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Sound And Vision: The Diminishing Returns of the No. 1 Single

No. 1 with a bullet: Ah, that once-relatively elusive and exclusive room at the top. The holy grail for the pop single, it used to be as high an honor and as highly desirable as gold and platinum albums. But what does it mean when a star as marginally talented as Katy Perry can hit No. 1 five times on Billboard’s Hot 100 in the space of one album (six times in one and a half albums, if you count Teenage Dream: The Complete Confection)? Or when Rihanna, who still hasn’t scored a chart-topping album in six tries, can do in less than six years what took Madonna a dozen (hit No. 1 on the Hot 100 one time short of a dozen)?

Does Teenage Dream have, well, a dream of ever being as iconic as Michael Jackson’s Bad (which spawned five No. 1 hits and thus shares the record for most No. 1 singles from one album with Teenage Dream), George Michael’s Faith (which produced four) or even Adele’s 21 (a contemporary that launched three), none of which had to be re-released as a special expanded edition in order to pad its hit list and sales tally? For all her No. 1 singles, will any Rihanna album thus far ever be considered as landmark as Madonna’s 1983 self-titled debut through 1989′s Like a Prayer, which covered a comparable career time frame? Rihanna’s yet to even break through the double-platinum glass ceiling.

Then there’s Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe,” which just spent nine weeks atop Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart, making it the biggest song of the summer, if not 2012. It also makes her a surefire nominee for Best New Artist at the 2013 GRAMMY Awards ceremony. She’ll face stiff-ish competition from Gotye and fun., who spent eight and six weeks at No. 1, respectively, with their respective singles, “Somebody That I Used to Know” and “We Are Young.” Continue reading ‘Sound And Vision: The Diminishing Returns of the No. 1 Single’

Sound and Vision: Wanted: An Out and Proud Gay Or Lesbian Chart Phenomenon!

Gays and lesbians have come a long way in entertainment since the days when George Michael had to have faith and pretend to want a woman in the “Father Figure” video to sell millions of albums. Although there’s no telling whether Queen would have been as successful in the ’70s and early ’80s had Freddie Mercury definitively outed himself as a lower-case queen, for the most part, today’s closeted male superstars don’t have to wait until they are about to succumb to an AIDS-related illness to publicly acknowledge their sexuality (like Rock Hudson did)—or not (like Liberace and, well, Mercury).

That doesn’t mean coming out of the closet still won’t have a negative effect on the bankability of gay music stars. This is why most of them still choose to wait until they don’t have too much to lose. Elton John, Ricky Martin, Clay Aiken, Savage Garden’s Darren Hayes and Michael all did it after their blockbuster days were over.

Though Hayes continues to release solo records that earn critical raves, it’s been years since he was A-list on the charts. John is a superstar for life, but his most notable post-coming out success (the 33 million-selling worldwide No. 1 single “Candle in the Wind ’97″) was with a song he sang to a dearly departed princess. How gay! Rufus Wainwright, despite critical plaudits, has never had gold album in the US.

Then there is Adam Lambert, the perfect example of how to be an out and gay pop star. He has a vociferous fan base, but his commercial performance isn’t commensurate with his level of fan devotion. He should be selling as many singles as Justin Bieber, but his last one, “Better Than I Know Myself,” was a chart dud (No. 76 on Billboard’s Hot 100), resulting in Trespassing, his sophomore album, being pushed back from March to a May 15 release date. Do we blame it on a weak single, or a pop constituency that’s still skittish about fully embracing a proudly out singer? Continue reading ‘Sound and Vision: Wanted: An Out and Proud Gay Or Lesbian Chart Phenomenon!’

Is Adele “Black” Enough for the NAACP Image Awards?

According to the Web site for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), its mission is a simple yet noble one: “to ensure the political, educational, social and economic equality of rights of all persons and to eliminate racial hatred and racial discrimination.’”

Elsewhere on the Web site, the NAACP offers a detailed description of its annual Image Awards: “the nation’s premier multi-cultural awards show celebrating the outstanding achievements and performances of people of color in the arts (television, recording, literature, motion picture and writing and directing), as well as those individuals or groups who promote social justice through their creative endeavors.”

Got that? Okay.

If those definitions hold, what, then, is a singer like Adele doing in a place like this, as a nominee at the 43rd Annual NAACP Image Awards?

She recently received two NAACP Image Award nominations—Oustanding Song and Video for her massive No. 1 hit “Someone Like You”—and, presumably, she will be on hand to win or lose when the prizes are handed out on February 17, live on NBC. Naturally, controversy—and publicity—ensued because unlike fellow multiple-nominee Beyoncé, Adele happens to be white.

But you already knew that. So what, exactly, does Adele or her music have to do with the advancement of “colored people”?

It makes one wonder who is on the NAACP’s nominating committee and what their motives might be? Maybe collecting more press attention by inviting the best-selling artist of 2011 to the ceremony as a double nominee and stirring the controversy pot while they’re at it.

Or perhaps the Adele is the behind-the-scenes key to why the ceremony, which is normally broadcast on the Fox network, found a home this year on the considerably whiter NBC. It will air five days after the GRAMMYs, and if Adele is that evening’s big winner—and we have every reason to expect her to be—she’ll be the best bait to lure viewers to the Image Awards short of raising Michael Jackson from the dead and giving him a ticket to the event.

NBC will win, but artists who are truly representative of music of color won’t. Unlike past British blue-eyed soul singers like George Michael and Lisa Stansfield, up to now, Adele hasn’t even displayed any particularly powerful affinity to American black music (it’s telling that the artists she covered on her first two albums, 19 and 21, were Bob Dylan and the Cure), and although she’s earned the respect of black performers (Jeremih, for one, has covered “Rumour Has It” live), it’s not like Adele’s singles have been big hits on R&B radio.

It’s a little absurd that she would make the Outstanding Video shortlist while Kelly Rowland, a black performer who had the best video of the year by anyone of any color, was left off for “Motivation.” Meanwhile, conspicuously absent from the list of nominees in the music categories: Rihanna, the top black female artist at the moment, whose music or whose, um, image, apparently, isn’t black enough for NAACP recognition.

So why is Adele’s? She’s a great singer, and she sings with great soul, but she’s not a “soul” singer. There is a distinction, you know, and it has less to do with being a certain color than sounding a certain color. The late Teena Marie may have been white, but she was a soul singer right down to her core. Every note that comes out of Adele’s mouth sounds like a gift from God, but there’s no mistaking the color of the wrapping paper.

While I’m not a genre purist, and I don’t support musical segregation based on race, by its very definition, the NAACP is a segregationist organization. Not in a way that screams, “Blacks only!” but in a way that is meant to promote and advance minorities, people of color (which would include 2012 Image acting nominees Sandra Oh and Sofia Vergara). There’s no getting around that aspect of the NAACP—it’s not written in stone,  just into its name.

Maybe it’s time to rethink the acronym and what it stands for (it hasn’t been okay to call blacks “colored people” in my lifetime), as well as defining the NAACP’s purpose when it comes to the Image Awards’s music categories and the need for them to begin with. It makes sense to honor minority actors in TV and film because they are largely overlooked at the Emmys and the Oscars. This year, the acting nominations for Emma Stone and Bryce Dallas Howard, both of whom are white, feel appropriate because The Help was a film that detailed the black-white experience in the Deep South of the 1960s, and of the principal cast, they’re the two who were left out of the Oscar discussion—and nominations.

But mainstream music award shows already do a pretty good job of honoring and featuring black talent. And it’s not like Adele isn’t going to get her due everywhere else. Do we need to add the Image Awards to the list of Adele-propping organizations? Aren’t all of those GRAMMYs she’s destined to win on February 12 enough?

One could argue that the NAACP Image Awards isn’t even seriously dedicated to advancing or celebrating black music. What else would explain the absence of a category to honor rap, the premiere black musical art form in 2012? This means Adele is nominated and not Nicki Minaj, a popular rapper who is possibly the best role model on the charts today.

If image were the primary concern, and one would expect it to be with an “Image” award, Minaj’s is more than worthy of merit. She has done as much as anyone to bridge genres and color-based demographics. Her biggest hit, “Super Bass,” received some of its earliest praise from Taylor Swift and Selena Gomez, and she’s collaborated with artists as varied—and white—as Eminem, Natasha Bedingfield, David Guetta, Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, Ke$ha, the Lonely Island and Madonna. Minaj also has been as much of an advocate for gay rights as Lady Gaga without being patronizing about it. Meanwhile, Adele collects accolade after accolade and basks in the glow of her spotlight.

I’m not saying that Adele doesn’t deserve everything she’s gotten. She does—with the exception of this. If she wins either of the Image awards she’s nominated for—and considering how weak the Outstanding Video category is, how could she not?—in what way will that be advancing people of color, or their music?

Sound And Vision: What Will George Michael Do with His Second Chance at Life?

It’s been nearly eight years since George Michael released an entire album of new music, and three since he put out a single that wasn’t a cover of New Order’s “True Faith.” But in 2011, the singer-songwriter starred in what must have been one of the year’s most gripping YouTube videos, two minutes as gripping and heartfelt as anything on Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1, his essential 1990 album.

There was no music, and Michael didn’t sing a note. In the clip, which was posted on December 23, Michael gave a press conference in which he discussed his recent near-death experience that began on November 21 on the Vienna stop of his forty-eight-date European tour and which he described as “the worst month of my life.” The normally robust singer, who had contracted a chest infection that was later diagnosed as life-threatening pneumonia and spent a month in hospital in Vienna (including ten days in the intensive-care unit), appeared gaunt and gray, often struggling to catch his breath.

In a year that took so many of music’s greats (R.I.P., Amy Winehouse, Nikolas Ashford, Phoebe Snow, Vesta Williams, Clarence Clemons, Dobie Gray, Billie Jo Spears), Michael is truly lucky to be alive —and he knows it. So what’s next? First, as he said in the interview, he will reschedule the cancelled dates on the Symphonica Tour that he was staging throughout Europe and the UK when his illness struck. The shows featured Michael performing his own hits and non-hits as well as select covers (including Winehouse’s “Love Is a Losing Game”) with a symphonic orchestra.

Continue reading ‘Sound And Vision: What Will George Michael Do with His Second Chance at Life?’

Can Music Move Us Away From Discrimination?

It is clear that the world is changing, and it seems like most of these changes are for the better. New technology and trends have enabled us to do things we never thought possible.  And, even more importantly, opportunities are available to people, no matter what race, gender, sexuality, or religion they happen to be. But how is this change reflected in the world of music? It seems that while some genres of music are taking great leaps in the right direction, other genres are still digging in their heels.

Country singer Chely Wright, one of the few country artists who is openly gay, recently married her girlfriend Lauren Blitzer in Connecticut. And while this was one of the happiest days of Wright’s life, many of her fans did not see it this way. In fact, since Wright came out in 2010, she has been harassed and threatened by people who used to support her.  Country fans have historically been more conservative than other music fans, but for Wright it was a shock that her fan base seemingly disappeared after she opened about her sexuality.

Continue reading ‘Can Music Move Us Away From Discrimination?’

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: 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?

End of the Revolution: Has Pop Lost Its Social Conscience?

“You say you want a revolution,” The Beatles taunted in 1968. Seventeen years later, the Cult declared, “There’s a revolution.” When Tracy Chapman started “talkin’ ’bout a revolution” in 1988, she left the battlefield with multi-platinum spoils and two GRAMMYs. Pop music may be entertainment first and foremost, but at its most powerful, it’s also been an agent of change, social change, political change, inner change.
“A change is gonna come,” Sam Cooke sang on his 1964 classic. Surely he didn’t envision it eventually going down quite like this. I think the turnaround began in the ’90s, when U2, one of the most popular and influential political groups of all time, discovered girls and disco balls. Nearly two decades later, Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp, Stevie Wonder and George Michael are off the singles charts, John Lennon and Marvin Gaye are still dead, and musical activism is mostly the domain of artists on the sidelines of the mainstream.
Meanwhile, in the middle of the road… Billboard’s Top 10 for the week of January 15— led by “Firework,” an anthem for doomed youth with none of the eloquence of Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful” from 2002—perfectly reflected the shallow mindset of 2011 pop. With its “boom boom boom, even brighter than the moon moon moon” refrain, “Firework” is more tiring than inspiring and ultimately comes across as a clunky excuse for Katy Perry to look gorgeous and set off explosives with her breasts in the video.
Further down the hit list, Bruno Mars is a fool in love—twice. Pink is getting another party started. Enrique Iglesias is flirting again. And the Black Eyed Peas—well, I gotta feeling that ripping off the Dirty Dancing theme was just a way to make more quick bucks. When it’s up to Ke$ha to bring the social commentary (with “We R What We R”), you know we’ve got a problem. Where’s the revolution, the signs of the time? There’s a grenade, yes, but it’s in the name of love, not war.
Every so often there’s a disaster—September 11th, Hurricane Katrina, the earthquake in Haiti—that springs pop stars into action. For the most part, though, they’re all about gold diggers, teenage dreams and bad romance. There are still some iconoclastic talents out there, though they don’t frequent the Top 10. I’m still not sure how a call to action as powerful as Muse’s “Uprising” stalled at No. 37 on Billboard’s Hot 100 in 2009. Maybe the band’s Twilight-obsessed fans prefer when Matthew Bellamy is singing love songs for vampires.
M.I.A. made an unlikely trip to the Top 5 in 2008 with “Paper Planes,” but when she tried to fight the system with last year’s brutal, honest and brutally honest “Born Free,” her video was banned almost everywhere, including on YouTube, for containing violent images that actually were no more disturbing than anything James Franco does in 127 Hours, or that crazed gunman did in last season’s Grey’s Anatomy finale. The same thing happened to Madonna in 2003, when she challenged George Bush with her “American Life” clip. She was strong-armed into filming a new version of the video, the single and CD flopped, and she retreated to the dancefloor for her next two albums.
Perhaps it’s the censors who are intimidating pop’s would-be revolutionaries into inaction. If you dare to clash with rigid, arbitrary standards of decency, as 30 Seconds to Mars’ “Hurricane” video recently did (the MPAA probably would have slapped frontman Jared Leto’s antics with a PG rating at worst), you can forget about airplay. Years ago, pioneering rap acts like Grandmaster Flash and Furious Five and Run-D.M.C. documented life on the mean streets without courting controversy. When Public Enemy came along, they raised the stakes and pissed people off, probably limiting their commercial potential. I can’t imagine any of today’s swag-obsessed rap acts offering oratory as scathing as Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” or Fear of a Black Planet.
These days, rap’s primary focus, mentally and musically, is boosting egos and making money. Wiz Khalifa’s Top 10 “Black and Yellow,” in particular, represents everything that’s gone wrong with the genre. Eminem occasionally shows flashes of a social conscience— dig deeper into the lyrics of “Love the Way You Lie,” and you’ll realize that it’s an indictment of domestic violence, not a celebration of it— but in hitmaking mode, he’s mostly looking inward, not outward.
Who’ll bring social and political awareness back to the mainstream? Dixie Chicks tried their last time out, and won the 2007 Record of the Year GRAMMY for “Not Ready to Make Nice.” Since then, Record of the Year GRAMMY contenders mostly have been about sex, love and rehab. Rhythm and romance, like sex and candy, will always have a place in pop music, but who wants to party all the time? May the state of nations (wars, terrorism, collapsing economies, earthquakes, public shootings) inspire more of our stars to dim the party lights, turn some of the lust to anger, and get pop’s revolution back on track.

 


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