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Author: "Jeremy Helligar"

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Sound And Vision: Cover Me — Ten Remakes Of Great Songs That Are Better Than The Originals

“Have you lost your mind?!”

That’s the thought bubble I could have sworn I saw spring from my friend’s head several weeks ago when I mentioned that my all-time favorite remake is Aretha Franklin‘s 1971 Sunday-morning-at-the-pulpit rendition of “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” “You mean her version isn’t the original?” he asked, totally floored. No, she borrowed it from Simon & Garfunkel, who had hit No. 1 with it the previous year, and never gave it back.

Every time I think of Franklin and the crafty way she used to take ownership of other people’s hits (Dionne Warwick‘s “I Say a Little Prayer,” Ben E. King‘s “Spanish Harlem” and most famously, Otis Redding‘s “Respect”), I remember a story Dusty Springfield once told me. Franklin was originally offered “Son of a Preacher Man,” and when she turned it down, Springfield snatched it up. Shortly after Springfield’s version hit the Top 10, she met Franklin for the first and only time in an elevator. Franklin walked in, put her hand on Springfield’s shoulder and simply said, “Girl.” Not another word. “I just about fell out!” Springfield told me, still in shock and awe decades later.

Franklin eventually recorded “Son of a Preacher Man,” and Springfield so liked what Franklin did to her hit that she began performing it in concert Franklin style. And that, folks, is what you call running off with someone else’s song. (For the record, I prefer Springfield’s original.) Now, here are ten other cases of musical robbery.

Marvin Gaye “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” Just one year before Gaye went to No. 1 for seven weeks with his biggest hit, Gladys Knight and the Pips took their gospel-infused version of one of Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong’s two crowning achievements (the other being the Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rolling Stone”) all the way to No. 2. Both are spectacular, but Gaye’s moody, brooding take, which actually was recorded first, making it a “cover” in timing only, will always be definitive.

Marvin Gaye “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” (a capella)

Harry Nilsson “Everybody’s Talkin’” and “Without You” Little-known fact: The late singer-songwriter who wrote Three Dog Night’s “One” had his two biggest hits singing other people’s words. Fred Neil‘s 1966 original version of his own “Everybody’s Talkin’,” though moving, lacks the mournful tremulousness and vocal drama that Nilsson brought to it three years later. Nilsson’s emotional bells and whistles sell the song. “Without You,” his biggest and signature hit, was written and recorded by Badfinger in 1970, two years before Nilsson took it to No. 1, and has since been covered by Mariah Carey and seemingly at least one contestant per season on American Idol. The song, however, belonged to Nilsson in life, and it still does in death.

Harry Nilsson “Everybody’s Talkin’”

Billy Paul “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” Bob Dylan’s song has been done to death—by Peter, Paul and Mary, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, The Four Seasons (under the pseudonym The Wonder Who?) and so many others—but Paul’s jazz-inflected rendition gave it a certain soulful urgency lacking in every other version I’ve heard. This is one of those rare times that someone not only did one of Dylan’s compositions justice but did it better than Dylan, too.

Billy Paul “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”

Anne Murray “You Won’t See Me” I’d read it many times and always assumed it was a suburban myth, so when I met Murray in the ’90s, I asked her, “True or false: Did John Lennon really tell you that your 1974 version of “You Won’t See Me” was his favorite Beatles cover?” True. Better than Marvin Gaye’s “Yesterday,” Elton John’s “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” and Aretha Franklin’s “Eleanor Rigby.” (I wonder what he would have made of Tiffany’s “I Saw Him Standing There” had he lived eight years longer to hear it.) Once again unwrapping her gift of interpretation six years later, Murray took the Monkees’ “Daydream Believer” and made it listenable at last.

Anne Murray “You Won’t See Me”

Linda Ronstadt “You’re No Good” Dee Dee Warwick recorded it first, and Betty Everett took it for its first trip up Billboard’s Hot 100 (to No. 51 in 1963). As great old-school soul singers go, both were up there with the best, but what made Ronstadt’s version pop and rock and sent it to No. 1 for one week in 1975 was the mix of Peter Asher’s haunting production, a tough-as-nails Ronstadt at the peak of her vocal power and the best instrumental outro in the history of ’70s rock. Love and anger rolled into one of music’s great transcendent kiss-offs.

Linda Ronstadt “You’re No Good”

Amii Stewart “Knock on Wood” Eddie Floyd‘s 1966 original is a soul classic and deservedly so, but Stewart’s 1979 cover—which went all the way to No. 1—is a highlight of the era of disco balls, bell bottoms and white polyester.

Amii Stewart “Knock on Wood”

Darlene Love “River Deep – Mountain High” I know, sacrilege! How dare I say that anyone ever topped Ike & Tina Turner’s 1966 classic! But there you go. Recent Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee Love, whose voice is one of the greatest instruments ever committed to record, covered the Phil Spector track for the 1985 Broadway musical Leader of the Pack, and nailed it effortlessly on the cast recording. She sang it with a soulful clarity and technical precision that matched and then surpassed the Queen of Rock & Roll because Love, unlike Turner, didn’t have to claw her way out of Spector’s great, big, oppressive “Wall of Sound.”

Darlene Love “River Deep – Mountain High”

Marc Almond Featuring Special Guest Star Gene Pitney “Something’s Gotten Hold of My Heart” Topping Gene Pitney is hard work, but when Pitney revisited his own 1967 UK hit as a male-on-male duet with Soft Cell’s Marc Almond, the result not only improved on its source material, but it gave the singer one final trip to No. 1 in 1989.

Marc Almond Featuring Special Guest Star Gene Pitney “Something’s Gotten Hold of My Heart”

David Cook “Always Be My Baby” In what remains one of American Idol‘s greatest moments, during season seven, Cook took a sappy Carey song I’d always despised and turned it into a grungey, slow-burning stalker anthem. In the process, he proved himself a true artist and Carey a songwriter capable of greatness.

David Cook “Always Be My Baby”

Sound And Vision: Top 40 Show Tunes — Seven Music Icons Whose Songs Should Rock Broadway

Though I’ll probably never be a huge fan of the Broadway musical, occasionally, they rock. Such has been the case for Great White Way song-and-dance productions based on the music of the Who, Bee Gees, ABBA, Queen, Billy Joel, Dolly Parton, Green Day and Elton John (twice). But poor Paul Simon. He flopped hard—and embarrassingly—with The Capeman in 1998. The moral of this particular west side story? When launching expensive stage musicals, it pays creative and/or commercial dividends for rock and pop stars to fall back on their classics—or in the case of John’s Aida, a classic opera—for inspiration.

And then there’s U2. The normal rules of art and commerce have never applied to Ireland’s greatest musical export. Although Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, with original music and lyrics by U2 frontman Bono and guitarist The Edge, has been dogged by bad buzz, negative reviews (for the staging, if not the music) and behind-the-scenes snafus, it’s been a box-office success since debuting in previews last November, more than six months in advance of its official June 14 opening.

Whether their Spidey show tunes will spin their web for months or years remains to be seen, but it’s hard not to wish that Bono and The Edge had adapted their band’s enduring catalog for a musical instead. If they had to take Manhattan, why not do it using songs we know and love from The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby, two of its best and most successful albums, as inspiration rather than a superhero human-arachnid mutation (who’ll be returning to the big screen shortly in the form of The Social Network‘s Andrew Garfield)?

Maybe someday. In the meantime, here are some other iconic artists who ought to be waiting in the wings with their own spotlight musical. (Sorry, no Beatles—I’ve heard enough bad covers of the Fab Four’s catalog, including those from the 1978 film Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, to last several lifetimes!)

David Bowie: Maybe it’s the fact that I’ve been waiting so long for new music from Bowie. Or that my favorite Bowie song inspired the name of this very column. But more likely, it’s all about Space Oddity, a  rock & roll classic which tells a story that conceivably could be stretched out into a two-hour musical format and rounded out with many other Bowie hits. His ’70s output was more or less created to be performed onstage, and his theatrical music and visual lyrics could so easily translate to the rock-opera format. Meanwhile, Major Tom, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and The Thin White Duke—parts Bowie played to perfection on record and in concert—are star-making roles if ever there were four of them.

Burt Bacharach and Hal David: “Walk on By.” “Message to Michael.” “Wishin’ and Hopin’.” “I Say a Little Prayer.” “(They Long to Be) Close to You.” Put these Bacharach/David compositions together—adding “Do You Know the Way to San Jose,” “(There’s) Always Something There to Remind Me,” “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” and many more—and what have you got? A Broadway miracle that’ll have more fans singing along than any musical since Mamma Mia!.

Loretta Lynn: It’s a mystery why no one has thought to revive Coal Miner’s Daughter on Broadway. The 1980 film has got the music, the story and the Oscar pedigree. But why stop with Loretta Lynn when you can add the music of Tammy Wynette and Patsy Cline and stage Honky Tonk Angels, all about lives and loves in a ten-cent town?

Johnny Cash: No need to revisit Walk the Line just yet. The hero of Ring of Fire (which I always thought would have been a better title for the film since it was co-written by June Carter Cash about her and Johnny, while Cash’s first wife inspired him to write “I Walk the Line”) could be a man in black by another name. Lyrically, the best of Johnny Cash already hits on all the stages of an extraordinary life, from outcast (“A Boy Named Sue,” which was actually written by Shel Silverstein and not Cash) to outlaw (“Folsom Prison Blues”) to would-be saint (“Walk the Line”) to corpse (“Don’t Take Your Guns to Town”).

The Eagles: Picture this: Hotel California, featuring the Eagles signature title song plus “Desperado,” “Lying Eyes,” “Take It to the Limit,” “New Kid in Town” and all of those other ’70s country-rock classics. If there’s gonna be a heartache tonight (or any other night), I can’t think of a better musical cure.

Fleetwood Mac: Because the band deserves so much better than Glee‘s very special “Rumours” episode, which, criminally, left out “You Make Lovin’ Fun” and “Gold Dust Woman.”

Eminem: Speaking of outlaws, it’s probably just a matter of time before the ’80s musical outlaw movement known as rap invades Broadway just as it did Middle America in the ’90s. I can’t think of a rapping storyteller whose songs are more deserving of the full-on stage treatment than the guy who brought us “Stan,” “’97 Bonnie & Clyde” and “Love the Way You Lie.” If 8 Mile could win an Oscar, its Tony Award possibilities as a Broadway musical are probably close to endless.

Whose music would you like to experience on Broadway?

Sound And Vision: Pop Songs On TV – Last Season’s MVPs (Most Valuable Programs)

If video killed the radio star in the 1980s, television is still hammering the nails into its coffin three decades later. Yes, radio still has its place in the selling of pop music, but nothing says, “Prepare to scale new chart heights,” like a plum spot on a popular TV show. I’m old enough to remember when General Hospital turned Christopher Cross‘s “Think of Laura” from just another song on a flop sophomore album into a Top 10 single in 1984 and Days of Our Lives made a 1986 hit out of Gloria Loring and Carl Anderson‘s “Friends and Lovers.” But recently, television has been sending singers and songs up the charts like never before.

Radio didn’t make Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Adam Lambert and Susan Boyle stars. Had it not been for their small-screen exposure on American Idol and Britain’s Got Talent, “Since You’ve Been Gone,” “Before He Cheats” and millions of Glamazons never may have been thrust onto the world, and Blackburn, West Lothian, Scotland (Boyle’s hometown), certainly wouldn’t be on the map!

Which TV show is the most effective hit/star-maker? This past TV season, it would have been a toss up between Idol and Glee. Idol may have taken a season off (No. 9) from creating a new superstar, but it relaunched an old one while spawning and boosting a number of hits in its 10th round. Idol judge Jennifer Lopez probably owes her musical comeback to her gig and the airing of the “On the Floor” video on the March 3 results show. The following week, the single soared into the Top 10, becoming Lopez’s first hit in four years. And everybody loves wacky uncle Steven Tyler, but would “(It) Feels So Good,” his first-ever solo single, have debuted at No. 35 on Billboard’s Hot 100 had the video not premiered May 12 on Idol? (If only the show had had so much chart influence for non-contestants during the Paul Abdul years!)

Katy Perry, too, has benefited from Idol. Her “E.T.” single rebounded to No. 1 after she and Kanye West performed it in a pre-taped results show segment. And then there’s Adele, who may owe her US stardom to a lucky performing slot on the October 2008 Saturday Night Live episode in which Sarah Palin made an appearance and blasted the ratings into the stratosphere. “Rolling in the Deep” was doing just fine before Haley Reinhart took it on in Top 7 week. She landed in the bottom three, but Adele zoomed from No. 10 to No. 2 en route to No. 1.

Soon after, Jared Leto’s band 30 Second to Mars found itself on the Hot 100 at No. 99 the week after James Durbin performed its song “Closer to the Edge” (not to be confused with the Robert Palmer song by the same name!). In recent weeks, Beyoncé has taken to TV (Idol, the Billboard Music Awards) to turn her dead-on-arrival “Run the World (Girls)” single around (as a result, it jumped from No. 75 to No. 50), but by the time the Idol finale rolled around on May 25, she’d moved on to new material: a ballad called “1 + 1.”

Getting back to Adele, she got a further boost a few weeks after her Idol exposure when “Deep” was featured on Glee, and I’m pretty certain that Cee Lo Green‘s “F**k You” owes its second or third wind on the charts to Gwyneth Paltrow and her rendition of the song during her first appearance on Glee last November. Of course, Glee has done more for its own cast—who now have had more entries on the Hot 100 than any act ever and have produced eight Top 10 albums and three Top 10 EPs—than it has for any of the artists they’ve covered. But perhaps no after-shock of the Glee treatment was more unexpected this past TV season than the one following the May 3 episode devoted to Fleetwood Mac‘s landmark Rumours LP. The nearly 35-year-old album re-entered Billboard’s Top 200 album chart way up at No. 11, selling nearly 30,000 copies, 1,951 per cent more than it had the previous week. Matthew “Mr. Schuester” Morrison’s self-titled album debuted at No. 24 one week later, but he might have been better off making it a Glee soundtrack.

The Bevery Hills 90210 spin-off 90210 may not have the ratings to kickstart hits the way Idol and Glee do, but by blending the latest greatest hits (which last season included “Rolling in the Deep” before it was a big hit) with music from more obscure artists, it’s done more for buzz-bin bands (including Australia’s the Temper Trap, Angus & Julia Stone and Boy & Bear) than any TV entity since the days of MTV’s 120 Minutes.

Award shows, though not as dependable as all of the above, can occasionally be good for launching a chart success. Florence and the Machine‘s Lungs album and “Dog Days Are Over” single became hits after a performance on the MTV Video Music Awards last September, and major GRAMMY wins are always good for a one-week bump in sales. More recently, country hunk Blake Shelton became a pop star when his “Honey Bee” single landed on the Hot 100 at No. 13, after the singer debuted it on the April 3 Academy of Country Music Awards telecast, becoming the highest debut for a male country artist since the Garth Brooks/Chris Gaines 1999 song “Lost in You” (not to be confused with Rod Stewart‘s ’80s hit!) entered at No. 5. Shelton is now a judge on The Voice, so look for him to reap more benefits from TV, along with his fellow judges, Christina Aguilera (who could use a J. Lo-style comeback of her own), Maroon 5′s Adam Levine and Cee Lo Green, whose post-GRAMMYs chart momentum for “F**k You” lasted months.

Good Morning America also has gotten into the hit-making act this year. I’m not sure that morning news and talk shows influence album sales in any significant way, but Chris Brown‘s temper tantrum after his interview with Robin Roberts and the ensuing publicity surely had something to do with helping him earn his first No. 1 album with F.A.M.E., which was released the day of his GMA visit.

Will radio ever go out of style? Probably not completely. But these days, stars are born (and reborn) not there, but on TV.

Sound And Vision: 10 Reasons Why I Wanted To Hate Lady Gaga’s New Album Before I Heard It

By now you’ve read the (mostly glowing) reviews, and Born This Way is probably well on its way to becoming Album of the Year. So who needs me on the Lady Gaga bandwagon? She’s already sold millions of albums and singles without the benefit of my adoration, and her second full-length effort (launched worldwide on May 23) is destined to pad her coffers with more gold and platinum. But after single after sound-alike single from The Fame and The Fame Monster EP, I was hoping for a change of course, her very own Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1, a follow-up to a mega-platinum breakthrough that defies expectations and stands on the strength of the music alone. (Remember how George Michael made only one video for that album, and he didn’t even appear in it?)

I like Gaga best at her piano with a bare minimum of camp and circumstance, and I wish she’d go there more often. There’s something about way-over-the-top freaky Gaga that leaves my eyes in perpetual rolling motion. Plus I’m generally allergic to anything that’s hyped by the majority of the universe. I won’t bother to review the new album since pretty much everyone with an opinion has offered it on Facebook, Twitter or any other social-media forum where people will read it, but I’ll say this: Since the marketing of Gaga is often more interesting than the music she releases, my expectations were low. This time, though, in a nice surprise twist, she exceeded them. Still, it’s so hard to listen without prejudice, unaffected—positively or negatively—by a publicity push that shoved Gaga in our faces 24/7 and screamed, “You must love her!” So what exactly fueled my pre-release discontent and keeps my Gaga resentment bubbling just under the surface of my grudging respect? Read on.

1. “Judas.” Here we go again! Another busy video in which Gaga bombards us with visual stimuli. (Enough with the religious iconography, girl!) This one’s an eyesore, and I’d rather go blind than ever watch it again. But the biggest problem with “Judas,” the second Born This Way single, is that it isn’t much of a song—it’s basically just a noisy rewrite of her previous hits. No wonder it spent all of one week in the Top 10 of Billboard’s Hot 100, at No. 10, after its initial characteristically over-hyped release.

2. The onslaught of Born This Way teasers. Though Gaga would surely have us believe that this is yet another of her brilliantly “original” ideas, Taylor Swift did the exact same thing in the weeks before the release of her third album, Speak Now, last October, and Katy Perry pulled a similar stunt with Teenage Dream. After the title track, Born This Way‘s three follow-up singles were released in too-quick succession to have much impact, and when you add the streaming of songs from the album on Farmville in the days leading up to May 23, it’s like an extended trailer that gives away the entire plot to the Event Movie of the Year, to which Born This Way was born to be the musical equivalent. I’m surprised she didn’t add “in 3D” to the title!

3. Her publicity blitz cut into my Justin Timberlake time on the Saturday Night Live season finale. Watching Justin Timberlake host SNL made me long for the good old days of gimmick-free pop stars who weren’t trying to save their fans from the big bad evil world. He’s talented, nice to look at and his music stands on its own. He don’t have to take his clothes off to have a good time, or to make his tunes interesting, though he’s certainly welcome to! So why should he have to share the SNL spotlight with musical guest Gaga?

4. “You and I” was not a pre-release single. If anything good came of Haley Reinhart’s run on American Idol, it’s this: She dug up a then-unreleased Gaga track called “You and I” and almost did it justice. I immediately marched over to YouTube and sought out Gaga’s live performance of the song on the Today show last year. I felt like I was watching a female Elton John in her prime. Too bad the Born This Way version is more heavily produced by Shania Twain’s ex, Robert John “Mutt” Lange.

5. As an Idol mentor, she didn’t even acknowledge the free publicity Haley gave her little-known song. Did it happen off screen? Does she not watch the show, or was she simply unimpressed by Haley (Lord knows I usually was)? That said, Gaga made an excellent mentor and gave constructive advice. James Durbin didn’t do as he was told (come on, dude, put some Elvis into it!), and look what happened to him.

6. She’s probably going to leave Adele’s 21 in the dust as the top-selling album of 2011 so far. But then again, Adele made her mark fully clothed without the benefit of flashy videos and a billion-dollar publicity campaign. She didn’t even bother to get out of her seat in the “Rolling in the Deep” clip, and the single still went to No. 1.

7. Does every Gaga video need a cast of thousands? Just once, I’d like to see her go stark and minimalist, Beyonce’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)”-style—no controversial imagery, no cheap group choreography, no grandiose aspirations. Yes, there’s strength in numbers, but less could be so much more.

8. “The Edge of Glory” is like a bad ’80s flashback. It would have been perfect for the Top Gun soundtrack. Images of Kelly McGillis dance in my head. Bonnie Tyler, or Stock, Aitken and Waterman-era Donna Summer, would have killed for this. I almost expect Laura Branigan to rise from the dead and start singing back-up halfway through. If only it were half as good as “Gloria” or “Self Control.”

9. She wasn’t born that way. Isn’t it ironic that the singer who sells artifice better than anyone scored one of her biggest hits—six weeks at No. 1 on the Hot 100—with a song called “Born This Way”?

10. Her return is totally eclipsing Beyoncé’s. Queen B should have done what Kelly Clarkson did and sit out a few months while Gaga rules. A stronger first single would have helped, though. If the premiere of the “Run the World (Girls)” video on Idol and Beyoncé’s May 22 Billboard Music Awards performance don’t put her in charge, maybe she can still pull a Britney/Rihanna and get Gaga to add her two cents to a “Run the World” remix and watch it soar straight to No. 1.

Sound And Vision: How Mainstream And Cutting-Edge Learned To Co-Exist In Pop Harmony

A few weeks ago, Melbourne hosted the TV WEEK Logie Awards, which is like Australia’s Emmys, only with more reality TV, more cooking shows and music. Katy Perry and Maroon 5 represented American pop, and then there was rising UK star Jessie J, representing… well, I’m still not 100 percent sure. As she stalked the stage, decked out in glam-Goth basic black, performing her No. 1 UK hit “Price Tag,” my friend peeled his eyes away from the television, turned to me and announced, “Her look is cool and alternative, but her music is so lame and poppy. They don’t match at all!”

It’s a discordancy that’s starting to take over. Pop and rock and hip hop used to hang out on different sides of the playground, barely acknowledging each other, with the rare, revolutionary exception (think Run-D.M.C.‘s 1985 smash cover of Aerosmith‘s “Walk this Way,” featuring the vintage rock band on vocals and in the song’s video). If your music was too mainstream, strictly middle-of-the-road (a condition that afflicted neither Run-D.M.C.’s nor Aerosmith’s tunes at the time, which perhaps is why the hit sounded so effortless), there was no changing lanes. You could dress as wild as ’80s fashion would let you, but you would always be a pop star. Chart-toppers had little chance of drumming up street cred or working with artists whose tunes dangled from the cutting edge. Why do you think Duran Duran, one of the most influential bands of the Reagan era, still hasn’t been nominated for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and is only now, more than two decades past its prime, publicly earning the respect of well-respected men like David Lynch, who directed the band’s recent American Express online concert?

Suddenly its cool to be alternative and pop. We’ve got Katy Perry mingling with Snoop Dogg and Kanye West on record and with bad-boy British comic Russell Brand in holy matrimony, and Ke$ha singing some of the poppiest songs on the charts and casting James van der Beek, one of Hollywood’s most white-bread actors, in her video but tarting it up just enough to come across as one of the coolest girls in school. (Ever the trendsetter, in the ’80s, Madonna had the good sense to tousle her image by marrying bad boy Sean Penn.) Meanwhile, Rihanna—a pop princess if ever there was one—holds court with Eminem and sings about how she’s “Hard” (as Young Jeezy raps in her defense).

Lady Gaga dresses like a freak and breaks every sartorial rule while singing what is basically the rave music of every ’90s teenage dream. Her former video costar Beyoncé alternates between straight-up pop (“Halo,” “Sweet Dreams”) and darker hip hop (“Diva” and current single “Run the World [Girls]“), while A Rocket to the Moon and Wilco singer Jeff Tweedy are among those who have covered “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It).” Try This (her 2003 flop that, in my opinion, is her best album) aside, Pink‘s ultra-commercial music has never mirrored her rock-chick attitude. Even Coldplay, one of the biggest rock bands on the planet, second perhaps only to U2, collaborated with, of all people, Kylie Minogue on the 2008 World AID’s Day charity single “Lhuna.”

As with so many recent musical trends, the current shift toward the mainstream and the cutting edge making strange bedfellows began with hip hop. If a roguish rapper like Eminem could rhyme alongside pop singers (first Dido on “Stan,” then Elton John at the 2001 GRAMMYs, and most recently, Pink and Rihanna on Recovery), couldn’t all musicians, regardless of genre, get along? Sure they can, but the commercial results have been mixed. There’ve been huge hits—the Katy Perry singles “California Gurls” and “E.T.” returned her rapper costars, Snoop Dogg and Kanye West, respectively, to No. 1 for the first time in eons—but when Alicia Keys met Jack White for “Another Way to Die,” the theme for the last James Bond flick, 2008′s Quantum of Solace, it was a one-week wonder on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at No. 81.

Perhaps Keys’ R&B and pop fans and White’s alternative ones didn’t know what to do with the meeting of their musical minds, which was nonethess one of the best singles of 2008. Of course, there are artists who resist, too. Remember when Ryan Adams used to go off on fans who requested Bryan Adams‘ “Summer of ’69″ because he was fed up with being compared to the ’80s and ’90s pop superstar with the almost-identical name? (He once had a fan tossed out of a Nashville concert for daring to do the unthinkable!)

Kanye West vs. Taylor Swift at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards probably was as much about the cutting edge (hip hop) vs. the mainstream (country-pop) as it was about the visual supremacy of Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” video. In February, I read a Billboard.com interview where empress of ’80s cool Chrissie Hynde talked about her upcoming Super Bowl weekend performance on CMT Crossroads with country diva Faith Hill, and she said she was unfamiliar with Hill’s music and admitted, “I don’t know much about country music, period.” Then there’s Kings of Leon, best known in the US for the Top 5 hit “Use Somebody”. Although the band would hardly be considered alternative in its recent hit-making incarnation, the guys  nonetheless refused to allow Glee to use “Somebody.” (I bet South Park or Dexter or Weeds would have gotten their blessing.)

But if Jay-Z can let the Glee kids turn “Empire State of Mind” into a show tune, if Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler can sit beside Jennifer Lopez at the American Idol judges table, if “F–k You” singer Cee Lo Green can go from collaborating with Danger Mouse (in Gnarls Barkley) to being one of Christina Aguilera‘s fellow judges on The Voice, then we might yet live to hear an Eminem track featuring Britney Spears.

 

Sound And Vision: Jennifer Hudson Vs. Fantasia — Who’s Winning Now?

If nearly ten seasons of American Idol have taught us anything, it’s this: To the victor do not always belong the spoils. Just ask Taylor Hicks and Kris Allen. Or Ruben Studdard. Or Lee DeWyze.

And then there was season three.

For third Idol winner Fantasia Barrino and seventh-placer Jennifer Hudson, life since 2004 has been up, down and sideways. Following a brief disappearing act, the third-season castoff nabbed a starring role as girl-group castoff Effie White in the Broadway musical-turned-feature film Dreamgirls (beating out former Idol rival Fantasia, among others, for the part) and won just about every major film prize, including the 2006 Academy Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role. As with so many who’ve received that particular honor, her post-Oscar acting gigs—Carrie Bradshaw’s assistant in the first Sex and the City movie, a lead in The Secret Life of Bees—have been as spotty and sporadic as Fantasia’s album releases.

Ah, yes, Fantasia’s music career. It’s been okay, but somewhat short of spectacular. When her third album, Back to Me, outdid lowish expectations last August by selling 117,000 copies in its first week and debuting at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 album chart, some blamed it on the publicity surrounding a suicide attempt weeks earlier in which Fantasia, who had been dealing with fallout from an affair with a married man, swallowed a bottle of aspirin.

Meanwhile, Hudson was going through some turmoil of her own. Following her Oscar score and the release of a self-titled debut album that ultimately went gold in the US, she suffered a triple blow in 2008 when her mother, brother and nephew were found murdered, and her sister’s estranged husband was charged with the slayings. In the two and a half years since, Hudson’s been better known for being a survivor, for being a new mom (to son David, twenty-one months), for losing a ton of weight than for her singing or acting.

Now Fantasia and Hudson have something else in common, besides self-affirming current album titles (Back to Me and I Remember Me, respectively): For their next act, both are pretending to be someone else. Hudson will star as Winnie Mandela, the controversial ex-wife of South African President Nelson Mandela in the fall biopic Winnie, and Fantasia has been cast as Mahalia Jackson in an in-the-works big-screen story based on the gospel great’s life. Hudson might have more to lose simply because as an Oscar winner, she has more to live up to—though only as an actress. She’s had respectable success making albums, but they seem almost like career filler. She should be Beyoncé’s healthy competition, making life imitate Dreamgirls, getting the best hitbound beats and ballads that money and Oscar clout can buy. I recently caught her on The Graham Norton Show, and although she sang the hell out of of the title cut from I Remember Me (even fellow guest k.d. lang seemed to be genuinely moved), she appeared strangely distant and disinterested in promoting it. Her heart didn’t seem to be as into it as her soul (singing). It’s as if she’s not sure which should get top billing—acting or albums—and music might just be holding her over until her next killer film role.

Winnie Mandela would seem to be just that, but the film still has zero buzz (not even its own Wikipedia entry) and nothing about the trailer, throughout which Hudson wears a strangely vacant expression, suggests that major accolades will be forthcoming. Fantasia, on the other hand, has lowered expectations because its her first major film role and because fewer people know anything about Mahalia Jackson. But she’s got God on her side: Her gospel singing is guaranteed to rock moviegoers and the folks in charge of creating awards buzz. And if her level of passion and commitment on the set comes close to what we’ve heard on record or seen on stage, she could very well be next to graduate from Idol contestant to Oscar nominee.

Should that fail to happen, there’s always Aretha Franklin, a role both Hudson and Fantasia may have been born to play and for which they’ll no doubt duke it out when casting commences for that Queen of Soul-sanctioned biopic.

And the season three race continues….

Sound And Vision: Miley Cyrus’ Career Rehab — Can She Pull Off A Pop Comeback?

Maybe it’s the fact that I’m several decades removed from my tween years. Or perhaps it was her sound, which, on her early hit albums, was a bit too High School Musical for my taste. Whatever the reason, I never quite got Miley Cyrus nor did I understand the haste with which she was able to turn a starring role in the Disney Channel sitcom Hannah Montana into international pop and film stardom.
She wasn’t the first ambitious kid to ride Disney to the top. Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, Keri Russell and Ryan Gosling all got their starts on The All-New Mickey Mouse Club in the ’90s, but it took them several years to parlay their Disney exposure into instant fame. Cyrus’s 2006 rise, if not quite faster than a speeding bullet, was certainly more rapid than the ascent of Disney’s Lizzie McGuire star Hilary Duff in the early ’00s. Maybe the tweens were just desperate for someone new, and for a few years, Cyrus was it. Rising Disney starlets Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato were no match for her. She had hit albums and hit movies, sell-out concerts, massive media coverage, famous boyfriends (including—natch!—a Jonas Brother) and, until last January, Hannah Montana, the alter ego and the show.
Then Cyrus went and did the unthinkable: She grew up—way too soon.
Her 2010 album Can’t Be Tamed introduced a sexier, worldlier and still-underage Miley. Critics and tweens cringed, and it promptly tanked. Bong hits and public lap dances did neither her image nor her bankability any favors. Then this past March, I was the one doing the unthinkable: For the first time, I found myself rooting for Miley Cyrus. All it took was TMZ’s video replay of her run-in with a pushy paparazzo who got too close to her mom. As Cyrus forcefully told him to show some respect, I cheered and wished she’d channel some of this attitude and raw spunk into her work.
There might be hope for her yet. Though she announced after the release of Can’t Be Tamed that she’d be putting music on the backburner for a while to focus on acting (she’ll costar as Demi Moore’s daughter in the forthcoming film LOL: Laughing Out Loud), Cyrus already seems to be eyeing a pop comeback. Though she has no current projects to promote, she was booked to host the March 5 episode of Saturday Night Live. Not only did she prove that she still has some Hollywood pull by grabbing the plum gig, but considering that SNL regularly lampoons her with the mock “Miley Cyrus Show” (on March 5, she appeared as Justin Bieber alongside Cyrus impersonator Vanessa Bayer), she’s apparently a pretty good sport, too—plus she does a spot-on Bieber. She scored bonus points by mocking Lindsay Lohan and inciting yet another LiLo celebrity fued. And look what that did for Gwyneth Paltrow on Glee!
On April 27, Cyrus continued her climb back up the pop ladder with an appearance in the American Idol performance package for sixteen-year-old Lauren Alaina, who had sung the Cyrus hit “The Climb” weeks earlier. (Idol mentor and music exec Jimmy Iovine offered a huge reality check, though, when he declared Alaina “a much much stronger singer than Miley Cyrus.” Ouch!) Though she didn’t perform, her appearance hinted at a renewed interest in her pop career. According to her dad Billy Ray Cyrus, she’s met with Dr. Luke, the producer behind hits by Britney Spears, Ke$ha and Cyrus herself, so new music might be forthcoming sooner rather than later.
While Dr. Luke has an excellent track record (which includes Cyrus’s greatest hit, “Party in the U.S.A.”), I’m hoping she’s gotten the pop tart bit out of her system. Can’t Be Tamed already proved that no one is buying Cyrus as the second coming of Spears or any of those under-dressed female pop stars currently crowding the market. Unlike Lohan, there have been no arrests, no truly embarrassing moments. Cyrus’s biggest sins so far have been making poor fashion choices and releasing bad music, so this, too, shall pass—if she’s learned from her mistakes.
Next time, she should skip the skimpy. If she must embrace sexual liberation, she should do it with class—and better songs. She’ll likely never get a return shout out from Jay-Z, but maybe she can team up with Jessie J, the rising, sort-of-edgy UK star who co-wrote “Party in the U.S.A.,” for a sequel that’ll convert her detractors and restore her V.I.P. platinum status.

Sound And Vision: Reunited Bands Try To Make Lightning Strike Twice

For the love of money.
According to Sting, when I interviewed him in 1996, there’s no other reason to bring a band back from the dead. Yet one must assume that Sting—who’s had a gold and platinum solo career for more than three times the seven years he was a member of The Police—had more than money on the brain when he reunited the band in 2007, after more than two decades of inactivity, for a thirtieth anniversary world tour.
Think about it: If Diana Ross can try to regroup with Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong (though she ended up with two ’70s Supremes with whom she’d never actually performed and possibly never even met until minutes before the ill-fated 2000 “reunion” was announced), why can’t all other former bandmates get along—or at least get back together. Are you listening, ABBA? Though a musical reunion of Sweden’s fab four, or the UK one from the ’80s (that would be The Smiths), remains as unlikely as a resurgent Rubik’s cube or Carter Country, in recent years, we’ve seen a number of bands—from the Pixies to Yaz to the “classic” original line-up of Duran Duran—come together again.
Some did it for the love of money, some because of fading solo careers and some because as we get older those nostalgic impulses become harder to ignore. One imagines the latter must have been a big part of the reason why rich solo superstar Robbie Williams mended fences last year with Take That—who’d already reformed in 2005, nine years after breaking up—and participated in Progress, their first album together in fifteen years. This month, the original Take That will hit the road with Pet Shop Boys.
On May 10, The Cars, who haven’t released a new studio album since Ronald Reagan was in office, will drive their act into this millennium with Move Like This and a ten-date reunion tour that begins in Seattle on the day of the album’s release. They won’t be the only ’80s throwbacks on the road in the coming months. Bobby Brown recently said that the off-and-on-and-off-and-on-again New Edition has a new album and tour in the works. Perhaps they should join New Kids on the Block (who’ll be performing live this summer with Backstreet Boys) and soon-to-be summer tour mates Tiffany and Debbie Gibson for a Monsters of ’80s Pop package.
Then there’s Soundgarden, the band who along with Nirvana and Pearl Jam created grunge’s holy triumvirate in the early ’90s. They split in 1997, and although Chris Cornell had success as a member of Audioslave, his solo career never quite caught on. Can grunge thrive in 2011? We’ll find out when the Seattle band, set to tour in July, releases its work in progress later this year, but the odds might be stacked against them.
With a few exceptions—the Eagles, Steely Dan and Take That, whose Progress has enjoyed massive UK sales—reunited bands generally have had more success with comeback tours than with new music. Roxy Music, the Pixies and Psychedelic Furs have been back together for years, but neither band has released new albums. And Blondie, whose Panic of Girls is due on July 4, had middling US success with 1999′s No Exit and 2003′s The Curse of Blondie (though the former did produce the No. 1 UK single “Maria”).
In 2008, New Kids on the Block, whose reunion tour year featured Lady Gaga as an opening act, got off to a good start with The Block (first-week sales: 100,000), but the album failed to go gold in the US. The Cars’ new single, “Sad Song,” hasn’t gone higher than No. 37 on Billboard’s Rock Songs chart since its March 1 release, which doesn’t bode too well for the buzz-free Move Like This. Meanwhile, Duran Duran’s nostalgia value makes the group a huge touring attraction, but the new albums featuring the original line up (minus guitarist Andy Taylor) have sold only modestly.
But with album sales continuing to free fall anyway, it might not even matter. Releasing new music keeps the bands from being strictly oldies acts, and if the love of money is their bottom line, most of them are getting exactly what they’re after on the road.
[Ed. Note: Rockers and pop stars aren't the only ones taking a trip down memory lane. Check out more comebacks and reunions in hip hop.]

Sound And Vision: United They Stand (And Sell Out) — Superstars On Tour Together

It official: U2 is the biggest music act on the planet! The band might not go multi-platinum like it used to, and there’s been no blockbuster single since George Bush the elder was in office, but Bono and the boys just bagged some brand-new bragging rights. In early April, the group’s 360° world tour surpassed the Rolling Stones‘ 2005-2007 A Bigger Bang tour to become the biggest money-making road trip of all time. By the time the Live Nation-backed trek—which U2 launched in 2009 to support the No Line on the Horizon album—concludes in July, it will have pulled in a projected $700 million in ticket sales.
Of course, U2 didn’t do it alone. If a GRAMMY were awarded for Best Supporting Act, Muse— who opened for many of U2′s 360° dates, including the ones in Brazil that broke the Stones’ record— would have an excellent shot. (Jay-Z did the honors in Australia and New Zealand, while the Black Eyed Peas chipped in on some US and Canada dates.) Here’s a platinum-level UK band whose slow and steady trajectory in the US has been thrust further upward by key slots on the soundtracks to the Twilight films and frontman Matthew Bellamy’s romance with Kate Hudson, with whom he’s expecting a baby. Muse could sell out big venues on its own (and did, even before U2, Hudson or Twilight entered the picture), but with the group playing warm-up act for U2, it seems almost inevitable that major records would be broken.
Two superstar acts for the price of one ticket: It’s a brilliant idea that’s spreading fast. With the international economy in shambles, and so much competition on the road, the biggest stars need to offer fans more than just the greatest show on earth to guarantee blockbuster box-office business. That’s where A-list opening acts come in. U2 could sell out stadiums and arenas solo, but why not hedge its bets by bringing in big-name support to pull some of the weight?
In previous decades, most big stars wouldn’t have been caught dead with an opening act that could possibly upstage them. They usually hit the road with bubbling-under, up-and-comers, safeguarding their own star billing while, by default, helping the upstarts bring their music to the masses. But with ticket sales skyrocketing closer to four-digit figures (U2′s $250 top-tier ticket price is practically a bargain), sometimes you need more than a name and a collection of hits to lure fans. Simply put, on their own, few superstars have the drawing power of Charlie Sheen anymore. It takes two (bankable draws) to make a gig go right.
These days the relationship between headliners and opening acts (or co-headliners) is far more symbiotic. Rod Stewart and Stevie Nicks co-headlined—and sold out—the thirteen-city Heart & Soul North American tour in March and April, though she who goes on first (sorry, Stevie) is technically the opening act. Eighties teen queens Debbie Gibson and Tiffany just announced their own co-headlining summer tour (at press time, there wasn’t any word on who’d be opening), and Sade will bring fellow platinum-level GRAMMY winner John Legend along for the ride when her world tour arrives in North America on June 16 in Baltimore, Maryland. Though there is some fan overlap in all three cases, Nicks and Legend will be contributing to the financial potential of their tickets in a much larger way than your traditional opening act.
Meanwhile in the world of pop, Britney Spears and Nicki Minaj just signed a pact for Minaj to open dates on Spears’s upcoming Femme Fatale North American tour, which also launches on June 16, but in Sacramento, California. The unlikely alliance between a superstar and an up-and-comer who, at the moment, is probably just as hot, will benefit the headliner as much as the opening act. It will expose Minaj to pop fans who might otherwise know her only from her cameos on other people’s records, and it will give Spears a little bit of something that has eluded her for her entire career: street cred. It’s probably an even more winning combination than Spears and Enrique Iglesias, who had been in talks to open the tour before Minaj got onboard.
Over in the UK, Take That snagged Pet Shop Boys as the opening act on the Progress Live 2011 Tour, set to hit the road in May, despite the fact that the two acts ruled in different decades. (Fun fact: Newly returned Take That member Robbie Williams and PSB collaborated on “She’s Madonna” and “We’re the Pet Shop Boys,” two tracks from the former’s 2006 Rudebox album, and Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant sang on Williams’ early solo hit “No Regrets.”) Once again, though, the effect will be reciprocal. Pet Shop Boys will attract gays and the ’80s-obsessed, while Take That will pull in gays and children of the ’90s.
Combine and conquer! It’s a concept that for years has worked for annual multi-artist tours like Ozzfest and Lollapalooza, yearly one-off festivals like Coachella and Glastonbury that touch down in the US and UK as well as the ones that regularly land in places like Argentina and Australia, and double-bills featuring reuinted ’80s icons. Fans will hand over the cash if you give them hours of entertainment featuring a smorgasbord of talent. This, however, might be the first time we’ve seen so many superstar acts settling for the opening slot, and it’s likely just the beginning. Can Ke$ha as the appetizer for Spears’s main course in Europe and beyond be far behind?

Sound And Vision: Product Placement in Pop Videos — Good, Bad, Ugly Or Just Great Business?

—Art vs. Commerce. That was the declaration of war made by Neil Young in his controversial, confrontational 1988 single “This Note’s for You,” and he didn’t stop there. In the song’s scathing video, Young mocked stars like Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston for using their image and music to sell consumer goods. The clip was promptly banned by MTV, but it still went on to win the 1989 Video Music Award for Best Video of the Year. Art 1, Commerce 0.
Look who’s winning now. If Young were to relaunch the war with a 2011 sequel to “This Note’s for You,” the competition, no longer limited to such easy targets, would probably crush him. Shilling for corporations, particularly in music videos, has become as perfunctory to pop stardom as walking the red carpet, with more and more music acts seeking advertising dollars while mining for gold and platinum. For years, TV commercials have looked like MTV, and now it’s increasingly the other way around, too.
When Lady Gaga wore Diet Coke cans in her hair in the “Telephone” video, she wasn’t just making an offbeat fashion statement. She was earning a massive payday. And Coca-Cola, Virgin Mobile, Polaroid and Hewlett-Packard—to name a few of the brands that popped up in the video—were getting their money’s worth. If millions of video views on YouTube boosted Gaga’s album and single sales, imagine what they did for Diet Coke.
More recently, Britney Spears promoted her Radiance fragrance and reportedly made a cool half million for pitching Sony electronics, Make Up Forever cosmetics and the dating Web site PlentyOfFish.com and in her “Hold It Against Me” clip. Avril Lavigne endorsed Sony Vaio computers, Sony Ericsson HD digital cameras, her own Avril Lavigne perfume and Abbey Dawn clothing line as well as New York City taxis in “What the Hell,” while Jennifer Lopez advertised BMW, Swarovski crystals and Crown Royal whiskey in “On the Floor.”

Not one to miss a bandwagon, especially one that’s so profitable, Ke$ha worked Revolucion tequila and—like Spears and Gaga in their aforementioned clips as well as Jason DeRülo, Natasha Bedingfield, 3OH!3 and Flo Rida in their own videos—PlentyOfFish.com into “We R Who We R.” The clip also hawks Baby-G watches, and in return, the brand’s Web site features the video and photos of the singer wearing various models on its home page. Taio Cruz, the Black Eyed Peas, Kylie Minogue, Calvin Harris, Justin Bieber, Rihanna and Katy Perry (who, thanks to a poorly-timed tweet, indirectly slammed Spears for her lack of imagination in product placing) are just a few of the others who’ve plugged for pay in videos.
Pretty much every star engages in some form of product placement, some in everyday life (though presumably, not for pay), so it’s not hard to see why more of them are giving in to the temptation to sell out. Those elaborate four-minute videos that you click to view on YouTube aren’t cheap to make—in some cases, the budgets could cover the price tag of a two-hour indie film—so the product-placing singers might argue that they’re just recouping expenses.
Anyway, there’s long been product placement in movies, on TV shows, even, occasionally, in song lyrics. Nearly a decade after Busta Rhymes‘s cognac plug/hit single “Pass the Courvoisier, Part II,” Ke$ha gave a shout out—and a billion dollars worth of free publicity— to Jack Daniels in her debut solo hit “Tik Tok.” In 2009, Jennifer Lopez’s flop single “Louboutins” touted the designer heels, and Jay-Z and Alicia Keys‘ “Empire State of Mind” gave the Big Apple its best free publicity since Frank Sinatra turned “New York, New York” into a standard.
As record sales continue to slip and artists seek other sources of income, it might not be too long before Madison Avenue starts slipping songwriters compensation for mentioning its products in their lyrics. Who’s to say it hasn’t already begun?
In the end, it’s the music business. When Chris Brown says, “Look at me now, I’m getting paper,” in his latest hit, he might as well be speaking for all of his fellow pop stars. They rake in that paper from album and single sales, touring and merchandise, so why should videos (which fans get to view for free on TV or online) be any different? Even before the current wave of product placement, videos were already advertisements for the artists, their singles and their albums, which are all, essentially, product. So in a sense, product placement has been happening all along. It just arrived at its logical—and instantly lucrative—conclusion.

 


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