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Sound And Vision: Songs Of Summer 2011

Sonny and Cher. Britney and Justin. Meg and Jack White. Nothing lasts forever. Well, almost. There’s one inseparable pair that’s likely to survive until the end of time: sunny summer weather and pop music. What would these dog days be without the perfect soundtrack? Possibly, over and done with. Hello, autumn!

“California Gurls” by Katy Perry featuring Snoop Dogg ruled both the airwaves and the charts last Memorial Day to Labor Day, refusing to go down until the temperature did. This year’s girl of summer: Adele, thanks to her No. 1 hit “Rolling in the Deep.” But even if Adele isn’t quite your thing (nor Lady Gaga, nor Perry, who’s once again making heat waves in 2011), ’tis the season for musical memories that will last a lifetime—or at least until next year when beach weather once again rolls around.

What are the biggest summer of ’11 pop trends? Keep reading…

Sisters are doing it for themselves—again. Last year’s Top 10 list in Billboard magazine’s Songs of the Summer 1985-2010 featured only three female artists, and each one, Katy Perry, Rihanna and Hayley Williams, had a boy on the side (Snoop Dogg, Eminem and B.o.B., respectively). Though so many of pop’s leading ladies recently had been standing by their men or whatever last-minute remix cohort could get them a shot at No. 1, this season, the most successful ones are going it alone. Rihanna and Beyoncé may be struggling with their latest pair of solo efforts, but Lady Gaga already has had three Top 10 solo hits from the Born This Way album, including the summer-anthem contender “The Edge of Glory,” and Adele didn’t need any guest rappers to keep “Rolling in the Deep” at No. 1 for seven weeks (as of Billboard’s Hot 100 dated July 2).

Meanwhile, Nicki Minaj, who apparently has never met an artist with whom she wouldn’t collaborate, finally has scored a Top 10 single of her own with “Your Love.” And after enlisting Kanye West to help lift “E.T.” all the way to the top, Perry is carrying the weight of “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.),” hit No. 5 from the Teenage Dream album, all on her slender shoulders. Deborah Gibson, Corey Feldman, Kenny G, Hanson, Rebecca Black and two guys from Glee all pop up in the video, but the song itself is a one-woman show.

It takes two (or three or four) to make a hit go right. The women on top may be spending the summer alone (at least on record), but they are pretty much the only ones. Last year, more than half of Billboard’s top summer songs paired singers with rappers. This year, if two’s company, three and four is, too. Pitbull is getting by with a little help from three friends (Ne-Yo, Afrojack and Nayer) on his current hit, “Give Me Everything.” The duo LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem” has Lauren Bennett and GoonRock on the guest list. Jennifer Lopez had Pitbull and Katy Perry had Kanye West on their respective spring holdovers, “On the Floor” and the already mentioned “E.T.”, while the Black Eyed Peas have each other on “Just Can’t Get Enough.”

If you want to be a boy of summer, learn how to rap. Bruno Mars might get by on hit after hit by swinging sweetly (which he does once again on “Lazy Song,” his latest Top 5 single), but Chris Brown, one of contemporary R&B’s strongest male singers, spent all of his recent Top 10 comeback single, “Look at Me Now,” rapping alongside Busta Rhymes and Lil Wayne. And even before he performed with Ludacris on the CMT Awards, Jason Aldean already had a hit with “Dirt Road Anthem,” on which he performed the rap himself. Now the remix featuring Ludacris doing the rap is in danger of becoming the first country-rap collaboration to top Billboard’s Hot 100. Maybe Coldplay’s “Every Teardrop Is a Waterfall” would have had more staying power if Chris Martin had broken into a rap. It’s not too late for the currently ubiquitous Lil Wayne to give a brother a helping hand.

Groove is in the heart (and all over the charts). So you think you can dance? Then you’re in luck. Nearly every song in the Top 20 of the Hot 100 works just as well under the strobe lights as on the radio. The aformentioned LMFAO has a huge international hit with “Party Rock Anthem,” a track whose video features shuffling, a dance that originated in, of all places, Melbourne, Australia. Meanwhile, after escorting Jennifer Lopez into the Top 10 with “On the Floor,” rapper Pitbull, still on the floor, has gone even higher with “Give Me Everything.” This time his dance partners are Afrojack, Nayer and Ne-Yo, an artist previously best known for silky soul singing, but if you can’t beat ‘em, get down with ‘em.

Teenage dreams are still coming true. Last year when “California Gurls” was topping the charts, who would have guessed that Perry still would be putting out the hits from Teenage Dream one year later? As party rock anthems go, “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)” is my pick for the summer of 2011, but musical hangovers can be just as brutal as alcohol-related ones. Will we remember “Last Friday Night” in the morning? Definitely. But come autumn, “Last Friday Night” already might be a distant non-memory, Perry will be on to the sixth hit single from Teenage Dream (Peacock?), and we’ll probably all still be “Rolling in the Deep.”

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: 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.

The Songwriters You Didn’t Know You Loved! (Or Hated!)

Black and yellow, black and yellow, black and yellow, black and yellow. Or maybe it feels like I’m living a teenage dream. Does this all make you want to Party in the USA? I’m sure you guys all recognize what we’re doing here. You all know who sung these songs, right? Not a trick question, folks. These ubquitous mega-hits are cultural shorthand and are part of our shared experience. That’s one of the beautiful things about music. But let’s not let things get too heavy. What do all these songs have in common (outside of being mildly-to-pretty annoying)?

You probably don’t know exactly who wrote them. “Wait,” you ask, “I mean, didn’t Wiz write “Black & Yellow”?” Are you saying Miley Cyrus isn’t the lyrical genius I thought she was?” Sorry guys, we didn’t mean to burst whatever bubble you may have had. Of course, there are a lot of singer-songwriters, even in the pop world. That said, more often than not most of the credit has to go to the co-writers—the people in the liner notes you don’t read with names you don’t recognize. Inspired by the recent ASCAP Pop Music Awards, we’re going to try to rectify that a bit by shedding a light on some of the unknown composers of the songs that you love and the songs you hate. This one’s for the collaborators.

The Smeezingtons

These guys haven’t been around for very long and their name makes them sound more like your uncle’s garage band. However, their track record is solid to say the least. Consisting of producers/writers Phillip Lawrence, Ari Levine and crooner Bruno Mars, you can thank The Smeez for the later member’s career. Scoring their first big hit co-producing “Right Round” by Flo Rida in 2009—which gave Ke$ha her first big break to boot—the group has been on a tear ever since. Not even counting all of the major singles Bruno Mars is either the solo or featured performer on, they also helped write and produce this song for Cee-Lo Green.

And that helps us forgive them for whatever pop transgressions they may have been responsible for before.

StarGate

Do the names Tor Erik Hermansen and Mikkel Storleer Eriksen ring a bell? Probably not, though these old pros have been in the music making game for years. This production duo started out with work on prominent European artists as though you couldn’t have guessed from looking at their names. They were producing hits for S Club 7 in the late ’90s and were active in the UK pop scene in the early aughts. But starting in 2005 Tor and Mikkel decided to try their hand at the scene stateside and the pair initially made a big splash ’06 with Ne-Yo‘s “So Sick”. StarGate’s relationship with Ne-Yo has been fruitful to say the least as they later co-wrote Beyoncé‘s uber-smash “Irreplaceable” with the singer and fellow production team Espionage. Wait wait, how does that one go again?

Dr. Luke and Max Martin

While not an official duo in the traditional sense, these frequent collaborators have had a lot of success together. A LOT. In fact they both shared the award for Songwriter of the Year at the ASCAP Pop Music Awards this past April.

Martin lived it up in the late 90s boy-band/pop boom but was laying low in the early aughts until he encountered Lukasz Gottwald at a house party in Manhattan. The two quickly formed a professional relationship just in time to help co-write and produce for a young, freshly-minted singer by the name of Kelly Clarkson. The two resulting singles, “Since U Been Gone” and “Behind These Hazel Eyes” helped push Clarkson’s debut Breakaway to platinum status six times over. The two have been #WINNING ever since; cranking out hits in collaboration and solo, working for a litany of top artists including P!nk, Backstreet Boys, Daughtry, Ke$ha (pictured above) and Britney Spears. And back to the present day where a string of recent hits including “California Gurls” by Katy Perry and “Dynamite” by Taio Cruz netted Luke and Martin Songwriters of the Year. Not too shabby gentlemen.

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?

Soundcheck: Don’t Call It A Comeback

While there’s always one or two artists trying to get back into the limelight each year, frantically attempting to revive their once vibrant careers; few succeed.  This year, however, the hip hop scene is flooded with one-time favorites who seem poised for positive reception.  Check out the list of this year’s biggest, weirdest and most exciting comebacks, as well as some old favorites we’ll be rooting for.

Nelly: After his 2008 release, Brass Knuckles failed to make a big splash, Nelly released his long-delayed album, 5.0 in November.  Singles, “Just a Dream” and “Move That Body” have been in heavy radio rotation for months, and his most recent release, “Gone” with Kelly Rowland is reminding everyone just how much they used to love the Midwest’s golden boy.

Bow Wow: At age 24, Bow Wow’s been at this game for years and enjoyed unparalleled success.  Now, he’s re-branded himself with a new look, new sound and new label, signing up with Young Money Records in August.    His single, “Ain’t Thinkin’ Bout You”  featuring Chris Brown is one of his best in years, and his upcoming release, Underrated promises to show us a new side of the one we’ve raised from a pup.

Eve: It has been nine years since Philly rapper, EVE released a solo project, but it looks like this just may be her year.  She is currently featured on singles with Jill Scott, Swiss Beatz and Alicia Keys, and recently told fans to keep an ear out for a “big record” she recorded with fellow Ruff Ryder alum, Swiss, called “Mama In The Kitchen”. Fingers crossed for  a green-lit release date, we expect big things from her upcoming fourth album, Lip Lock.

Dr. Dre: After ten years of rumors and speculation, Dr. Dre made his triumphant return to the mic this year at The GRAMMY Awards.  While his album, Detox, still hasn’t hit store shelves, twosingles, “Kush” and “I Need a Doctor” have made notable radio impact.  While some are still skeptical, the label is promising a May release date for the long-awaited project.

R. Kelly: Kelly has been laying low since his 2007 child pornography trial, his viral video circulation and his ill-fated ‘Unfinished Business’ tour with Jay-Z put him on everyone’s sh*t list.  Now, the Chicago-based singer, (who was found not-guilty on all charges) will hit the road with Keyshia Cole for the Love Letter Tour, kicking off this summer.

Eminem: After his 2009 album Relapse failed to impress, many thought this one-time icon had seen his last days of glory.  The world was shocked when he released Recovery bringing him back to the forefront stronger than ever before, and making him the best-selling rapper of the year.  The Detroit emcee racked up ten GRAMMY nominations for the project, bringing home the award for Best Rap Album and Best Solo Rap Performance.  Now, he’s back on top and bringing some friends with him, including longtime friend and mentor, Dr. Dre, and newbie, Yelawolf.

Salt N Pepa: The ladies who put female rap on the map are ready to do it again, celebrating twenty-fve years since their debut, Hot, Cool & Viscious launched them to super-stardom with their Legends of Hip Hop Tour. The three lovely ladies lead a hip hop revival, joined by trailblazers like Whodini, Kurtis Blow, Doug E Fresh, Biz Markie, Naughty By Nature, MC Lyte, Big Daddy Kane, Kool Moe Dee and Slick Rick to name a few.

Chris Brown: Depite making headlines again for his ill-tempered antics, his album F.A.M.E. is certified gold and debuted at Number 1 on the charts. He kicked off his F.A.M.E. Tour in Australia last week to a crowd of adoring fans, and his singles, “Deuces”, “Look At Me Now”, and “ Yeah” have been some of this year’s most successful songs.

Kelly Rowland: The former Destiny’s Child member is back to her R&B roots with her new, yet-to-be-titled album.  While she heated up dance tracks internationally with her last project, it failed to register stateside.  Now,  she’s climbing back up the charts with her Nelly collabo, “Gone” and her sexy single, “Motivation” featuring Lil Wayne.

Da Brat: Recently out of jail from a 2007 aggravated assault incident, Da Brat rose to fame in 1994 when her hit, “Funkdafied” made her the first-ever platinum-selling female rapper.  Nowshe’s back and hungry for a comeback, re-joing longtime friend and collaborator, Jermaine Dupri for her upcoming mixtape, due out Memorial Day weekend. She has already released three tracks, “Racks” featuring YC and “Fab 5 Freddy” featuring J.D. as well as a remix to Kanye’s “All The Lights” titled, “Turnt Up” featuring Dondria.

Lauryn Hill: After some impromptu appearances and rumors of a comeback swirling for months, Lauryn’s Coachella performance gave a big indication that she’s ready to return.  The former Fugee performed fan favorites including “That Thing” and “Ex-Factor”, songs she had previously refused to perform anymore.  She seemed more like the grounded superstar of her Miseducation days than she has in years, and she hinted at a surprise that would shock fans.  Unless it’s a sixth child, we’re guessing she’ll be delivering news of a new album any day now.

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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