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Sound And Vision: 10 Things to Look Forward to in 2012 (Featuring Soundgarden, the Stone Roses and Freddie Mercury — Alive Again!)

A US Presidential election, Summer Olympics mania (London’s calling—again!), Rihanna’s film debut (in Battleship, out May 18) and the possible end of the world. Those are a few of the things I won’t be looking forward to in the coming year. Fortunately, music will offer enough thrills to distract us from all that we’d rather forget. Here’s what’s topping my 2012 anticipation list:

1. Madonna makes fiftysomething fabulous all over again. Although I’m curious to hear what Madonna does with Nicki Minaj and M.I.A. on the final cut of “Gimme All Your Luvin’” when the single is released the last week of January, that’s not the main reason I’m excited about her upcoming twelfth studio album (due in late March), her first since turning fifty in 2008.  “Masterpiece,” a new song featured in the Madonna-directed W.E. (which goes into wide release on February 3, two days before her Super Bowl XLVI performance) and her reunion with her Ray of Light producer William Orbit, is an achingly beautiful ballad that recalls the best of ’90s Madonna while gently proving that she can still create pop magic all on her own.

2. Madonna vs. Elton John vs. Mary J. Blige vs. Chris Cornell vs. Glenn Close (!) at the Golden Globes. Too bad the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has disqualified Madonna’s “Masterpiece” from competition at the February 27 Oscars. Why? Because it’s the second song featured during the closing credits, and eligible songs must either be in the body of the film, or the tune that plays when the credits start to roll. Oscar’s loss. The January 15 Golden Globes showdown featuring five monsters of pop, rock and soul and acting will be just as star-studded—and as tough to call—as George Clooney vs. Brad Pitt vs. Leonardo DiCaprio vs. Ryan Gosling in Best Actor in a Motion Picture Drama.

Continue reading ‘Sound And Vision: 10 Things to Look Forward to in 2012 (Featuring Soundgarden, the Stone Roses and Freddie Mercury — Alive Again!)’

Sound & Vision: Hard Times for TV-Launched Pop Stars — Can Adam Lambert Save Them All?

Susan Boyle is underperforming on the charts with her recently released third album, Someone to Watch Over Me. American Idol‘s Season 10 winner Scotty McCreery missed a cue and was caught lip-syncing his single “The Trouble with Girls” at the 85th Annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Speaking of trouble and girls, on the same day, 10th season runner-up Lauren Alaina flubbed the words to the National Anthem Christina Aguilera-style before an NLF game between the Detroit Lions and the Green Bay Packers.

November was cruel to the stars of TV’s talent searches. Frankly, though, they were already in danger of becoming an endangered chart phenomenon before the month kicked in. As of last season, Idol still brought in gargantuan ratings, but though McCreery is selling considerably better than his two Idol predecessors, the show hasn’t launched a runaway success since Adam Lambert three seasons ago. And despite decent ratings and a spin-off hit for two of its judges with Maroon 5 and Christina Aguilera‘s “Moves Like Jagger,” The Voice failed to produce a single chart sensation in its first season.

The jury is still out on the US version of The X Factor, but with viewership well below half of Idol‘s 10th-season average (and an erosion of some 4 million viewers between its September debut and November), it’s hard to imagine that Simon Cowell and company will be able to create a star bigger than Idol has in recent years.

Continue reading ‘Sound & Vision: Hard Times for TV-Launched Pop Stars — Can Adam Lambert Save Them All?’

Sound And Vision: Why I’m Seriously Considering Boycotting Music Award Shows

On November 9, Nashville celebrated itself (again!) with the Country Music Association (CMA) Awards. For the fourth consecutive year, the event was hosted by Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley, but the masters of ceremonies weren’t the only thing that gave me that old deja vu feeling. Hadn’t these accolades already been handed out just a few months ago?

Wait, those were the Country Music Television (CMT) Music Awards in June. And before that, there were the Academy of Country Music Awards. And, just in case that’s not enough Music City honors for you, there are the 2nd annual American Country Awards coming up on December 5.

Pop and R&B are just as self-congratulatory, offering the MTV Video Music Awards, the MTV Europe Music Awards, the Billboard Awards, the American Music Awards, the Teen Choice Awards, the BET Awards, the BET Hip Hop Awards, the NAACP Image Awards and the Soul Train Music Awards.

Then, of course, there are the GRAMMYs, which following so many other back-slapping fests, have been losing their lustre for years now—though that’s hardly the only reason. Winning one used to be the musical equivalent of snagging an Oscar, but now its just more clutter for the awards shelf.

In a few weeks (November 30, to be exact), the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences will announce the nominees for the 2012 GRAMMY Awards (to be held on February 12). Doesn’t it already feel like we’ve been there and done that over and over and over already this year? Am I the only one who doesn’t doubt that we’re in for another repeat of The Adele Show, with a very special appearance by Lady Gaga. Good as it is, like Christmas, I only need to sit through it once a year.

Continue reading ‘Sound And Vision: Why I’m Seriously Considering Boycotting Music Award Shows’

Sound And Vision: Celebrity Feuds — Pop Is a Battlefield, World War II

“Take back Vanessa Redgrave
Take back Joe Piscopo
Take back Eddie Murphy
Give ‘em all some place to go”

— Tom Petty, “Jammin’ Me” (1987)

“Fuck Tom Petty!”—Eddie Murphy

Oh, those crazy stars! What will they say next? And will they ever learn? What a tangled web they weave when they start to take pot shots at each other.

Celebrity feuds have existed since before the dawn of the pop charts. Eminem owes much of his early notoriety to cutting down to size the likes of Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, ‘N Sync and Moby in videos and on record. Meanwhile, off the record (though always totally for attribution), Katy Perry has never met a fellow chart-topper she wouldn’t slag off.

But lately, stars keep colliding and disturbing the peace in the music galaxy. Liam Gallagher just filed suit against his brother Noel over the latter’s claim that Liam pulled out of a high-profile Oasis gig in 2009 due to a hangover and over comments Noel made blaming Liam for the demise of the band. But then brothers in arms have engaged in verbal—and occasionally, physical— combat since the heyday of the Kinks, which featured the dueling Davies, Ray and Dave. Chris and Rich Robinson of the Black Crowes, William and Jim Reid of the Jesus and Mary Chain, and Kings of Leon‘s Followill brothers have the battle scars to prove it.

Continue reading ‘Sound And Vision: Celebrity Feuds — Pop Is a Battlefield, World War II’

Sound And Vision: Why I Miss the ’90s

Every decade lives twice. Each one seems to get a second shot about twenty years after the fact. The ’50s were hot again in the ’70s (which might be why Happy Days was one of TV’s biggest hits). The ’60s resurfaced in the ’80s (as did tie-dye t-shirts and the British invasion), and Saturday night fever flared up one more time in the ’90s (though that didn’t stop the film 54 from flopping).

We’ve been stuck in the ’80s for a while now, but the ’90s are coming around again. I recently attended a ’90s party at a nightclub in Sydney, Australia, and the dance floor was packed with the retro-obsessed. The beats were technotronic indeed, but thanks to the varied playlist, I remembered that there was so much more to the decade in music than grunge and Europop. (Bell Biv DeVoe‘s “Do Me” and Elastica‘s “Connection” provided particularly pleasing trips down memory lane.) Here are five reasons why the ’90s rocked even harder than you might recall.

1. Sisters with voices ruled. And I’m not just talking about Sisters with Voices (otherwise known as SWV). TLC was arguably the most unique multi-platinum girl group ever, while En Vogue was the most glamorous one since the Supremes. Solo stars like Mariah Carey, Toni Braxton, Mary J. Blige, Celine Dion and Sarah McLachlan joined the hit parade, and Whitney Houston could still raise the roof—and she did with the soundtrack for The Bodyguard. Aside from Adele and Beyoncé (when she’s not huffing, puffing and trying way too hard to bring the house down), none of today’s female hitmakers can match the fierce ruling divas of the ’90s for sheer vocal power.

2. Rock & roll was king. Grunge may have been a relatively short-lived turning point, but for a moment there, the music was actually more important than the marketing. Thanks to bands like Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and Radiohead (all of whose platinum success seemed more accidental than calculated), Britpop (Blur vs. Oasis was so much better than Kings of Leon vs. Glee or the lead singers of Coldplay and Muse being married to Hollywood), and the grrrl power of female and female-driven acts like Björk, P.J. Harvey, Alanis Morrisette, Hole, Belly, the Breeders and L7, rock and alternative music was both popular and interesting.

3. Stars were born, not manufactured on television and YouTube. This year, Rebecca Black went viral on YouTube and became a “star” without ever actually having a hit. (“Friday” topped out on Billboard’s Hot 100 at No. 58, 24 notches lower than the Glee remake.) And nothing against American Idol it’s given us some bona fide, hit-making talents (Kelly Clarkson, Fantasia, Carrie Underwood and Adam Lambert, among them)—but it’s also gave us William Hung! When music stars are created instantly (in Hung’s case, due to an extreme lack of talent) or groomed in front of our very eyes, pop stardom starts to lose its mystique. Clarkson’s fame will never seem as hard-won as Celine Dion‘s; Carrie Underwood will never be as good a story as Shania Twain; and I’d trade soulful, one-hit wonders like Dionne Farris and Des’ree for Fantasia every day of the week. At least we never had to watch them almost self-destruct in public. Which brings us to…

4. Less was more. Before Twitter, YouTube and tabloid media overload, pop stars always left us wanting more. Now they reveal every thought and all of the minutiae of their lives via endless Twitter updates. (Sean Kingston recently tweeted a photo of himself surrounded by medical equipment while recovering from a jet-ski accident in Miami that nearly cost him his life. Too much?) The tabloids give us 24/7 access, showing them doing just about everything except going to the bathroom (including having sex!). And we can catch them whenever we want to on YouTube (and make them seem more popular than they actually are by continuously pressing play in order to increase their “views”) and watch them falling and bombing onstage, tangling with the paparazzi, and getting prickly with TV interviewers before doffing their shirts and hitting the streets of New York City.

Lauryn Hill was one of the biggest stars of the late ’90s yet she always managed to sidestep overexposure. Where is she now? God only knows (though it recently was revealed that she’s pregnant with her sixth child). If only Amy Winehouse, her critically acclaimed late-’00s equivalent, had been able to fall apart in the privacy of her own home.

5. Courtney Love was far more daring than Lady Gaga. I’ll admit it: I miss Courtney Love. Whatever you thought about her music, the lead singer of Hole was never boring. Take away Lady Gaga’s freaky-creepy visuals, though, and all you’re left with is a talented but over-earnest, politically correct pop star. She’s says all the right things, but listen closely—none of it is even slightly provocative. Her carefully considered soundbites are intended to be up with underdogs and offensive to no one. Even her pro-gay agenda is as respectful as possible to the political right. Just once, I’d like to see Gaga get naked and sexy (for someone who wears so little clothing, she’s remarkably, and safely, asexual), or totally lose it, throwing good intentions out the window and engaging in a public bitchfest. Isn’t the moral majority asking for it?

20 Essential ’90s Albums

Annie LennoxDiva

BabyfaceFor the Cool in You

BellyStar

BjörkPost

The Cardigans - Gran Turismo

Dolly PartonThe Grass Is Blue

Elvis Costello and Burt BacharachPainted from Memory

Faith No More - Angel Dust

John AndersonSeminole Wind

Kate BushThe Red Shoes

k.d. lange - Ingenue

Mary J. BligeMy Life

Morrissey - Vauxhaull and I (or Your Arsenal)

Neil YoungHarvest Moon

Neneh CherryHomebrew

Portishead - Dummy

Radiohead - The Bends

R.E.M.Automatic for the People (or Out of Time or New Adventures in Hi-Fi)

Sarah McLachlanFumbling Towards Ecstasy

SuedeComing Up

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: Where Is the Love? — The Disappearing Power-Ballad Duet

Back in the day, every major female pop star had one: a male pop star (or two, or three or more) who loved her—at least on the record and on the charts. Over the years, Barbra Streisand had Neil Diamond, Barry Gibb and Bryan Adams. Diana Ross had Marvin Gaye, Lionel Richie and Julio Iglesias. Olivia Newton-John, Linda Ronstadt and Stevie Nicks had their pick of men (Andy Gibb, Don Henley, Aaron Neville, Tom Petty and John Travolta, among them.) Whitney Houston had Teddy Pendergrass, Bobby Brown, Enrique Iglesias and George Michael. Madonna had Prince. Celine Dion had Peabo Bryson and R. Kelly. Mariah Carey had Luther Vandross, and so did Janet Jackson.
But where did the love go? Though there have been scattered duet hits in recent years (Jordin Sparks and Chris Brown‘s “No Air,” Ciara and Justin Timberlake‘s “Love Sex Magic”), they are fewer and much farther between. On the Billboard Hot 100 dated March 19, 2011, “Don’t You Wanna Stay,” Jason Aldean and Kelly Clarkson‘s country chart topper, was the only traditional male-female duet, way down at No. 34.
I’d say that part of the blame lies with the faltering power ballad, which isn’t the chart force that it was in the days when Celine Dion ruled the airwaves. Consider pop’s leading single males: Both of Usher‘s and Enrique Iglesias’s two recent Top 10 Hot 100 singles have been not ballads but dance-oriented collaborations with rappers and, in the case of Usher’s “OMG,” Will.i.am. Chris Brown’s comeback-in-progress also has been harder-edged and boosted by male guest stars like Lil Wayne and Busta Rhymes, and of Justin Bieber‘s two Top 10s to date, neither has been a ballad, both were with rappers.
But it’s not just about what the public seems to want— it seems to be what the artists want, too. Why play the conventional good girl, duetting with Usher or Iglesias, when it’s so much more fun being bad? In the past year or so, both Rihanna and Katy Perry have gone Top 10 with rappers (Eminem and Drake, and Snoop Dogg and Kanye West, respectively). Meanwhile, Ke$ha went there with electronica hipsters 3OH!3 (after scoring her first hit riding shotgun with Flo Rida), and Beyoncé and Lady Gaga got there together.
As for the guys, boy-on-boy (or boys) rule: Bruno Mars with B.o.B and Travie McCoy, Jeremih with 50 Cent, Usher and Iglesias with Pitbull, Iglesias and Bieber with Ludacris. If it were 2001, Iglesias, or Ricky Martin, probably already would have zipped up the charts with Katy Perry and/or Rihanna on his arm. But it’s 2011, and just as every good girl wants a bad-boy rapper by her side, it seems the hit-making males would rather roll with the rough boys than mush it up with the ladies.
Will the power ballad survive the current disinterest in them? Can singing couples make a comeback? I’d be surprised if they didn’t. Pop music is cyclical, and if Jennifer Lopez can rise again, so can love (which, incidentally happens to be the title of J. Lo’s upcoming album, minus a question mark). All it needs is the right tag team to deliver it back into the public’s good graces and up the charts. I’d pay money to hear Pink and Adam Lambert together, but would the masses buy it? I’m not so sure, but wouldn’t it be just like them both to try and find out?

Sound And Vision: Should They Stay Or Should They Go? The Overexposure of Pop’s Biggest Stars

Last year, Avril Lavigne posted an online message to her fans explaining the lengthy break between her last album, 2007′s The Best Damn Thing, and her upcoming Goodbye Lullabye (due March 8 on RCA Records): “The thing with me, is that i write my own music and therefore, it takes me longer to put out records cause i have to live my life to get inspiration.” If only more of today’s pop stars were so dedicated to life offstage.
In the early ’90s, Prince and Warner Bros. Records famously tussled when the label refused to release new music by him every hour on the hour. Warner Bros. had a point: How can we miss you if you refuse to go away? For more than a decade, Prince had released more or less one album a year, making them increasingly less special events and eventually suffering drastically diminished returns.
Too bad more labels today aren’t standing the same ground as Warner Bros did. In the ’60s, it wasn’t uncommon for artists like the Beatles to release several albums a year, but that was before the Internet, the tabloid media and a billion TV channels joined radio and retail in keeping stars in our faces 24/7. If today’s myriad publicity forums aren’t constant enough reminders of your favorite artists (catch them on the big screen, YouTube, Twitter, American Idol, Dancing with the Stars, their own reality shows, presenting at the Golden Globes!), there’s always a constant stream of new music.
Kanye West just released My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy on November 22, and already he’s got a new single with Jay-Z, “H.A.M.,” from their upcoming collaboration album, Watch the Throne, in circulation. That’s in case you’re already over Fantasy, and his daily tweets leave you wanting yet more Kanye! Usher let only five months pass between his Raymond v. Raymond album and his Versus EP. Both spawned hit singles, but Versus, which sold only 46,000 copies in its debut week, probably would have benefited commercially from a six-month delay.
The Black Eyed Peas didn’t give their five Top 10 singles from 2009′s The E.N.D. a chance to fade out of our consciousness before bombarding us with a new album, The Beginning, last November. The first single, “The Time (Dirty Bit),” is a Top 10 hit but hardly on par with The E.N.D.‘s introductory singles, “Boom Boom Pow” and “I Gotta Feeling,” which spent a total of 26 consecutive weeks at No. 1. Nor has the album, which moved a non-whopping 119,000 copies its first week out (nearly 200,000 less than The E.N.D.), been a huge seller.
Susan Boyle fared better commercially with her two albums, I Dreamed a Dream and The Gift, released during the holiday seasons of 2009 and 2010, respectively, but after her initial wave of fame, she’s become less of a media hog. Now that she’s already on to working on album No. 3, though, the big question is how much of her soporific easy-listening pop do fans need before they doze off on her completely?

At the other end of the noise spectrum, Ke$ha began 2010 with her debut album, Animal, and ended it with an EP, Cannibal. Her sound-alike singles all have been hits, but her buzz has yet to reflect the success of the singles—Put her on a red carpet with Gaga, Justin Bieber and Adam Lambert, and who is most likely to be overlooked?— suggesting that either fans are connecting more with the songs than the artist singing (croaking?) them, or that a little Ke$ha goes a long way. Rihanna, pop’s most prolific woman who has released an album a year (including 2008′s expanded repackaging of Good Girl Gone Bad) since her 2005 debut, hasn’t had any trouble establishing a diehard fan base, but despite her incredible run of hit singles, she’s yet to land a No. 1 album or one that has sold more than double-platinum in the US. Perhaps if she’d let her absence make the hearts of fans grow a little fonder…

A greatest-hits compilation aside, at least Britney Spears had the good sense to give us more than two years between 2008′s Circus and her March album. Surely the color-by-numbers first single, “Hold It Against Me,” wouldn’t be such an immediate smash had she been a 2010 regular on Billboard’s Hot 100. “Telephone” duet partners Lady Gaga and Beyoncé, both formerly overexposed and both with new albums due in 2011, also should benefit greatly from giving their fans a breather.
Hopefully, Bruno Mars, Drake and Nicki Minaj, all of whom spent most of 2010 on the Hot 100, either on their own hits or moonlighting on someone else’s, are paying attention. Katy Perry, who’s been on the radio and in the media non-stop since last summer, could use a break too—and after three No. 1 singles from her latest album, so can I. Wake me when her teenage dream is finally over.

10 Things In Pop Music To Look Forward To In 2011

What’s the best thing that can happen in 2011? I’m praying for chart comebacks by Shania Twain, Amy Winehouse and Cher; an ABBA and/or Smiths reunion; and the disappearance of Ke$ha, Susan Boyle and Auto-Tune. But this isn’t a New Year’s wish list, or my beautiful dark twisted fantasy. Reality bites most of the time, but the pop forecast calls for some exciting stuff that actually will happen.
Kelly Clarkson’s new album. Our lives would suck without her! It’s been too long since Clarkson’s last chart sighting, and if the recent preview of “You Still Won’t Know What It’s Like” at the “A Night for Hope” event in Nashville is a harbinger of what to expect when she releases her fifth album (in early 2011, according to her October 4 tweet), it’s already hovering near the top of my to-download list.
Best New Artist at the 2011 GRAMMYs: Florence + the Machine? The eligibility requirements in this category have been muddy for years: Four of the five nominees released music before the 2010 eligibility period. And last year offered such an embarrassment of riches that, for better or worse (mostly better), new hitmakers like Ke$ha, Jason Derülo, Bruno Mars, B.0.B, Le Roux, Mike Posner, Nicki Minaj, Adam Lambert and Susan Boyle didn’t make the cut. Fellow Canucks Justin Bieber and Drake will have the commercial edge on February 13, but a vote for the UK’s Florence + the Machine would be a vote for quality over quantity of sales.
A Glee-free Matthew Morrison. I first met Morrison about 10 years ago when he was in a boy band called LMNT (as in “Element”— and, yes, dreadful name). I always thought he had star quality, but I don’t think Glee, on which he’s saddled with the straight-man role, properly spotlights his musical gifts. May his optimistically titled February album, Bringing It to the Masses, show the world that there’s much more to Mr. Schuester than a can-do attitude and a sweet, crooked smile.
The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame welcomes (drum roll)… Neil Diamond. I’ve had my issues with the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees over the years, but they wouldn’t include Diamond, who’s finally being recognized after years of not even being nominated. For those who gripe that he’s not really rock & roll, the Hall has never been about the genre as strictly defined by snobby purists. Otherwise, legends like Aretha Franklin, Dusty Springfield, Johnny Cash and Madonna wouldn’t be in it. Neither would any of Motown’s classic ’60s and ’70s stars (including Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and, yes, Michael Jackson), Steely Dan, or Paul Simon. So on March 14, raise a glass of red red wine to Diamond. He rocks.
Britney Spears gets grimier. Rumors of her career’s demise a few years ago were greatly exaggerated—and premature. Producer Dr. Luke has promised that Spears’s seventh album, due in March, will be “harder in some ways, and maybe a little more deep into electronica—and grimier.” If that means we can expect it to be more Blackout than Circus, I’m totally in.
The Cars get on the road again. Even with all the reunions of ’80s bands in recent years, I didn’t see this one coming. Free, the Cars’ first studio album in 13 years (featuring all the original members, minus Benjamin Orr who died in 2000), will be out in the spring, and the band is revving up for a tour. They’ve posted three previews on their Facebook page, and like the best teasers, they leave you wanting more.
Justin Timberlake brings sexy back—again. Timberlake’s The Social Network turn as Napster founder/inaugural Facebook president Sean Parker was odd but intriguing, as he played him as equal parts swishy playboy, smooth operator, party monster and raging opportunist. But my favorite of his scenes was his first, when he wakes up in bed with a total stranger. I’m looking forward to more clever post-coital banter when Friends with Benefits, his romantic comedy with Mila Kunis, opens on July 22.
Simon Cowell’s The X Factor. Where Simon goes, I suspect American Idol fans will follow. But if he’s really signing on Cheryl Cole—who’s huge in the UK but a nobody in the US—as a judge for the new US version of the talent search, which launches in September, he’d better reach for the superstars for the third one.
Jennifer Hudson proves that her Oscar win wasn’t a fluke—or not. After three more-or-less filler films following her Academy Award for Dreamgirls, ex-Idol contestant Hudson’s first leading role in Winnie (a biopic of Nelson Mandela’s ex-wife) will be the real test of her Hollywood potential. But to pull off this tough assignment, she’ll have to offer more emotional depth than the slightly vacant look she wears throughout the trailer.
No more Mariah Carey pregnancy rumors. This media obsession with baby bumps and celebrity procreating has got to stop. Who cares? Frankly, I’ve got more interesting trivial pursuits with which to fill my spare time. But thank God, unless Carey gets knocked up again immediately after delivering twins next year, we can all get over her belly and move on to more important things, like Katy Perry’s.

Has American Idol Lost Its Platinum Touch?

Maybe the “Glamberts” are as good as it gets? If so, American Idol‘s days of blasting supernovas into the pop stratosphere certainly ended with a big bang. Adam Lambert, the object of the “Glamberts’” obsession, may not be Idol’s best-selling star—internationally, that would be first-season champ Kelly Clarkson, who has sold nearly 25 million albums worldwide, with Carrie Underwood taking the lead in the US with sales of some 12 million—but he might well be its biggest. His “Glamberts” dance at the altar of their pop idol with a passion unmatched even by Lady Gaga‘s disciples, who at least make do with Rihanna and Katy Perry when she’s not around.

Interestingly, since Lambert’s second-place finish in 2009′s most-shocking Idol-finale twist to date, it’s been nowhere but way down for other Idol contestants on the charts. Although Kris Allen, the guy who shoved Lambert into the eighth season’s runner-up spot, scored a trio of Top 20 singles—one of which, “Live Like We’re Dying,” went platinum—his self-titled post-Idol album sold just a fraction of what Lambert’s For Your Entertainment did in the US (765,000 vs. 322,000), and was the first by an Idol winner not to go gold.

This past season’s Top 2 might do even worse: Last month, Lee DeWyze’s Live It Up earned the distinction of having the lowest first-week sales (39,000) of any Idol winner’s debut to date, and plummeted down the Billboard 200 album chart faster than you can say, “Taylor Hicks.” (Remember him?) Runner-up Crystal Bowersox’s debut, Farmer’s Daughter, came out on December 14 and isn’t expected to do much better.

Though the Fox network’s Idol still has an edge in the Nielsen ratings (we’ll see when its 10th season premieres on January 19, how it fares with Simon Cowell gone to launch the US version of The X Factor in September of 2011, also on Fox), but emerging competition is endangering its supremacy in the pop marketplace. As TV-produced pop stars go, the Glee cast has eclipsed just about everyone, with a string of hit albums and EPs and more than 100 singles charted on Billboard’s Hot 100. Meanwhile, Lambert aside, the two top-selling stars to emerge from TV talent search’s in the past two years—Susan Boyle and Jackie Evancho—came not from Idol but from Britain’s Got Talent and America’s Got Talent, respectively.

And more competition is on the way. In addition to Cowell’s US X Factor, NBC will debut the Mark Burnett (Survivor)-produced The Voice of America, based on Holland’s top TV star search, in the spring of 2011. But the success of Boyle and Evancho, neither of whom won their respective contests, suggests that it might not be whether you win or lose, or even which show you appear on, but the strength of your publicity hook. Boyle was the underdog forty-something spinster from the Scottish boondocks, Evancho the 10-year-old opera-singing prodigy.

As for Idol’s upcoming hopefuls, if any act associated with the show is likely to benefit from the exposure next season, my money’s on new judge Jennifer Lopez. She hasn’t had a pop hit in years, but 19 Management should take over her recording career pronto, release the long-delayed Love? and watch it outsell Allen, Bowersox and DeWyze. She might never again have a “Glambert”-type following to call her own, win an Oscar like third-season also-ran Jennifer Hudson, or even secure her very own episode of Glee, but she very well could provide Idol with new bragging rights as an even greater resurrector of fading celebrities than Dancing with the Stars.

By Jeremy Helligar

Jeremy Helligar is a former staff writer for People, Teen People, Us Weekly and Entertainment Weekly, who now writes about celebrities and pop culture from his couch in Buenos Aires.

 


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