gaines isn’t hard rock or even alt-rock, so much as straight-faced, pop-ish crooning. Throughout the 13 songs, Brooks stretches his signature baritone into a scratchy falsetto, experimenting in funk, treacly jam tracks, and, on one especially earnest single (his first “protest” anthem), an ill-conceived attempt at rap. At times, Gaines seems to make sly winks at the listener—the liner notes claim the hit single, “Lost in You,” was commissioned for an faux-apocalyptic romance film called REVELATIONS—but they only serve to blur the boundary between the project’s satire and sincerity.
Even Brooks seemed uncertain. He often joked onstage about Gaines; he riffed with Conan on alter-egos; he even appeared in an SNL sketch, as Tracy Morgan laid into Gaines for being stupider, fatter, and a “weeny beeny bing bong freak.” But the country singer was uneasy in his humor, and at times, insistent that there was no gag at all. “The thing I’d like to get across is how serious we are about this,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “There’s the Rutles and there’s Spinal Tap, and this is exactly the opposite.”
It was the seriousness that irked reviewers. Critics that didn’t call Brooks crazy harped on his apparent arrogance or self-indulgence. “In a matter of weeks,” Heather Maclachlan wrote in American Music, “the Chris Gaines album became a virtual synonym for hubris.” But twenty years out, the project seems anything but pretentious. It’s a snapshot that lays bare the painstaking lengths celebrities go to craft public personas, and the messy, sublimely idiotic insides of industry marketing. In some ways, it is a fitting project for our millennium: a systemic critique born entirely in the system, packed with fauxstalgia so absurd it verges on farce—but one no one quite gets.