Life is full of surprises, and sometimes, so is pop music. In recent weeks, it’s recovered its long-dormant ability to shock, or at least catch us off guard with the unlikely hit, or the unexpected comeback.
Several months ago, I never dreamed I would ever ask the question that is the title of this article. It had been more than twenty-five years since Lionel Richie’s commercial heyday, and on the charts, he had been succeeded by younger romantic leads in pop and R&B many times over (Babyface, Usher, Ne-Yo, among others).
Then came one of those surprise developments seldom seen in pop anymore: On Billboard magazine’s Top 200 album chart for the week following the March 26 release of Tuskegee, Richie’s first studio album since 2009’s Just Go (which didn’t make the US Top 20 and failed to go gold), he debuted at No. 2 with first-week sales of 199,000 copies, right behind Madonna’s latest, MDNA.
“I get high with a little help from my friends,” Ringo Starr sang on the Beatles‘ 1967 classic. These days, so do many of music’s top stars. Two’s company, and so is three and sometimes four. The more the merrier, the higher and higher they get.
On the charts, that is.
In the Top 40 of Billboard’s Hot 100 for the week ending December 10, seventeen songs were collaborations between separate recording entities. Four of them featured Drake, and three apiece featured Rihanna and Nicki Minaj, who both appeared on tracks with Drake and with each other. But will.i.am featuring Jennifer Lopez and Mick Jagger—and debuting at No. 36 with “T.H.E. (The Hardest Ever),” which the threesome performed on the November 20 American Music Awards—was probably the one that nobody saw coming.
Old-school Rolling Stones fans must be cringing at the idea of Jagger going anywhere near Lopez and will.i.am so soon after Maroon 5 featuring Christina Aguilera went to No. 1 by invoking his hallowed name on “Moves Like Jagger.” But for a sixty-something legend like him, hit records—even if in name only, a la Duck Sauce‘s GRAMMY-nominated “Barbra Streisand—are a near-impossible dream unless they’re in tandem with other, often younger, stars.
Few artists can include World War II veteran, jazz singer, painter and MTV fixture on their resume, but Tony Bennett has it sewn up. Almost twenty years after breaking through to the MTV generation and twice that in the industry, Bennett is relevant yet again with Duets II.
MTV Networks premiered Bennett’s duet of “Body and Soul” with the late, great Amy Winehouse (watch the video after the jump), and with another song recorded with the unstoppable Gaga, Duets II debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s top albums chart, selling 179,000 units in the first week and holding steady in the Top 5 on iTunes.
Two webisodes down, two to go! Over the last two weeks hundreds of fans have been buzzing around the Internet voicing their opinions about which OurStage artist reigns supreme on The OurStage Panel. Last week Austin Renfroe was crowned Fan Favorite of webisode 2 after over 500 people weighed in.
The fans are speaking, and will not go ignored. Watch today’s new webisode featuring Odelia, Katie Cole, Matt Bailie and Sleeperstar and let us know who YOU think is tops. Cast your vote in the poll on the OurStage Facebook page and speak your mind on Twitter using the #ourstagepanel hashtag (make sure to follow @OurStagePanel too!). We’ll tally up the responses and on Friday one artist will be named this week’s Fan Favorite.
The Fan Favorite from each week, four total, will then be thrown in the ring together for a final round of voting, and the winning artist will walk away with $1,000 of their own.
But that’s not all! By telling us your favorite each week on Facebook and Twitter you’ll automatically be entered to win a “Perfect Pair” of Tony Bennett Signature Edition Headphones from KOSS. What better way to listen to all the great music put forth by artists competition in The OurStage Panel?
When I first heard the news about Amy Winehouse‘s passing (on Twitter, naturally), the comment that stood out most was one by Winehouse herself in an interview that the singer had done a few years ago with my former Entertainment Weekly colleague Chris Willman. In it, Winehouse jokingly made a prediction that, in hindsight, isn’t very funny at all.
In 10 years, she said, “I’ll be dead in a ditch, on fire.” Sadly, for her many fans who had rode shotgun as she drove down the path of self-destruction, the “dead” part of her premonition was no joking matter. It was a distinct possibility, if not a certain probability, and one that came to pass on July 23, when Winehouse, who had infamously battled drug and alcohol addiction and had been in and out of rehab in recent years, was found dead in her London home.
The first thing I thought, after spending a moment to grieve for her family and loved ones, was that the world would be cheated out of so much great music. With Back to Black, her 2006 breakthrough album, Winehouse did so much more than show great promise. Hers already was a talent in full bloom. Back to Black was destined to go down as one of the all-time masterpieces. I was living in Buenos Aires at the time of its release, and I knew people who didn’t speak a word of English who could recite every line from every song.
It’s better to burn out than fade away. Live fast, die young. Leave a beautiful corpse. We’ve also all heard the one about how dying (especially before one’s time) is the best career move. I don’t know how beautiful Winehouse’s corpse will be, but she is guaranteed a spot in the pantheon of musical greats who left the party too soon.
Chillingly, she’ll be right beside the musical icons that she seemed to want to emulate most: Janis Joplin, a blue-eyed soulful precursor to whom she was often compared; Jimi Hendrix; Jim Morrison; and Kurt Cobain, all of whom died when they were the same age as Winehouse. If ever there were an unlucky number, it would have to be 27.
Unlike the legends who preceded Winehouse to an early grave and left behind so much incredible, indelible music, Winehouse bequeathed us with relatively few musical gifts. There are her two albums, 2003′s Frank and Back to Black, as well as a handful of one-off guest appearances on other people’s songs (Mark Ronson, Quincy Jones, and Tony Bennett, whose Duets II album in September will feature Winehouse). Sadly, her final impression will be a June concert in Belgrade, Serbia in which the apparently bombed singer stumbled and slurred her way through a few songs before being booed off the stage.
She had reportedly been working on new music for years, and at one point, was said to be on the verge of working with Roots drummer ?uestlove and producer/performer Raphael Saadiq on a project that had been delayed because of Winehouse’s trouble securing a U.S. travel visa due to her 2007 drug arrest for marijuana possession in Norway. So from here to eternity, all we’ll have to remember Winehouse by will be masterpieces of melancholy like “Love Is a Losing Game” and “Tears Dry on Their Own.” We’ll sing along, we’ll cry, we’ll look for clues to what was going on inside her troubled mind, to figure out why she was such a lost soul.
For you I was a flame
Love is a losing game
Five story fire as you came
Love is a losing game
From this day forth, Winehouse’s world-weary look of love will make Adele’s 21 sound like feel-good music. Speaking of Adele, Winehouse should have been where the “Rolling in the Deep” singer is now, reaping continued financial and critical benefits after a first rush of success. Now who’s going to fill her f**k me pumps (to quote the title of one of her early songs)?
Surprisingly, for all of her Grammys, accolades and albums sold, Winehouse only had one single resembling a hit in the U.S., “Rehab,” which went to No. 10 on Billboard’s Hot 100. I’ll never again be able to listen to the song in quite the same way, as a statement of bad-ass defiance. Now it will just sound like the words of a sad, desperate woman in denial and on the brink of collapse. If only she’d taken their advice.
It’s mid-march. Most of us in the US are starting to enjoy the first glimpses of Spring after maybe the most B.S. winter in years (especially for those of us in the Midwest, New England, the Mid-Atlantic… really everywhere but California and Florida. Hope you guys are enjoying your constant sunshine and beaches! Jerks). However, if you’re in Austin, TX, then your probably wading through the city and witnessing how downtown is knee deep with every indie band, promoter and A&R guy on the planet. Yes friends, it’s SXSW—that magical time of the year when the rest of us in the country wish they could keep it as weird as these residents of the Lone Star state. The nine day (!) event has grown since its ’87 birth from a relatively humble gathering of music enthusiasts into the single largest revenue generating event in the entire city per annum. It’s the one place where a tiny Brooklyn basement band can play the rowdiest set of their live and suddenly be a (blog) household name. And believe it or not, SXSW has turned 25 this year! So how did SXSW grow to be the entertainment behemoth that it is today?
SXSW started out as the collective twinkle in the eyes of four men; Louis Black (co-founder of the Austin Weekly), Nick Barbaro (publisher at the Austin Chronicle), Roland Swenson (writer at the Chronicle) and booking agent Louis Meyers. The event was meant to have regional appeal since Austin is and has always been a musical mecca but is separated geographically from other music hubs. There had been moves in the previous year to expand NYC New Music Conference out to Austin but those plans fell through. However, Black, Barbaro, Swenson and Meyers were inspired by the idea and pressed on with their own vision for an Austin–based music conference. Still, it was a surprise to all involved when the expected 150 attendants of the first South By turned out to be an estimate short by about 55o people. It was no small shindig though. One hundred and seventy-two bands turned out, with big sets from Dash Rip Rock and the Reverend Horton Heat.
Since then, the fest has been steadily growing in size and in profile year in and year out. The early ’90s seem to have been a wild time for the rambunctious festival. Still hosting 400+ bands nearly every year but flying under the mainstream radar for the most part, the event experienced some growing pains. 1991 turned out especially nasty due to an influx of spring break college kids—this resulted in crackdowns from the fire marshall which in turn led to a number of cancelled shows and hastily rescheduled gigs in hotel conference rooms. In 1993, another memorable year, Bushwick Bill of rap group The Geto Boys was verbally and almost physically assaulted by attendants at the hip hop panel.
In 1994, SXSW added films into the mix (the Film and Multimedia Conference is now known as the Film and Interactive Conferences). The next year saw the profile of South By grow even more with the shuttering of the NYC New Music Seminar. However, even this period of prosperity wasn’t unmarred as Billboard began a decade-long tradition of not acknowledging the conference. The late ’90s saw more success for the festival with landmark sets in ’97 from Tony Bennett (nobody showed up because everybody thought it was going to be a mob scene) and The Flaming Lips infamous “Parking Lot Symphony” in which frontman Wayne Coyne arranged 30 cars to play 30 cassettes simultaneously. Uh, artsy? Two-thousand attendees thought so.
The aughts have been good for the conference for sure. If there was any indication of SXSW finally hitting the mainstream—though F.Y.I., Pepsi and BMI first sponsored the conference in 1991–2005— then the keynote address delivered by none other than Robert Plant and The Real World: Austin kids heading out to the shows to shoot a SXSW Rock Doc for MTV are pretty good signs. Last year was notable in that the number of band entrants for the music conference passed the 13,000 mark— and the interactive portion actually surpassed the number of entrants to the Music conference for the first time. Now, of the 13,020 music conference entrants only 1,978 of those acts were accepted and actually played. That’s a lot of bands and a lot of fretful decisions about whose set to blow off, but consider the math. A little over 15% of all bands that apply for a gig get accepted. It’s official: In the twenty five years of their existence SXSW has gone from Animal House to the Ivy Leagues.
So who’s hitting up the conference this year? (We can’t, stuck in the office… grrrrr) The lineup, as usual, looks both fantastic and diverse with James Blake, TV on the Radio, Odd Future, The Antlers, Bright Eyes, Skrillex, and some of OurStage’s own—including Lady Lamb the Beekeeper, Lelia Broussard, Blacklisted Individuals, Andrew Belle, Geographer— and many more hitting various stages. A list of all the bands playing SXSW can be viewed HERE, but fair warning, it’s pretty daunting. If you’re not going to South By this year but want a taste of the experience, check out this time lapse video from SXSW 2009. It’ll give you a pretty good sense of the craziness.