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Sound and Vision: The Fall of R&B: How Pop Is Selling Its Soul for a Dance Beat

Remember the days when R&B and hip hop was the sound of pop? From the ‘90s to the mid ‘00s, music’s most dependable hitmakersMariah Carey, Whitney Houston, Toni Braxton, Boyz II Men, R. Kelly, Usher, Brandy, Monica, Alicia Keys, Destiny’s Child and Beyoncé, among themspecialized in “crossover” soul, climbing both the R&B charts and the Hot 100 in tandem.

But lately, something strange has been happening on Billboard’s R&B /Hip-Hop Songs chart: A hit is no longer necessarily a hit. Just because a song is big in the R&B sphere doesn’t mean it’s big anywhere else. For the week ending April 7, 2012, only one song in the R&B/Hip-Hop Top 10Tyga’s “Rack City”had managed a comparable placing on the Hot 100.

The song at No. 1, Beyoncé’s “Love on Top,” which had been there for multiple weeks, was way down at No. 54 on the Hot 100. (It briefly entered the Top 40 last September, debuting and peaking at No. 20 after Beyoncé performed it at the MTV Video Music Awards.) Meanwhile, there wasn’t a single R&B diva in the Top 40 aside from Janelle Monae, who got there by guest-singing on rock band fun.’s No. 1 hit “We Are Young.”

What happened to pop’s soul? There’s a disconnect between the pop and R&B charts that hasn’t been so pronounced since the days when Michael Jackson’s label, CBS Records, threatened to pull all of its artists from MTV if the then-fledgling network didn’t play Jackson’s “Billie Jean” video.

Continue reading ‘Sound and Vision: The Fall of R&B: How Pop Is Selling Its Soul for a Dance Beat’

Sound & Vision: Life After Whitney: Why We Should Appreciate the Greats While They’re Still with Us

There’s a scene—actually, several of them—in the 2011 film My Week with Marilyn in which an insecure Marilyn Monroe (exactingly detailed by Oscar nominee Michelle Williams) gets an ego boost from Susan Strasberg, her acting coach. “You’re a great actress,” Strasberg insists, on repeat, as if that makes it fact.

It’s hard to watch the movie now and not draw parallels between Monroe and Whitney Houston, both haunted by demons, both under-appreciated at the end. Over the last decade or so of Houston’s life, as her career and reputation nosedived, someone in her camp probably was doing the same thing for her.

There was a publicist at her record label, Arista Records, who downplayed Houston’s personal drama in the late ’90s when I asked if the drug rumors were true. “Yes,” the rep admitted. “But it’s not as bad as they say it is.” Then came the Strasberg moment: “She’s still amazing.”

During the week following Houston’s April 11 death, that’s what everyone said—only in past tense. As the tributes poured in, Houston wasn’t around to hear the thunderous praise. She had become yet another cautionary tale of what substance abuse can do to a sparkling image and red-hot career and how, sometimes, death is the only thing that can restore their luster.

We will always love her now, even if, in her final decade, many of us barely showed her any love. Some might say Houston got the coverage and reputation she deserved. Too bad it took her death to remind many of us how much she’d contributed to pop and to the soundtrack of the ‘80s and ‘90s.

Death becomes fallen stars. Michael Jackson’s singles and albums re-entered the charts in the weeks after he left us in 2010. Etta James saw significant chart action for the first time in decades after she passed away on January 20. And Houston finally had the hit single that had eluded her all of this century, as “I Will Always Love You,” which had spent 14 weeks at No. 1 in 1992 and 1993, re-entered Billboard’s Hot 100 at No. 7, three notches above Madonna’s new single, before ascending upward to No. 3.

Before her death, I can’t recall the last time I’d read anything positive about Houston. Most of the articles focused on her drug issues and her shaky performances, accompanied by the most unflattering photos advertising and circulation revenue could buy. But once she was gone, the songbird’s wings were restored. Now that a few weeks have passed, and once the autopsy report is in, perhaps the media will tip the delicate balance and return to slamming her.

As I watched the outpouring of grief, I thought about all of the under-celebrated greats who are still with us, particularly the soul divas of Houston’s heyday, the Shirley Murdocks, the Miki Howards, the Stephanie Mills, the Angela Winbushes. If the deaths of Teena Marie, Vesta Williams and now Whitney Houston have taught us anything, it’s that great voices may live forever, but the bodies that contain them don’t. They sang the songs that make us think, “Those were the days.” Will Katy Perry’s latest single inspire that kind of reaction in 2037?

Unlike Murdock, Howard, Mills, Winbush, Marie, Williams, and too many others, Houston got her due, paid in full—for a time. One of the great tragedies of Teena Marie’s death in December of 2010 is that such a supremely gifted singer-songwriter was known to the masses for one song only, “Lovergirl,” a Top 5 hit from 1984. Vesta Williams never even got above No. 55 on the Hot 100. Can we get an “Amen” for the others while they’re still around to hear it?

Unsung, TV One’s Behind the Music-style series that pulls under-sung former soul stars out from mothballs, is a great start, but don’t ‘80s R&B hitmakers like Evelyn “Champagne” King, Ray Parker Jr. and Freddie Jackson—all of whom have been featured on Unsung—deserve the same mainstream coverage as Adam Ant, whose Australian comeback tour was recently featured on the front page of The Australian daily newspaper?

Yes, at least Houston had her day. I’ve been recalling anecdotes about her from my early years as a magazine writer and editor in New York City. At a listening release party for the Waiting to Exhale soundtrack in 1995, Babyface, who’d written and produced most of the album, called Houston “the greatest singer of all time,” a sentiment that was seconded over and over after her passing.

Brandy, whom I interviewed for People magazine in 1994, when she was fifteen and still on her first single, stood firm in her admiration to the end. All those years ago, when I asked her whom she most wanted to meet, she told me how disappointed she had been with her one encounter with Houston. “She just shook my hand and said, ‘Nice to meet you. Good luck. Keep reaching for your dreams. It wasn’t anything personal, so in my mind, I haven’t met her yet.”

Eventually, she’d not only get the meeting she wanted, she’d work with her, too, in the 1997 TV movie Cinderella. One of the most disturbing things I’ve seen on YouTube all year is a video interview with Brandy, Monica and Arista titan Clive Davis, who’d guided Houston to stardom, taped two days before her death.

In the clip, the singers talked about their upcoming performance at Davis’s annual pre-GRAMMY party, and about Houston, her talent and her supportive nature. They had no way of knowing how terribly wrong things would turn out, but, unlike much of the press—which, in recent years, had been more focused on Houston’s vices than her voice, unless it was to slam it for no longer being the powerful instrument it had once been—Brandy and Monica hadn’t wavered in their appreciation.

Neither, to hear him tell it, did Kevin Costner, who spoke at Houston’s funeral at the New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, NJ. As I watched, though, I couldn’t help but wonder, what he had done for her lately. Perhaps Costner and Houston had maintained a tight friendship in the years after they costarred in The Bodyguard, but considering how infrequently they’d publicly acknowledged each other in the last twenty years, his final testimonial came out of nowhere. He’d saved her in The Bodyguard, he said. Why didn’t he do the same in real life?

It would have been a lofty aspiration for sure, but I’m sure he’s not the only one wishing he’d appreciated Houston more in her later years, even after her voice had become a show-stopper for all the wrong reasons. The moral of this story: You really don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. So celebrate life—and talent—today, while it’s still with us. You never know what loss tomorrow might bring.

Mica Parris Receives Phone Call from Monica

Earlier this week, we announced that Mica Parris—winner of the “Artists on the Rise” Competition, presented by NBC’s The Voice—scored a one-on-one mentoring session with R&B legend Monica. What we didn’t mention is that Mica found out she won when she received a phone call from Monica herself that morning! Monica was a guest on the Rickey Smiley Morning Show and called Mica to share the good news. Listen to the call below and join us in congratulating Mica again!

Portland Songstress Mica Parris Wins Mentoring Session With R&B Legend Monica

Mica Parris is something special. This rising Portland songstress has a sound rooted in old school soul, with touches of modern R&B and the drive of Top 40 pop-rock. Did we mention she’s got a set of killer pipes? Her blend is unique-yet-familiar, and is perhaps the reason her track “Wings” caught the attention of Monica. The R&B legend hand selected Parris as the Grand Prize Winner of the “Artists on the Rise” Competition—presented by NBC’s The Voice—landing her a mentoring session with Miss Thang herself. Pretty sweet, right? Congrats girl! Check back to the OurStage blog for our exclusive follow-up with Parris later in the month.

Win $1000 By Judging In The Artists On The Rise Competition!

Right now, at this very moment, some of OurStage’s best hip hop and R&B acts are competing in the “Artists on the Rise” Competition—presented by NBC’s The Voice— vying for their chance to land an exclusive mentoring session with R&B legend Monica. They need all the help they can get from their fans to land the coveted Grand Prize. Here’s where you come in. Judge in the competition by noon on February 2, 2012, and you could walk away with $1,000 cold, hard cash. It’s simple really, all you have to do is help the best undiscovered talent make it to the top and you’re in. For a little taste of what’s to come, check out the playlist included below.

Sound And Vision: Growing Up Is Hard to Do, How To Make The Leap From Teen To Adult Pop Superstar

“I will sit right down, waiting for the gift of sound and vision,” David Bowie sang on his greatest hit. Sound and vision: essentials to the life of any great musician. They were the foundation of my beat — music, movies and TV — when I launched my journalism career in New York City as a People magazine writer and realized my dream of interviewing Bowie — twice. Editing stints at Teen People, Us Weekly and Entertainment Weekly followed. Next up was Buenos Aires, where, over the course of four and a half years, I discovered siestas, Mercedes Sosa and blogging. Coming soon: Australia, where, as I settle into this column, I will continue to explore sound and vision, and how those gifts merge to create my greatest love of all: pop music.
In pop music, as in life, getting older can by a tricky, treacherous uphill climb. Growing pains can be as hard on the eyes and ears of fans as they are on a teen star’s psyche. For every Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears, both of whom emerged on the scene as wet-behind-the-ears teens and continue to flourish on the cusp of thirtysomething (Timberlake blows out 30 candles on January 31; Spears will on December 2), there’s Aaron Carter, Charlotte Church, Hanson, Tiffany, Debbie Gibson, New Kids on the Block, Bobby Brown, and cut-out bins filled with other ex-chart-toppers for whom platinum pop stardom wasn’t meant to last. Brandy, Monica, Christina Aguilera and Avril Lavigne may still be kicking around, but the shining stars of these former teen queens have dimmed considerably.
How did the Justins and Britneys of the world do it? For all those aspiring adolescent pop-stars, the next Justin Bieber looking for a place to happen — and even, perhaps, for Bieber himself — here are some helpful hints.
Grow with the musical flow. Pop trends are fleeting, so if you enter the scene latching onto one, know when to let it go. Former ‘N Sync memberTimberlake, who rode the last big boy-band wave to fame, is the perfect example of someone whose perfect timing aided and abetted his staying power. Yes, talent helped, too, but he exited ‘N Sync and went solo just as boy bands were about to go out of style — again. More recently, Nick Jonas (through his side project Nick Jonas and the Administration) and Joe Jonas (via acting gigs on 90210 and Hot in Cleveland plus an upcoming solo album) have begun establishing individual identities outside of their Jonas Brothers family act. Smart move.
Don’t grow too fast. Yes, Miley Cyrus, I’m talking to you. If your fans fall for you as a squeaky-clean teen, don’t overhaul your image overnight. So far, Taylor Swift has played it wisely, sticking with the tried-and-true girl-next-door persona for three albums. Beyoncé, who turns 30 on September 4th, hasn’t strayed too far from the 16-year-old we met when she was a member of Destiny’s Child. Even LeAnn Rimes waited until she was well into her 20s to leave her husband for another guy.
Grow some funk of your own. You can’t depend on the likes of Max Martin to keep cranking out your hits forever — unless you’re Britney Spears. Like Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson before him, Timberlake has evolved from a perfectly packaged underage singer of other people’s songs into a formidable songwriter, even helping other artists turn out great music (like “Cold Case Love” on Rihanna’s Rated R album as well as Madonna’s “4 Minutes” and several other tracks on Hard Candy). The ability to multi-task may end up working in favor of pop’s other famous Justin. In addition to being a pretty good vocalist, Bieber also writes and plays piano, guitar and drums, skills which should come in handy later on. Twentysomething Katy Perry can have teenage dreams and still go to No. 1, but Bieber won’t be able to get away with frothy pop like “Baby” forever.
When the growing gets tough, keep going. Britney Spears survived scandals, divorces and one seriously embarrassing MTV Video Music Awards performance, and she still comes out on top with her music, like her latest quick hit “Hold It Against Me.” Usher’s taken his private romantic travails and turned them into fodder for hits — something he did most spectacularly on his 2004 Confessions album, which, in part, documented his split with TLC’s Rozanda “Chili” Thomas. Demi Lovato is the latest teen star staring down personal demons. She entered a treatment center in late 2010 to seek help for emotional and physical issues, thus avoiding any embarrassing Lindsay Lohan-style public meltdowns. Right now, her biggest career hurdle might be differentiating herself from Selena Gomez.
Ah, Selena Gomez! She’s got problems of her own, now that she’s receiving death threats on Twitter after being caught making out with Justin Bieber, which brings us to the final piece of advice: Before you grow up, don’t forget to date a fellow teen idol. Justin and Britney were once joined at the hips and lips. Nick Jonas romanced Miley Cyrus. Both Demi Lovato and Taylor Swift loved and lost Joe Jonas, though Swift rebounded nicely with Twilight‘s Taylor Lautner. It was only a matter of time before Bieber’s Romeo found his Juliet — hopefully, without the tragic denouement.
Once the furor dies down, and it always does, this might end up being Gomez’s best career move yet. Some girls will go on hating her for it, but they’ll want to be her, too. And that, kids, is key to being both a teen star and a grown-up icon.

Soul Searching: ML the Truth

Love is one of those strong emotions that just naturally inspires great soul songs. This week’s Soul Searching artist takes that emotion and runs with it! ML The Truth is another OurStage artist on the rise in the R&B world thanks to his smooth vocals and tight harmonies.  ML recently won the OurStage “Here I Am” talent search with Monica and Coca-Cola. In September, ML was the winner of the Cellular South’s Listener’s choice award for his song “Missing You”. He’s also opened for Trey Songs, Lenny Williams, LeToya and Anthony Hamilton just to name a few. It’s hard to believe he started out writing hooks for local underground hip hop artists. Lucky for us, he was encouraged to start singing  and producing his own music as an artist.

We asked ML a few questions to see what was going on now, and what he had up his sleeve for the future. Check them out below:

OS: What are you currently working on now?

ML: I am gearing up for the release of my first independent album entitled The Truth. It will be released under my company 100 Drums Productions LLC. I am shooting for November 13th as a release date because it falls on my birthday. This album will feature a great spoken word artist before each song that I allowed to listen to my music before its release. They meditated on the creations and were allowed to express how they felt after the connection in their own art form.  I wanted that unconventional element added to my first project.  Because I am independent it has allowed me to have that creative control. I just finished a video shoot for my song “First Time” with Dreka Shevon of Primestone Media and Johnny Coleman of Crescent Creations.   It’s a song about the beauty of asking your significant other if you can make love for the first time.  The first shoot was good but the feedback was that it was too safe.  I was trying to make it family friendly but I think I went overboard Beaver the Cleaver clean.  This one should be spicy enough to get the message across without being a shock value soft porn video.

I just purchased my first billboard sign in the area I grew up (in my hometown of Jackson, MS). The ad agency suggested a more non-urban market, but my neighborhood needed to see something other than bails bondsman, tobacco and liquor signs. Hopefully, it will give inspiration to the youth to let them know they can achieve dreams.   It was kind of a blow to the wallet but my prize winnings from the OurStage Monica “Here I am” Talent Search Competition softened the blow.  In between that and viral marketing myself on the Internet, I am also producing local artist in the Mississippi area to keep my lights on.

Lou Writer just won the Black Entertainment Television (BET) 106 & Park W.O.W. Male R&B Grand Championship title in August 2010 performing two songs I produced entitled “Aftermath” and “Touch.”  “Aftermath” was the Number 1 downloaded ring tone for BET during the month of July.  Another group I produce called LAVAGE will be competing on BET’s 106 & Park Wednesday, November 10, 2010. So look out for them doing a dance they created called the “Hula Hoop.””

OS: Where do you want to be as an artist in 2 years?

ML: The sky is the limit now after winning on OurStage because I was working on a shoe string budget.  Prayer, the OurStage voters and R&B artist Monica gave me the rest of the shoe so to speak to finish my project. When Monica validated my music, it was awesome! In two years, I see sponsorship, my songs in movies and my videos on MTV, VH1 & BET.  I hope to have major placement with several well-known artists.  I have a great team of individuals around me who are supportive and help to foster my creativity, so it will happen.  My mind set will stay competitive and I will continue to enter my songs in contests. Some days when the planets are in alignment I feel like I can win a GRAMMY.  I recently won the Emerge Artist Cellular South Listener’s choice contest for my song “Missing You” in September.  I think that will be my next video. That song seems to have a crossover appeal that I eventually want to have for all my songs.  I don’t want to be shoved in a genre box all my career.  In two years when you ask “Who is ML?” People will say I know him. He is the guy that makes great music.

Most importantly in two years, I want to be able to take care of my family financially and those that have supported me from the beginning.

Check out ML’s track “First Time” in the player below and tell us what you think in the comments. Just make sure it’s the truth.

OurStage Takes Over Birthday Bash 15

On Saturday we headed down to the A-T-L to lend our support to some very special OurStage artists. ML The Truth was selected by Monica herself to perform a duet with the R&B songstress on stage at Hot 107.9′s Birthday Bash 15, and RC was the winner of the Magnum Live Large Project with his specially penned rap “Put It On.” RC was introduced to the thousands of people in the audience by Ludacris himself and went on to perform “Put It On” to screaming crowds.

But when performing in front of thousands of people at huge events like this, hiccups are to be expected, and ML experienced some technical difficulties with a faulty mic. Ever the smooth operator, ML kept his cool “by following Monica’s lead.  She is a such a professional.  She instantly recognized the situation and picked up the verse I was supposed to sing. That is when I became sort of a lip-syncing hype man for her until it was time for me to exit the stage. Monica made it easy. I exited the stage then wet myself.”

As for getting the chance to hop on stage with Monica, ML described it as, “Excitement to the 19th power. Monica is a warm and kind person with a good heart.  That is why you can feel the words in her music. For her to choose me as the grand prize winner actually let me know I was headed in the right direction with my music. When I met her it was like talking to someone I already knew. She is the Real thing.  The irony of the whole situation is that she actually performed in Mississippi a couple of months ago.  The concert was sold out and the fire marshals wouldn’t let anyone else in to see her.  So I missed out on getting her autograph.  Two months later via OurStage, I performed on stage with her. God is good.”

RC also got the experience of a lifetime when Ludacris brought him out on stage to perform his original track, a moment which he described as,”Awesome. Ludacris had the crowd so hyped, that by the time I got on stage the energy was there and all I had to do was feed off of that and keep it going. Ludacris said he was proud of me which was very encouraging. He’s a real cool dude! [Stepping out on stage] was like a two minute bungee jump! Bright lights, extreme sound system and 30,000 fans! It was pure adrenaline! It is definitely an experience I will never forget.”

We couldn’t be more proud of these two talented artists and their performances this weekend, and we are thrilled that we could give them these opportunities. As RC said, “I was exposed to over 25,000 people live just by using OurStage as a platform for my music! The voting system is fair and really gives you a new perspective on how people view your music. OurStage is a great resource for musicians to connect with new fans and grow as an artist!” Right on. Below you can check out RC on stage with Luda at Birthday Bash 15.

Winner Announced For The “Here I Am Talent Search With Monica”!

With Memorial Day weekend nothing but a distant memory, we welcome the sunny skies and rising temperatures of June. Also on the rise this month is the talent here on OurStage. We have another lucky winner to announce now that the judging is complete in the “Here I Am Talent Search with Monica” Competition.

R&B/Soul artists from all across the country entered in the “Here I AM Talent Search With Monica” Competition in hopes of earning this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.  As the one artist “Still Standing” ML “The Truth can shout “Here I Am” at the biggest birthday celebration in Atlanta, Birthday Bash 15, while he burns up the stage with Monica.

With a silky smooth sound, this Jackson, Mississippi-based R&B sensation has been burning up the OurStage charts for quite some time. His most recent single “First Time,” is a dazzling display of how he has grown as a writer, singer, composure and producer since his debut album I Will, which was released independently in 2005. As both an artist and  individual, ML “The Truth typically uses his songwriting as a coping mechanism and communication tool.  He boasts a refreshing blend of truthful lyrics and refreshing soul, evident with every note he passionately sings.  Catch a taste of winning track “First Time” below.

 


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