Career Killers: “Soul Dancing” by Taylor Dayne

It’s easy to forget, but at one point, Taylor Dayne was one of the biggest pop stars in the world. And for many years, it was Dayne and not Swift who was the one and only Tay Tay (you know, unless you count John Taylor, Mick Taylor, Roger Taylor of Queen, Roger Taylor of Duran Duran, James Taylor, Taylor Hanson or Taylor Hicks).

Dayne was a juggernaut from the moment she burst onto the scene in 1987, starting her career with nine consecutive Billboard Top 20 hits. In fact, each of her first seven singles hit the Top 10, including “Love Will Lead You Back,” which went to #1. She also charted well in Canada, Australia and the U.K., while several of her singles were big hits on the Billboard Dance charts. With her deep, soulful voice and dynamic range, she could seamlessly excel at a wide range of songs, including pop, R&B and ballads. In doing so, she amassed a large and devoted fan base — one that continues to support her to this day.

As the 90s got underway, it was clear that Taylor Dayne was a hit machine and pop star. What wasn’t clear, however, was whether she was an artist. Like her label-mate, Whitney Houston, Dayne’s first two albums were made up of songs from outside writers and handpicked by Arista boss Clive Davis for maximum commercial impact. For her third album, 1993’s Soul Dancing, Dayne was determined to prove she had the songwriting chops to go with her vocal and chart topping prowess.

It turns out that she did not.

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Career Killers: “Mötley Crüe”

For most of the 1980s and early 90s, Mötley Crüe were riding high — both literally and figuratively. The band recorded and toured relentlessly, earning them a devoted fan base and a string of multi-platinum albums, hit singles and popular videos.

Off stage, they engaged in enough debauchery that their VH1 Behind the Music episode almost singlehandedly turned that series into a hit while setting the stage for their best-selling tell-all autobiography, The Dirt (adapted into a Netflix movie in 2019). Nothing could stop them. Not lead singer Vince Neil getting into an accident while drunk and killing his passenger, Hanoi Rocks drummer Nicholas “Razzle” Dingley. Not bassist and primary songwriter Nikki Sixx OD-ing on heroin, being pronounced dead, revived with adrenaline, and then OD-ing again. Not Sixx and drummer Tommy Lee alleging raping a woman at a party (Sixx later claimed he may have embellished or made up the story during a low point in his life). Not guitarist Mick Mars suffering from a debilitating form of arthritis for most of his adult life. Everything they touched seemed to turn to gold (or more accurately, platinum) and if it didn’t, it was probably because they wanted to snort, drink or screw it. In a word, they were bulletproof.

In 1992, that all came crashing down. The band was coming off the dual successes of 1989’s Dr. Feelgood and 1991’s greatest hits compilation Decade of Decadence and were hard at work on their next album when Neil quit/was fired. The band promptly hired John Corabi, lead singer and rhythm guitarist of L.A. band The Scream and set about working on what would become 1994’s self titled album. With the music industry changing around them, the newly inspired Crüe updated their sound and recorded a bunch of songs that were heavier, both lyrically and musically, than anything they had ever done before. They were confident that Mötley Crüe was their best album ever and would open up a new chapter in the band’s already successful history.

And then they learned a valuable lesson about what happens when you mess with the formula.

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Career Killers: “Do You Know” by Jessica Simpson

When MTV’s Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica went off the air in 2005, Jessica Simpson had the world in the palm of her hands.

The addictive show became a pop culture phenomenon, thanks in large part to Simpson’s ditzy but endearing persona. Whether it was not knowing that “Chicken of the Sea” was a metaphor, thinking Buffalo wings actually came from buffaloes or blaming her inability to hit a golf ball on her Mae West-like features, Simpson’s simple but good-natured demeanor – to say nothing of her covergirl looks – allowed her to become a bona fide superstar while launching legions of reality show wannabes and copycats. Her then-current album, In This Skin, sold 5 million copies worldwide making it her best-selling record of all time, and she landed plum acting roles like Daisy Duke in The Dukes of Hazzard (2005). After divorcing Nick Lachey less than a year after the end of their reality show, there was nothing holding Simpson back anymore. She seemed poised to become a true double-threat, joining the likes of J-Lo, Beyonce and Cher as an A-lister on both the silver screen and airwaves.

By 2008, however, she was hanging by a thread. Thanks to poor performances and modest box office returns, Simpson’s Hollywood career was deader than David Caruso’s. Her music career, meanwhile, was also on life support – threatening to go the way of her show, marriage and sister post-SNL. So she did what many artists have tried to do: reinvent herself in order to stay relevant.

With the release of her first (and to date, only) country album, 2008’s Do You Know, she was certainly able to reinvent herself. Unfortunately, it also killed off her music career, forcing her to reinvent herself yet again — this time as an ultimately successful fashion maven.

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Career Killers: “Hot Space” by Queen

Plenty of artists like to experiment with new sounds and different genres. Sometimes it’ll be a temporary or one-time thing, like when KISS tried disco (I’m sorry, KISSco), the Rolling Stones went psychedelic or Garth Brooks kind-of went pop.

Other times, it’ll be a catalyst for long-term re-invention. Chicago had a surprise hit with “If You Leave Me Now” and they continued writing songs of that ilk, transitioning from a jazz-and-big-band-influenced rock group into an adult contemporary band. The Bee Gees resurrected their careers and eventually became a full-fledged dance band after recording “Jive Talkin’.” Less successful bands like The Goo Goo Dolls, Sugar Ray and Smash Mouth embraced their black-sheep hits and permanently changed directions in order to continue churning out similar-sounding singles and albums.

We’ll never know if Hot Space was meant as a permanent shift for Queen because it flopped so hard that the band promptly retreated back to more familiar territory – but not before tanking their popularity in America.

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Career Killers: “Liz Phair”

Plenty of artists with cult followings go mainstream and become popular.

R.E.M. went from highly-regarded college band to one of the biggest and most acclaimed groups in the world. Metallica slowly and steadily built up a passionate fan base that kept growing in size and intensity until they exploded in popularity in the early 90s. Genesis established itself as a highly inventive artistic and progressive rock band before transitioning to FM superstardom.

In fact, these days, many “indie” acts are actually mainstream and do all sorts of things that bands like Fugazi and artists like Neil Young would have considered “selling out.” Allowing your music to be used in commercials, TV shows and movies? Check. Praising pop stars and being influenced by their hit songs? Check. Working with hit-making producers and songwriters? Check and check.

Yet when indie queen Liz Phair did all those things in 2003, she provoked a furious, almost personal backlash that tanked her career. Maybe she was simply a few years too early. Or maybe she was never going to succeed because the same factors that led to her rise helped keep her down.

Or maybe it was because her self-titled 2003 album wasn’t as good as it could have been.

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Career Killers: “Schizophrenic” by J.C. Chasez

When it comes to transitioning from a boyband to a successful solo career, the rule of Highlander is typically in effect: There can be only one.

In other words, boybands rarely produce multiple solo stars. For instance, Gary Barlow and Mark Owen both launched solo careers after the first Take That breakup, but neither of them made much of an impact – at least not compared to their fired colleague, Robbie Williams, who became one of the biggest pop stars of the 00’s. Nick Lachey and Jeff Timmons of 98 Degrees both released solo albums, but whereas the former had one big hit and one theme song that became fairly ubiquitous, I had to look up Wikipedia to remember the latter. Meanwhile, it might be too early to write One Direction’s epitaph, but it looks like Harry Styles is going to be the only real star to emerge from that group (sorry Zayn).

A couple of bands have bucked this rule. New Edition spawned multiple successful solo careers, but even then, only one member had more than one successful album. And of course, Michael Jackson completely eclipsed his brothers, something that, apparently, stuck in Jermaine’s craw – despite the fact that Jermaine managed a couple of gold albums and a handful of Top Ten singles.

So J.C. Chasez was already behind the 8-ball when he embarked on his solo career following NSYNC’s breakup. Bandmate Justin Timberlake had beaten him to the punch, releasing the popular and well-regarded Justified in 2002. That album, which would go on to be certified triple-platinum by the RIAA, was filled with infectious pop/R&B hits, funky beats and ear worms that allowed Timberlake to immediately establish himself as a solo superstar.

But if anyone could rise to the occasion, it was Chasez. The best singer in NSYNC and, possibly, out of all of the late 90’s/early 00’s boybands (Timberlake even admitted as much), Chasez had charisma, good looks, dancing chops and a proven track record. All he needed was to link up with the right producers and songwriters the way Timberlake had when he worked with the Neptunes and Timbaland for Justified and Chasez would be well-placed to break the Highlander curse.

Unfortunately for him, he recorded Schizophrenic.

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Career Killers: “On Every Street” by Dire Straits

There are two types of “one man bands” in rock music. There are literal examples like Nine Inch Nails, World Party or Five For Fighting, which each consist of one permanent member and are, essentially, solo vehicles in all but name. Foo Fighters started out as a one man band before Dave Grohl decided to make it into an actual group.

Then there are the bands where one member does, virtually, all of the work. John Fogerty was the primary songwriter, lead singer and lead guitarist for Creedence Clearwater Revival. Same with Kurt Cobain for Nirvana, Billy Corgan for Smashing Pumpkins and Syd Barrett for Pink Floyd. Meanwhile, The Cure’s Robert Smith sings, writes, plays guitar, bass, keyboards and other instruments, produces the albums, and decides who will stand with him on stage. Usually what happens is either the other members of the band get fed up and quit or the person in charge realizes he or she doesn’t need the others and goes solo.

For Dire Straits, both of those things happened.

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Career Killers: “Synchronicity” by The Police

Most of the time, an album that kills off a career is either a critical failure, a commercial flop, or both. Rarely is it a smashing success that captures an artist or band at their absolute peak. And it’s almost never an album that establishes an act as the biggest in the world – putting them at the level of The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin or even The Beatles. After all, that kind of an album usually prolongs rather than shortens careers.

That makes Synchronicity by The Police the rare example of an album that both made, and destroyed, a band.

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Career Killers: “18 ‘Til I Die” by Bryan Adams

Plenty of musicians have successfully reinvented themselves – arguably, all great artists have to do it in order to sustain long careers and remain relevant. Radiohead went from Nirvana wannabes to fearless experimentalists. The Beastie Boys stopped doing hardcore punk and became world-famous rappers. U2 changed up their sound in the 1990s, successfully going from fading force to culturally relevant powerhouse while perfecting a template that many others continue to follow. Heck, Madonna has made it into an art form to the point where successful reinvention has become part of her overall brand.

But what about artists that fight reinvention, either because they’re determined to stick to their guns and continue doing what they had always done (and been quite successful at) or because they aren’t ready to become the thing that they know they will have to?

Bryan Adams, I’m looking in your direction.

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Career Killers: “Switch” by INXS

Plenty of bands choose to soldier on after the death of an iconic, seemingly-irreplaceable lead singer.

Brian May and Roger Taylor of Queen went with established singers, touring and recording with Paul Rodgers of Bad Company fame before moving onto “American Idol” alum Adam Lambert. AC/DC took the opposite approach, hiring then-unknown Brian Johnson to replace Bon Scott. The Eagles did a bit of both, replacing Glenn Frey with country superstar Vince Gill, as well as novice musician and Frey’s own son, Deacon. Bands such as Alice in Chains, Stone Temple Pilots, Sublime, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and even the Grateful Dead have carried on in some form, with mixed results.

Other bands chose not to try and replace the irreplaceable. Nirvana broke up after Kurt Cobain died by suicide – as did Mother Love Bone following Andy Wood’s fatal heroin overdose (although two members of the band ended up forming Pearl Jam). The surviving members of The Doors continued as a trio after Jim Morrison’s death, releasing two uneven albums on their own before calling it a day. On the other hand, Chicago decided not to break up after Terry Kath’s death and became an adult-contemporary powerhouse under Peter Cetera in the 1980s. And perhaps the most famous example is New Order, which formed out of the ashes of Joy Division after frontman Ian Curtis’s death, and achieved more fame and success than its predecessor.

Then there are some bands that give it a go with new singers, only to flop badly, ruin their legacy and confirm to everyone that they should have just let their band die with their late vocalist.

INXS was one such band.

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Career Killers: “The Final Cut” by Pink Floyd

When we think of the most accomplished and popular rock bands, they tend to have one or two people in charge – usually the songwriters. Glenn Frey called it “song power” and used it to explain the power dynamics in The Eagles:

“A rock band is not a perfect democracy. It’s more like a sports team. No one can do anything without the other guys, but everybody doesn’t get to touch the ball all the time.”

Glenn Frey, History of the Eagles.

History tells us that, at some point, the other guys in the band will often get fed up with being in the background and either leave the band or raise such a stink that they get some concessions. Stu Cook and Doug Clifford forced John Fogerty to let them write songs for a Creedence Clearwater Revival album with disastrous results. Jason Newsted quit Metallica. Alan Wilder left Depeche Mode while Dave Gahan threatened to unless he was allowed to write songs for the band’s albums. As for the Eagles, Frey and Don Henley may have been happy in their roles as was benevolent dictators, but others in the band, particularly Don Felder and Joe Walsh, resented being underlings and this underlying tension was one of the main reasons why the band broke up.

Pink Floyd was no different, and when things finally came to a head in the early 1980s, it touched off years of litigation, decades of inconsistent artistic output from all parties involved, and sustained personal enmity and hatred that not even the promise of a triumphant one-off reunion at the biggest charity concert of the 2000s could fully fix.

This is the album that started all of that.

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Career Killers: “Van Halen III”

September 4, 1996. The MTV Video Music Awards are in full swing and the evening is full of historical moments. 2Pac, in his last televised appearance before his death, announced the formation of Death Row East – a provocative incursion onto rival turf at the height of east/west tensions in the hip hop world. A then-unknown No Doubt rocked the pre-show, serving notice to the musical world as to what was to come. A reeling Smashing Pumpkins gave one of their first performances since touring keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin overdosed on heroin and died the previous July. 

But the moment that had everyone talking was a reunion over ten years in the making, and one that fans, music executives, MTV personnel and fellow musicians had been dying for. When David Lee Roth walked out on stage with the other members of Van Halen, it was the first time he, Eddie Van Halen, Michael Anthony and Alex Van Halen had stood together on stage in over a decade. The four had made magic together, establishing Van Halen as one of the greatest and most loved bands of its era. In 1985, at the height of its popularity, Van Halen and Roth parted ways amidst plenty of recriminations and bad feelings. Sammy Hagar had taken over and had done great business for Van Halen. But Roth was the one that we all wanted to see again (heck, in the weeks leading up to the show, MTV ran a 45 second spot featuring some of Dave’s greatest music video moments set to the “Welcome Back Kotter” theme). By appearing together at the VMAs, the classic lineup was surely going to let the past be the past and record a kick-ass record that would restore them to supremacy in a musical world increasingly dominated by alternative music and hip-hop.

Instead, we got Van Halen III.

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Career Killers: “The Long Run” by The Eagles

Plenty of bands fail to follow up a career-defining album. Fleetwood Mac decided to experiment on Tusk and ended up selling only a fraction of what Rumours did. Hootie and the Blowfish rushed out their second album, Fairweather Johnson, and cemented their legacy as a “one album wonder.” Smile, the Beach Boys’ attempt to follow up Pet Sounds, broke Brian Wilson and sent the band into a long decline.

But none of those records caused the band, itself, to break up. None of those records saw a band crack so completely and thoroughly from the pressure of following up one of the most popular and critically acclaimed albums of all time. None of those records caused a rift so wide and so seemingly irreparable that, when it came time to release the contractually obligated post-breakup greatest hits compilations or live albums, band members wouldn’t even be able to be in the same state as one another, let alone communicate without going through lawyers. None of those records poisoned the well so thoroughly that band members said they’d reunite when hell froze over.

None of those records were The Long Run.

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Career Killers: “St. Anger” by Metallica

It’s been said that great art comes out of great suffering or adversity. Eric Clapton produced his masterpiece, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs while nursing a crippling heroin addiction and hopelessly in love with his best friend’s wife. Francis Ford Coppola had a nervous breakdown and allegedly threatened to kill himself multiple times while filming his classic film, Apocalypse Now. Ludwig van Beethoven composed some of his best and most-admired works after going deaf and while suffering from terrible health problems. Vincent van Gogh was, perhaps, the archetype of the tortured artist, battling mental illness for most of his career (including the infamous episode where he cut off his own ear) and produced some of the most beloved paintings in history.

Of course, sometimes, great suffering or adversity ends up producing crap – crap so bad that the artist is never quite the same afterwards. Case in point: St. Anger by Metallica.

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Career Killers: “The Spaghetti Incident?” and “Sympathy for the Devil” by Guns N’ Roses

When Guns N’ Roses announced they were releasing an album of (mostly) punk covers in 1993 to tide fans over until the next original album came out, it made perfect sense. The Gunners had always been a great covers band (for my money, their rendition of “Live and Let Die” was better than Sir Paul’s and their version of “Whole Lotta Rosie” kicks all kinds of ass) and this project promised to see them return to the kind of stripped-down, straightforward rock sound that had made them famous. Given their unsteady work ethic, any record from Axl and the boys was a good thing. Meanwhile, they were so popular and big at the time that they could have farted out an album of Osmond Family covers and it would have gone multiplatinum. Surely, whatever they did wouldn’t compromise their careers and lead to a spectacular self-implosion – of which the band still hasn’t fully recovered from, right?

Well…

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