Image by asterix611 via Flickr
Whitney Houston has been making the headlines for her triumphs as well as for nearly drop kicking her comeback efforts with a less than stellar performance on Good Morning America. Oh yeah and then there’s I Look to You, her first new album of original material since 2002’s Just Whitney.
I Look to You has so far garnered generally positive reviews but many reviewers have singled out one notable aspect: rarely does Whitney actually address the ups and downs that caused her image and career to nosedive. In the end, we’re left with a satisfying and certainly welcoming comeback that does little to shed any new light on Whitney Houston aside from hearing her now slightly huskier voice again.
These reviews got me thinking of Britney Spears. Britney has built a successful career out of using her sex appeal, dance moves and the right team of producers to craft appealing pop music. And still, we have yet to know anything about Britney except for her public meltdowns and that one heartbreaking moment when she broke down in tears and admitted she was “sad” in her “Britney: For the Record” documentary.
Madonna once told Britney “I’d rather see you bare your soul” (see: “Me Against the Music”) but even now after the release of Circus, we don’t know very much about Britney Spears except for the all the names people use to refer to her as she stated on “Piece of Me’”.
Being a confessional singer/musician doesn’t necessarily have to translate into a sacrifice of album sales. Madonna proved this when she released the deeply personal Ray of Light album back in 1998. Tori Amos may not appear on the radio nor achieve major sales figures anymore but most people will agree that her songs like “Me and a Gun” are amazing pieces of music. Below is the video for Madonna’s “Drowned World / Substitute for Love” video which was not released here in the states.
Perhaps the current pop music landscape simply doesn’t allow music artists to say how they really feel. After all, Kelly Clarkson tried it and nobody cared. Mariah Carey may not necessarily fall under the category of pop music but I question why a woman who’s now pushing forty can’t release something a bit more mature than a song where she feels the need to attack Eminem (see: “Obsessed”). Did she forget about the tremendous success she enjoyed with “We Belong Together”?
I can thoroughly enjoy a frothy pop song as much as the next person but is getting personal in pop music a surefire way of obliterating any remote chance of getting radio airplay? I always thought that music was at least partially about discovering songs that you can identify with and often reflect your own life experiences.
Last year I mentioned Mexican pop stars Thalia and Paulina Rubio and their failed attempts to cross over to the English market. Obviously these two are part of a huge group of singers and musicians who have tried and failed to achieve U.S. stardom which got me to thinking: What does it take to make it here in the states?
Let’s take someone like Laura Pausini. You may not have heard of her but this multilingual singer has enjoyed tremendous success releasing albums in her native Italian and translating them into equally successful Spanish releases.
What some people don’t know is Ms. Pausini also took a stab at broadening her international audience by releasing her English language effort “From the Inside” in 2002. The first single “Surrender” did manage to chart on Billboard’s Hot Dance Club Play but let’s face it, labels care about the Hot 100 not what’s being played in the clubs.
Needless to say Laura Pausini returned to what she was good at and has since released three successful albums. Her latest has a song with James Blunt called “Primavera Anticipada (It’s My Song)”, we’ll have to wait and see if that’s a sign she may be attempting another stab at the English market.
Another person who has enjoyed huge success overseas is Hikaru Utada who commonly goes by her last name. She dominates the charts and is the chief rival to Japan’s reigning queen of pop Ayumi Hamasaki but over here it’s another story.
Utada has now released three albums in the U.S., two under her current stage name and one way back in 1998 when she called herself Cubic U.
In 2004 Utada returned with “Exodus” via Island Records. The two singles (“Easy Breezy” and “Devil Inside”) did very little, the latter enjoying some degree of success on the club charts. Despite having names like Timbaland on the album, Exodus didn’t do very much to earn Utada the kind of fanbase or sales she enjoys abroad.
Utada released her latest attempt, the confidently titled “This is the One” earlier this month. Unfortunately the lead single “Come Back to Me” hasn’t made much of a splash and the album debuted at number 69 on the Billboard 200.
In terms of Laura Pausini and Utada, one could argue that their failed crossover attempts are due to a lack of proper marketing or promotion. After all, there are numerous releases that go completely unnoticed and are dead on arrival, like when Capitol Records quietly dropped Kylie Minogue’s post breast cancer comeback album “X” in stores without telling anyone.
Then again, in Utada’s case it could be a case of trying to play directly to the kind of music that gets played on popular radio. “This is the One” has been criticized for its uncharacteristically rated R lyrics and for its generic R&B tunes.
Thalia’s “I Want You” had a cameo by Fat Joe, Estelle featured Kanye West but only the single managed to make it big, not the album it came from. But cameos are something of a mixed bag.
Shakira enjoyed tremendous success with Laundry Service but after the lukewarm reception to “Don’t Bother”, she recorded new tunes and used Wyclef’s “Dance Like This” to create the highly successful “Hips Don’t Lie”. Sales for Oral Fixation Vol. 2 skyrocketed but the followup single “Illegal” with Carlos Santana tanked.
Another example of catering to the masses is Ricky Martin. After the relative disappointment of Sound Loaded, Ricky returned with Life and a new image. Both “I Don’t Care” and “Drop it on Me” were about as generic and radio friendly as they get but very few people cared for the new Ricky and life went on, no pun intended.
So at the end of the day it could be several factors. Perhaps the U.S. is too hard to crack. Perhaps popular artists make the mistake of sacrificing their own unique talents and style for the sake of having their music play on popular radio. Is it selling out or is it just a case of not having songs that appeal to U.S. listeners? What do you think?
- What the Kids Are Listening to: Flo Rida’s “Right Round” (ickmusic.com)
I’m almost certain I’ve mentioned it before but for purposes of the topic at hand, I’ll reiterate that my listening to popular radio these days is limited. The varieties of tunes that were played back in the day has now been reduced to a few tunes played every fifteen minutes that sound just like everything else that’s out there.
To further solidify the fact that radio caters strictly to the “manufactured song du jour”, I was reading Billboard’s weekly song reviews and confirmed what I had already known for some time. Janet Jackson‘s “Can’t B Good” was, among others, one of the songs being reviewed. It should be noted that this is Ms. Jackson’s fourth release from her “Discipline” album.
Now I will say that I took issue with Janet’s choice to ramp up the raunch ever since she split from her longtime secret husband Rene Elizondo and some of her output sounded like it catered heavily towards trying to grab the attention of popular radio. In fact, I didn’t find a single tune I liked off of “20 Y.O.“, the only thing that grabbed my interest was the creative contest that was held which allowed fans to create cover art using old photos of Janet.
Normally I end up liking the first singles Janet releases to radio off of the albums she’s about to promote so I was pleasantly surprised when I heard “Feedback” and liked it. True, it wasn’t anything groundbreaking but it was definitely creative and incredibly catchy so I figured its inclusion–and Janet’s long overdue return to pop radio–would only be a matter of time.
Well, it turns out neither “Feedback” nor the following singles (“Rock With U” and “Luv”) made a blip and while I’m on her side in hoping the same fate doesn’t await this latest single, I don’t see it happening.
As such, it’s a situation that’s affected numerous artists. Madonna‘s second single “Give it 2 Me” off of “Hard Candy” is not getting any airplay although she at least has the luxury of having “4 Minutes” being played every now and then on radio.
But what did Madonna have to do? She made an album that practically screams “I’m trying to court popular radio listeners”, not that I find any less entertaining mind you.
Has anyone heard any new tunes from Alanis Morissette since “Uninvited”? Heck, does anyone know she recently released her album post Ryan Reynolds breakup album “Flavors of Entanglement“? Did Tracy Chapman or Fiona Apple receive any sort of airplay after “Give Me One Reason” and “Criminal”, respectively? Is anyone aware Kylie Minogue released her album “X here in the states to zero fanfare? When was the last Bjork got any kind of radio recognition. True her music is a bit out there for some but she is quite talented, although in her case she doesn’t survive based on chart figures. This is all due at least partially because popular radio is too preoccupied playing gimmicky drivel like Katy Perry‘s “I Kissed a Girl”.
I’ll be the first one to admit that I enjoy manufactured pop music with no artistic merit but I think some of these artists that have musical chops and can write their own lyrics and in some cases music also deserve the time of day. Instead they choose to release albums that are squarely aimed at trying to get some radio airplay.
I do know that these days labels are very critical with album sales and it’s tougher for the average artist to ship enough units in order to achieve gold status and nearly impossible to go platinum which often leads to a speedy pink slip from the label. Then again if the artist is focused squarely on sales, they’re probably not in the business for the right reasons in my opinion.
Madonna is no longer associated with the traditional label ever since she signed that major multimillion dollar deal with Live Nation so I can’t yet say how much sales will factor into her future album sales. Speaking of which, Shakira is also in talks to ink a similar deal, albeit not one with as many zeros at the end. I’m sure Island Records will keep Janet around for the next go ’round or who knows, she might also deflect to Live Nation.
The old adage says “diversity is the spice of life” and radio supposedly plays music that’s “hot” so why am I being force fed junk that sounds like the same thing I heard before?
- Houston Police Shut Down Kanye West's 'New Slaves' Screening
- Pussy Riot's Maria Alyokhina Denied Parole
- Taylor Swift: Billboard Music Award Wins Were a 'Wonderful Feeling'
- Stone Temple Pilots Suing Ex-Frontman Scott Weiland
- T-ara N4 Opening for Chris Brown & Wiz Khalifa Concerts, In Talks to Collaborate
- J. Cole's 'Born Sinner' Will Feature TLC