From Justin Timberlake (The Social Network) and Tim McGraw (The Blind Side and Country Strong) to Janet Jackson (For Colored Girls) and Christina Aguilera (Burlesque), pop stars no longer act just to fill dead space between albums. And the career exchange is working the other way around, too. Charlie’s Angel Cheryl Ladd had a hit single in the ’70s; Bruce Willis, Patrick Swayze (may he rest in peace), Don Johnson and Eddie Murphy had one Top 10 apiece in the ’80s; and Jennifer Lopez spent the early ’00s as one of the hottest women in pop. But lately, what every actor (and reality TV star) seems to really want to do isn’t direct—it’s sing.
Leading the current musical parade is Gwyneth Paltrow, who scored a Billboard No. 1 Adult Contemporary hit in 2000 with a cover of Smokey Robinson’s “Cruisin’,” a duet she mastered with Huey Lewis. Now she’s targeting Nashville and possibly a second Oscar with her role as an alcoholic singer in Country Strong (opening December 22). She’s already getting country radio airplay with the title song and performed it live, to a standing ovation, at the Country Music Awards on November 10. She also just made her superstar guest appearance on Glee.
Meanwhile, Paltrow’s Country Strong costar Leighton Meester, who’s also a regular on Gossip Girl—which features moonlighting rocker Ed Westwick (Chuck Bass)—is releasing an album on the Universal Republic label, and already hit the Top 10 on Billboard’s Hot 100 last year as a featured artist on Cobra Starship’s “Good Girls Go Bad.”
Paltrow’s Iron Man costar Jeff Bridges won an Oscar in March for playing the male version of her Country Strong character in Crazy Heart (music from the film, by rising country star Ryan Bingham, who also acted in the film, received plenty of accolades as well). Iron Man 2‘s Scarlett Johansson released Anywhere I Lay My Head, an album of Tom Wait covers, in 2008 and Break Up, with Pete Yorn, in 2009. And Iron Man himself, Robert Downey Jr., has sung on the soundtracks to several of his films and onstage at the 2008 American Idol finale, appeared in an Elton John video and released a CD called The Futurist.
Joaquin Pheonix, Paltrow’s costar in last year’s Two Lovers, performed his own vocals for his Oscar-nominated performance as Johnny Cash in Walk the Line and spent the entire 2010 documentary I’m Still Here trying to make it as a rapper.
Maybe it’s the rebirth of the Hollywood musical—and/or the drive to hang on to fame by all means necessary—that’s convinced so many actors that they can make it in music, too (no, not you, David Hasselhoff). Phoenix’s Walk the Line costar Reese Witherspoon won an Oscar for her singing efforts as June Carter Cash. Catherine Zeta-Jones scored both an Oscar (Chicago) and a Tony (A Little Night Music) for musical performances. Penelope Cruz just got nominated for uncaging her inner songbird in Nine, alongside fellow Oscar winners Daniel Day-Lewis, Dame Judi Dench, Sophia Loren and Nicole Kidman, who—like Kate Winslet and the late Britanny Murphy (may she rest in peace)—has hit the Top 10 in the UK as a singer.
Even Oscar queen Meryl Streep has gotten into the song and dance, massacring the ABBA catalog in the 2008 musical Mamma Mia! And recent Academy honoree Mo’Nique delivered a song-stealing monologue on “Don’t Take Your Hat Off,” a track on Toni Braxton’s last album. Jamie Foxx, who won his Oscar for reincarnating music icon Ray Charles in Ray, has released two platinum albums and has a third set, Body, due on December 14. Kevin Bacon, Dennis Quaid, Johnny Depp, Russell Crowe, Zoey Deschanel, Adrian Grenier, Juliette Lewis, Keanu Reeves, Jason Schwartzman and Robert Pattinson all have moonlighted as musicians; Jared Leto’s band 30 Seconds to Mars seems to have become a bigger priority than acting; veteran actor Chris Mulkey (HBO’s The Boardwalk Empire) is also a well known country singer and Steve Martin’s The Crow: New Songs for the 5-String Banjo won a 2010 Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album.
Among the younger set, Miley Cyrus, Demi Lovato and Selena Gomez were all Disney stars before becoming successful recording artists (as were Fergie, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Justin Timberlake and Jennifer Love Hewitt) and Aubrey Drake Graham spent eight years playing Jimmy Brooks on Degrassi: The Next Generation before becoming platinum-selling rapper Drake. Will and Jada Smith’s actor kids are also making musical noise. Son Jaden, 12, had a Top 40 hit earlier this year rapping with Justin Bieber on “Never Say Never,” and his 9-year-old sister Willow‘s “Whip My Hair” is a current pop smash that has some calling her a future Beyoncé. Then there’s, Josh Groban, who will release his fifth album, Illuminations, on November 15 and also costars with Steve Carell in the 2011 comedy Crazy, Stupid, Love. He initially set out to be an actor, getting his big break in a 2001 episode of Ally McBeal, before detouring permanently into singing.
Since talent is optional in pop, and sometimes all you need is a good producer and auto-tune, reality stars are entering the mix, too. (No diss intended to Project Runway host Heidi Klum, who sang on “Wedding Day,” a track on her husband Seal’s 2007 album, System.) The Hills’ Heidi Montag and The Simple Life’s Paris Hilton, perhaps inspired by the pop careers of dueling starlets Lindsay Lohan and Hilary Duff in the mid ’00s, both released their own albums. Montag already tanked early this year (Earth to former reality star: If you want to be taken seriously in music, don’t call your debut album Superficial), but at least Hilton earned a Top 10 hit and decent reviews for Paris in 2006 and has a follow-up in the works.
Of course, Kim “I’ll do anything to stay in the spotlight” Kardashian is working with producer The-Dream (Rihanna, Beyoncé, Mariah Carey) on her debut album, and has said, “I would like the music to sound a bit like Lady GaGa, Britney Spears and J.Lo with a bit of an R ‘n’ B twist to it.” Such lofty ambitions!
Down south, The Real Housewives of Atlanta‘s Kandi Burruss, who had several hits with the girl group Xscape in the ’90s and co-wrote Destiny’s Child’s “Bills Bills Bills” and TLC’s “No Scrubs,” among other hits, is about to relaunch her music career with her second solo album, Kandi Koated, on December 14. And it’s probably only a matter of time before Hiltons’ The Simple Life costar, Nicole Richie, follows her dad, Lionel Richie, and her fiancé, Good Charlotte’s Joel Madden, into the family business.
But no Hollywood star has made as much of a recent dent in pop as the cast of Glee, who just surpassed the Beatles’ record for the most hits on Billboard’s Hot 100. Their schtick of taking other people’s songs for one-week spins on the chart is wearing thin—I never got the show and probably never will—but these days in life, Hollywood and pop, only a few things are certain: death, taxes, another actor-turned-singer, and a weekly barrage of Hot 100 entries by the cast of Glee.
Jeremy Helligar is a former staff writer for People, Teen People, Us Weekly and Entertainment Weekly, who now writes about celebrities and pop culture from his couch in Buenos Aires.
In addition to breakout internet stars like The Astronomical Kid (14-year-old Brooklynite Brian Bradley), two other youngsters are taking the music industry by storm: Willow Smith (the 9-year-old daughter of Will and Jada Smith) and Daniel “Diggy” Simmons (the 15-year-old son of Rev Run). Though it’s hard to ignore the argument of nepotism with regard to Willow and Diggy’s meteoric rise to fame, there’s no question they are capitalizing on their genetic gifts and tenacious talent to launch their solo careers at an age when most kids are still thinking about a driver’s permit, or in Willow’s case, riding the big rides.
While young starlets are not a new trend—(think Miley Cyrus, Lindsay Lohan, Hilary Duff, Selena Gomez) both Willow and Diggy have bypassed the typical Disney-tinged, tween idol approach and gone straight to the big leagues. Neither of their singles, Diggy’s “Oh Yeah” with labelmate Lupe Fiasco and Pharrell or Willow’s “Whip My Hair” scream “teeny bopper kid” pop. Instead, both hold court with the hottest hits on the pop charts, giving their older counterparts a run for their money (and likely an award or two).
Diggy signed with Atlantic Records in March of this year after his debut mixtape, The First Flight, hit his blog in December 2009, garnering critical acclaim most notably for freestyling over Nas’ track ”Made You Look.”
He also inked a deal to rep AT&T in a national TV ad campaign, proving his star power is strong enough to hawk expensive PDA’s to adults rather than lunchboxes and notebooks to kids. Diggy’s latest mixtape, Airborne, released through Atlantic in September seems to serve as a tasty teaser while he continues working on his debut full length album.
But Diggy was well known to the American public before his recent success. The budding rapper, designer, blogger and entrepreneur first arrived in our living rooms at tender age of 10 when his family’s hit reality show, Run’s House, aired on MTV in 2005. It’s not a stretch to see the musical prodigy (progeny) exploring a career in music considering his dad is legendary DJ, Rev. Run of Run DMC and his uncle Russell, heads up Def Jam—though Diggy claims no help from his dad or uncle in getting the deal with Atlantic. Diggy’s siblings including brother Jo Jo and older sisters, Angela and Vanes (from Rev. Run’s first marriage to Valerie Vaughn) also carved their own careers from the success of the show—launching, in Jo Jo’s case, a music career, while the sisters opted to start a shoe line, acting roles and star in their own MTV spin-off, Daddy’s Girls.
Willow Smith, on the other hand has been in the public eye seemingly from infancy, both as a style icon and as the daughter of one of the most compelling couples in Hollywood. Willow began her acting career at age 8 alongside mom, Jada Pinkett-Smith in Madagascar 2 before showing off her musical talents with her simultaneously kid-friendly and adult smash single, “Whip My Hair.” Shortly after the single was leaked online in September, Willow signed with Roc Nation where label President, Jay-Z compared her to a young Michael Jackson. The single has been so successful legions of young fans (and adults too) began making their own videos to the addictive tune. Willow’s official video for the track, which was directed by Ray Kay (Beyoncé, Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga) and debuted on BET earlier this week, features some serious moves, guest appearances and one messy paint fight.
Rumors of a duet between Diggy and Willow seem inevitable. For the moment, we’ll just have to enjoy their musical (and marketing) genius individually.
Cortney Wills is a pop culture journalist born and raised in Los Angeles, California. She has lived in LA, Chicago and NYC and enjoys all things entertainment.
I have to say it, I adore Alicia Warrington. She never ceases to amaze me—always cropping up in the most unexpected places. Not only that, she is one of the most kick-ass drummers around.
I first met Alicia back in 2004 when she was drumming for Kelly Osbourne’s band. She had just appeared on the Osbourne’s reality television show. A few years later she popped up with the Canadian all-female band, Lillix. Then I read she was playing drums for Hannah Montana and Selena Gomez.
The next time I saw her, she was on television, sitting in the front row cheering on Kelly Osbourne on Dancing with the Stars.
I have a feeling that I—and you—will be hearing a lot more from this talented lady. Alicia is now half of the duo The All-Girl Boys Choir with Marlene Hammerle of The Gore Gore Girls (another band Alicia drums for). But this time around, Alicia is the front person as well as the bass player, drummer, songwriter and engineer. There’s much more to Alicia, but I’ll let her tell you all that.
CD: You are well known as a go-to drummer for so many artists. What’s it like fronting a duo for you?
AW: I’m definitely still getting used to it. It’s very different from my usual, comfortable, hiding spot behind the drums Now, I have to try to entertain people up front and do most of the talking and singing, which isn’t necessarily my favorite thing.
When we decided that The All-Girl Boys Choir was going to be a duo, Marlene wasn’t sold on being a lead singer, so that left one person—me. It feels a little weird to be running around with a guitar instead of pounding out the beats, but I’ve actually played guitar longer than drums so it’s cool to be able to show people that I’m not “just a drummer.”
CD: How did The All-Girl Boys Choir come to be?
AW: Detroit garage rockers Gore Gore Girls (Bloodshot Records) hired me as a drummer for their 2008, 10-country, European tour. They had this crazy guitar/harmonica slinger named Marlene “The Hammer” Hammerle, who caught my attention right away. She was a maniac on stage yet super quiet and cool off stage.
We clicked and decided to work on a new project together after the Gore tour. Marlene moved from Detroit to join me in Los Angeles and we started writing new tunes within the first week of her being here. It was something fresh and exciting for both of us. We concluded that we just didn’t feel like adding more members, dealing with more personalities, scheduling conflicts and trying to keep another band together. Thus, The All-Girl Boys Choir was born.
We recorded most of 2009 and released our debut EP Walking Miracles in the fall of 2009. We are now touring for that.
CD: You’ve been in quite a few all-female bands. Is that intentional? If so, why?
AW: You know, I laugh at that often when thinking about my resume. It certainly isn’t intentional. I just happen to get most of those calls. I’ve been in bands with boys but the tour bus usually smells better with the girls.
CD: How did you start playing drums at age 11?
AW: My uncle Kevin bought this amazing 1970s, stainless-steel, 16-piece, Ludwig monster of a drum set. I fell in love with it immediately. He built a stage in my grandparents’ basement, installed colored track lights, had a smoke machine and a giant stereo system that he would blast, playing drums along to ’80s hair metal bands.
One day, he threw on a couple of songs by Dokken and Bullet Boys and told me to try and play along. It just came to me naturally. I sat in that basement for hours, teaching myself drums along to cassettes by Queensrÿche, Mötley Crüe, Metallica and Faith No More. I begged and begged my mom to buy me a drum kit and one Christmas, she did.
CD: Your first All-Girl Boys Choir tour date is the Girls Rock Camp in Austin. Any particular reason for that?
AW: Emily Marks, who runs the Austin Girls Rock Camp, wanted us to play last year but we weren’t doing shows at the time. This time, we happen to be rolling through during the week of camp and it’s something that we really wanted to do. I think it’s really important to give young girls more options and to get them involved in music at an early age. Young girls need to see that they can play instruments like drums or guitar and that they have more options than becoming one of these Disney-created popsters. We actually have two shows that first day. Later that evening, we’re playing in Austin with The Bluebonnets, Kathy Valentine’s (The Go-Go’s) new band.
CD: Did you book your own tour?
AW: Yes! Back to basics! This time around, it is a completely independent thing: no record label, no management. It’s self-funded and self-everything, which means it’s a lot of work.
We would like to be working with a booking agent but everyone was treating us like a new band, as if we haven’t toured 20 countries before. Yes, The AGBC is a new project, but it’s kind of a slap in the face after doing so many tours for so many years, to have to continually prove yourself and get “more tours under our belts” with this current band, before getting any help from agents.
Well, that certainly wasn’t going to keep me home! I’ve booked tours before so I just picked up the phone and sent out those e-mails myself. Situations like that don’t discourage me, they simply fuel the fire and make me work harder. Now we will be touring through December!
CD: What is your favorite music to listen to?
AW: I seriously listen to absolutely everything. On any given day you will hear me play something like En Vogue followed by Lamb of God. I am a true metal head to the core, but I’ll rock some Dixie Chicks and Loretta Lynn in the car. This week, I’ve been listening to a lot of Heart, The Bangles and Slipknot.
CD: What is your favorite music to play?
AW: On guitar, my favorite music to play is metal. On drums, I dig pop/rock and hip hop beats.
CD: What were the Selena Gomez and Hannah Montana crowds like?
AW: I only worked on video stuff with Selena—no live audience. Hannah Montana crowds are pure insanity. I remember playing a taping for the TV show with her at the Anaheim Convention Center. I couldn’t even hear the stage monitors because the kids were screaming so loudly. I did the Hannah Montana “Live in London” tour, which was pretty crazy as well. Parents bring their kids from all over the place and camp out at the venues.
CD: Have you ever been the front person for a band before?
AW: I was still in the back of the stage on the drums, but I was the singer in a couple of death metal bands as a teenager.
CD: Ever hear any of those back-handed “good for a girl” compliments?
AW: Oh, it enrages me. Sometimes it’s not so much the “good for a girl” compliments as it is the tone that you detect from people. Marlene and I had to go into a chain music store recently and on the way out, this older guy at the door said, “Did you have fun in there, girls?” Now, I can be a bit quick-tempered, but I’m pretty sure they don’t ask guys if they had fun looking at all those pretty instruments in the store. You know?
Another recent example: I went amp shopping and had a guy friend with me. The workers kept asking him how they could help HIM and if HE wanted to try anything out. I took my money elsewhere. It just shows how incredibly stupid some guys still are about ladies being musicians and about taking them seriously.
CD: Are there more or fewer female drummers now?
AW: I think there are many more female drummers now. I definitely didn’t have too many female drumming influences when I was a young drummer. I listened Debbi Peterson and Roxy Petrucci during that time period. I didn’t really know about Mo Tucker, Gina Shock and the others until a bit later. When I was growing up, ladies weren’t getting the same recognition that the males were. So although there might have been some out there, I didn’t get to see as much of them.
I found Sleater-Kinney when I was around 16 and was completely in love with Janet Weiss’s drumming style. She was really the first lady drummer that I was truly inspired by. Her style was so creative. When I’m listening to Janet’s music, I find myself waiting to see what she’s going to do next or where she is going to take the song. It’s usually to a place I wouldn’t have expected.
Young female drummers today have a lot of ladies to look to for inspiration: Cora Coleman-Dunham, Stefanie Eulinberg, Sam Maloney, Yael, Torry Castellano, Jen Schwartz, Mercedes Lander, Nikki Glaspie, Kim Thompson, Hannah Blilie, Melissa York, Patty Schemel, Kate Schellenbach, on and on.
CD: Is there a goal you haven’t achieved yet?
AW: Oh yeah. God willing, you’ll see me for a while.
The All-Girl Boys Choir Tour Dates:
07/27/10: Girls Rock Camp – Austin, TX
07/28/10: Tulsa, OK
07/29/10: Outland Ballroom – Springfield, MO
07/30/10: White Water Tavern – Little Rock, AR
07/31/10: The Way Out Club – St. Louis, MO
08/01/10: Vaudeville Mews – Des Moines, IA
08/03/10: The Mill – Iowa City, IA
08/04/10: The Revolution – Toledo, OH
08/05/10: Melody Inn – Indianapolis, IN
08/06/10: Mac’s Bar – Lansing, MI
08/07/10: White’s – Saginaw, MI
08/12/10: PJ’s Lager House – Detroit, MI
08/13/10: Buckham Gallery – Flint, MI
08/14/10: The Cave – Chicago, IL
08/17/10: Cosmic Charlie’s – Lexington, KY
08/18/10: The Rutledge – Nashville, TN
08/20/10: The Double Wide – Dallas, TX
08/26/10: Super Happy Fun Land – Houston, TX
08/27/10: Riverside Warehouse – Shreveport, LA
09/02/10: Lenny’s Bar – Atlanta, GA
09/20/10: Trash Bar – Brooklyn, NY
Check out the video for The All-Girl Boys Choir tune “Western Star.”