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Career Killers

Career Killers: “Be Here Now” by Oasis

I read several articles commemorating Oasis’ mammoth 1997 album, Be Here Now, which was recently celebrated its 25th anniversary. The consensus has long been that this bloated, overproduced, self-indulgent, chemically non-enhanced album is what ended Oasis as a major commercial force and may have even killed off the Britpop phenomenon. As Rolling Stone famously put it, Be Here Now is “a concept album about how long all the songs are.”

Then I saw this review. Fatherly called Be Here Now a “perfect album” but not in terms of quality. Instead, this critic argues that the album was a perfect encapsulation of where the band was at the time and a honest reflection of everything they stood for. To me, that sounds a bit like arguing that The Room is a perfect movie because it flawlessly captures Tommy Wiseau’s delusions of grandeur and limitations as a filmmaker.

I don’t know if I buy that argument. But this album was perfect in one sense — it was a perfect disaster.

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Career Killers: “Girl You Know It’s True” by Milli Vanilli

Imagine a world in the multiverse where MTV had produced a show in the late 80s/early 90s called “All or Nothing.” Introducing actors Rob Pilatus and Fabrice Morvan, the show follows two best friends from Europe as they form a band called “Milli Vanilli” and try to land a recording contract while navigating the strange land known as Hollywood, California. Along the way, they meet the women of their dreams and frantically try to track to them down because the girls forgot their numbers (even after they advised them “baby don’t“). And they have to convince a producer to give them a second chance after they missed an audition and blamed it on the rain. Girl, you know it’s true!

Maybe then we would have accepted Morvan and Pilatus lip syncing to songs other people sang and recorded. After all, famous actors like Natalie Wood, Audrey Hepburn and Christopher Plummer didn’t actually sing in West Side Story, My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music, respectively. Decades later, Rami Malek would win an Oscar for lip-syncing to Freddie Mercury’s vocals in Bohemian Rhapsody. Additionally, TV shows like The Monkees, The Partridge Family and The Heights often used studio musicians and singers on the recordings that were utilized on the show.

Instead, we got an industry-changing scandal that ruined the lives and careers of the two men who made up Milli Vanilli and helped kill off the popularity of producer-driven R&B/pop dance bands in the 90s.

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Career Killers: “Talk Show” by The Go-Go’s

I’m not the biggest Billy Corgan fan, but there are times where he can be very insightful and thoughtful. For instance, in a 2017 interview with Joe Rogan, Corgan talked about how the original Smashing Pumpkins imploded and why a lot of it stemmed from the fact that he, as the main songwriter, made a lot more money than his bandmates.

According to him, one day, early in the band’s history, some record label folks took Corgan to breakfast and explained to him some of the realities of the music business. “They said: ‘Songwriters in bands make a lot more money, so our suggestion is you should share your songs with your bandmates to keep a democratic stasis.’ I was like ‘Hell no, I’m not giving them my work.'” he said. “Fast forward four years later, I’m making a lot more money than them, and that sews discontent.”

According to Corgan, being the main songwriter had another effect besides the financial — he was now seen as the genius auteur and his bandmates were seen as nothing more than his backup. “We’d get into a room with journalists and they would just talk to me. Then we would get out of the interview and the band members would yell at me for them not being asked questions,” he said. “It’s like an erosion factor. You don’t appreciate it from within, there’s a lot of compression and money and stuff going on, then one day it hollows out. And then it’s too late and you can’t just sit down and have a meeting because the wounds are too deep.”

Perhaps if he had taken a page from R.E.M.’s book, things would have gone better. When R.E.M. first started out, Peter Buck insisted on splitting the songwriting royalties equally. According to Band Together: Internal Dynamics in U2, R.E.M. Radiohead and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, by Mirit Eliraz, Buck didn’t want the band to end up like Creedence Clearwater Revival and others and recognized that this was the best way to ensure no one got the short end of the stick. Plus, in his mind, the band’s songs were just that — even though members composed songs individually, they would work together to improve them and make sure they met the band’s high standards. Other groups have taken a similar approach, including U2 and the Red Hot Chili Peppers (who write songs that arise out of group jam sessions), and Radiohead and Coldplay, where one person dominates the creative process but willingly shares credit to keep the peace.

Instead, the original Pumpkins joined a long list of bands that have split up because of songwriting royalty disputes. CCR famously imploded after the other three members got fed up with John Fogerty writing all of the songs and wanted some of that credit (and publishing money) for themselves. Levon Helm went to his grave believing Robbie Robertson had cheated him and the others in The Band out of songwriting royalties. Jane’s Addiction almost broke up before its debut album was released because of a royalty dispute. Spandau Ballet spent most of the 90s in court after three members of the band claimed they had an agreement with guitarist and main songwriter Gary Kemp to split the royalties, something Kemp, obviously, denied.

And then there’s The Go-Go’s. The band was barely hanging on by a thread by the time of its 1984 album Talk Show. A songwriting dispute proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back.

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Career Killers: The MTV Video Music Awards

The MTV Video Music Awards are this weekend. The only reason why I know that is because I’ve been wanting to write this column and looked up when the awards ceremony would be this year so I could post it beforehand.

That’s the extent of my knowledge of MTV and today’s music scene. I can’t remember the last time I actually tuned in to watch.

It’s easy to understand how someone like me could be so apathetic. MTV hasn’t played videos in years and doesn’t even stand for “Music Television” anymore, it’s fair to ask whether the Video Music Awards have outlived their usefulness.

It’s also a reminder of what the show used to mean. Edgier and hipper than the Grammys, the VMAs used to be mandatory viewing for anyone who liked music. Additionally, so many great, memorable and controversial moments happened on the show that you felt like you missed out if you didn’t experience it as it aired. Madonna writhing around on stage in a wedding dress. Prince giving us “Under the Full Moon” the sequel to Under the Cherry Moon that we didn’t know existed. Eddie Van Halen and David Lee Roth burying the hatchet — in each other. Kanye being Kanye. The list goes on and on.

And, of course, there have been plenty of less-than-stellar moments. Some have even managed to kill off an artist’s or band’s careers. Here are some of the biggest ones:

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Career Killers: “Twelve Months, Eleven Days” by Gary Barlow

You’d think that being the primary frontman of a boyband would be an excellent platform for solo superstardom. After all, it’s your voice on all those hit singles and your face getting the most screen-time in music videos. Indeed, Jackson Five frontman Michael Jackson and NSYNC co-lead singer Justin Timberlake were able to parlay their group dominance into individual success. If you consider Wham! to be a boy band (I’m not sure, to be honest), then George Michael is another example.

But others weren’t able to find much success outside of their groups. Ralph Tresvant sang lead on most of New Edition’s hit singles, but only managed two hits on his own. That was one better than either Jordan Knight of New Kids on the Block or Nick Lachey of 98 Degrees managed outside of their popular groups. And, of course, we’ve covered NSYNC co-leader J.C. Chasez’s solo debut album, which flopped so badly it ended his bid for stardom before it really began.

Then there’s the curious case of Gary Barlow. The Take That frontman was a fantastic singer who sang lead on almost all of his band’s songs. And whereas most boybands relied on outside songwriters, Barlow wrote or co-wrote nine Top 10 UK hits, including five #1 singles, during the band’s initial run from 1991 to 1996. When he went solo in 1996, the British media immediately anointed him as the next George Michael. Success was not only expected, it was preordained.

As such, that only made what eventually happened all the more shocking. In 2000, barely four years after Take That’s breakup, Barlow suffered the ignominy of being dropped by his label, all but ending his solo career. Worse, he had to watch as bandmate-turned-nemesis Robbie Williams wrote songs attacking him and making fun of his misfortune en route to becoming one of the best-selling artists in the world.

Where did it all go wrong? It started with his second album, Twelve Months, Eleven Days.

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Career Killers: “Take My Breath Away,” by Berlin

With Top Gun: Maverick flying up to the top of the box office charts, I figured it was worth looking at the first movie — specifically, the iconic song that everyone associates with it (besides “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” and “Danger Zone” of course).

As we’ve established, sometimes blockbuster hits can tear a band apart. For instance, a smash album featuring several massive singles wasn’t enough to keep the The Police from succumbing to years of public and private in-fighting. The Verve imploded right after releasing its best and most popular album, 1997’s Urban Hymns. “Mr. Roboto” gave Styx one of its biggest hit singles, but the song (and resulting concept album) tore the band apart to the point that when members reunited years later (sans the guy who wrote the song and most of the album in question), they refused to play it in concert for years.

In a similar vein, “Take My Breath Away” was a smash hit, topping the singles charts in the U.S., U.K., Netherlands, Ireland and Belgium and winning an Academy Award for Best Original Song in 1986 (beating other iconic songs like “Somewhere Out There” and “Glory of Love“). And it led to the breakup of the band credited with recording it: Berlin.

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Career Killers: The Super Bowl Halftime Show

If you go by the Nielsen ratings (which measures households), 19 of the 30 highest-rated programs in United States history are Super Bowls. If you look at average viewership, then the big game accounts for 28 of the top 30.

Either way you slice it, the Super Bowl is a proven ratings draw that provides a massive stage for players, performers and ad buyers.

As such, it’s no wonder that the Super Bowl halftime performance slot has become a highly sought-after gig for many musical acts.

When done right, the show can transcend the game and become an indelible part of the zeitgeist. In 2002, for instance, U2 gave a moving performance memorializing the people who lost their lives in the September 11 attacks and helped provide a moment of healing for a nation still in mourning. Prince, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Madonna and Beyoncé reaffirmed their status as superstars while younger contemporaries like Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Bruno Mars made a case for themselves to join their ranks.

When done wrong, however, the show can kill off an artist’s career. After all, it’s one thing to have a bad night, but to do so with the whole world watching?

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Career Killers: “Garth Brooks In… The Life of Chris Gaines”

The year is 1999 and Garth Brooks seems bored.

The best-selling male artist of the 90s (only Celine Dion and Mariah Carey outsold him during that decade), Brooks has seemingly figured out the formula for enduring commercial success. All he has to do is come up with 10 songs or so, pose for the album cover in his best Stetson, put on an entertaining live show and watch the money pour in. Indeed, every one of his proper studio albums has gone Diamond up to that point, and the only one that fell short was a lightly-promoted Christmas album that came out in the summer of 1992 and eventually became a staple of the cutout bin. Of course, this being Garth Brooks, that record still managed to go triple platinum and is one of the best-selling Christmas albums of all time.

Most artists would have sold their souls to have experienced a fraction of the success that had become routine for Brooks. Certainly most artists would have been perfectly content to run that formula into the ground in order to keep that conveyor belt going for as long as possible. But Brooks seemed eager for a new challenge. He talked about retiring so that he could raise his children. He signed a minor league deal and played in spring training for the San Diego Padres.

And in September 1999, he made the decision to cross over into pop-rock. Kind of. It’s still really confusing — even 22 years later.

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Career Killers: “Around the Sun” by R.E.M.

Some bands like to celebrate 20th anniversaries. Some like to wait for 30. Some, like U2, do both (Achtung Baby got a 20th anniversary rerelease in 2011 and a 30th anniversary one is scheduled for December).

For R.E.M., 25 seems to be the magic number. To date, the band has issued special commemorative 25th anniversary versions for each of its first ten studio albums. The most recent one was for its 1996 classic, New Adventures in Hi-Fi (I bought the vinyl version).

It’ll be interesting to see whether their next five albums will get the same anniversary treatment. Released after drummer Bill Berry’s departure, the last five albums of R.E.M.’s career (Up, Reveal, Around the Sun, Accelerate, Collapse Into Now) are not widely loved or respected and clearly show a band in decline. No longer the creative or commercial force they once were, R.E.M.’s Three-Legged Dog Era (after lead singer Michael Stipe’s quote describing the state of the band after losing one of its founding members) still produced some good music and memorable performances.

Unfortunately, it also produced Around the Sun.

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Career Killers: “No Code” by Pearl Jam

There were several reasons why Neil Young got the moniker “Godfather of Grunge.”

His 1979 album, Rust Never Sleeps, featured a highly distorted guitar sound that proved to be very influential with several major grunge musicians, including Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder.

Young would become a close collaborator and mentor to Pearl Jam, performing, working and touring together throughout the 90s and 00s. Young even helped inspire the name “Pearl Jam.” According to Rolling Stone, guitarist Stone Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament were already considering using the word “Pearl” in their band’s name, and after attending a Young show in 1991 that featured several long instrumental jams, something clicked.

But it wasn’t just his music that was inspirational. Long known as an artist who refused to play by anyone else’s rules, Young was famous, or perhaps infamous, for making music for artistic reasons without regard for commercial success. In fact, his label once pressured Young for a rock album and he delivered a collection of rockabilly songs (they didn’t specify what kind of rock they wanted). His label then sued him for making music that was “not commercial” and “musically uncharacteristic” of his previous recordings.

Pearl Jam would take a page from Young’s book for its fourth album, 1996’s No Code. The more experimental, less mainstream and barely promoted album ended their run of commercial dominance and abruptly halted their seemingly inevitable march towards becoming the biggest band in the world. However, it may have also saved them.

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Career Killers: “Door to Door” by The Cars

Many artists have done the “back to basics” album at some point in their careers.

Sometimes, there are legitimate artistic reasons for this. Maybe they’ve been experimenting with new sounds for too long and felt like there was nowhere else to go. For instance, U2 seemed to hit the electronic wall following Pop, resulting in their back-to-basics follow up, All That You Can’t Leave Behind.

Or maybe they veered too hard into commercial territory, got backlash from their hardcore fans, and decided to get back to their roots. This was the stated purpose for Metallica’s St. Anger album, until lots of other things got in the way. Ultimately, their follow up albums, 2008’s Death Magnetic and 2016’s Hardwired… To Self Destruct were more in line with their 80s classic sound.

But sometimes, a “back to basics” album is a “Hail Mary” — a desperate ploy from an artist to stop his or her decline, or from a band to paper over some cracks and avoid a breakup. The proposed Get Back album and movie project for the Beatles turned out to be examples of this, as the band broke up before either were released (we’ll get to see some of that footage in November, when Peter Jackson’s documentary is released on Disney+).

Likewise, Door to Door (1987) marked the moment The Cars broke down and got put on concrete blocks, ending their run as hitmakers and exacerbating personal conflicts between members that broke them up for the better part of two decades.

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Career Killers: “In Pursuit of Leisure” by Sugar Ray

Prince was right about a lot of things. It is easier 2 use the numeral “2” instead of the words “too” or “to” (and U definitely save time using the letter “U” instead of the word “you”). Changing your name to an unpronounceable symbol can be an effective way of getting out of a record contract.

And he knew 1999 was going to be a party.

Many of the biggest artists that year were primarily about fun and brought the good times and vibes. Boy bands and pop princesses were starting to dominate the charts and airwaves, while Latino dance artists like Ricky Martin, Enrique Iglesias and Jennifer Lopez were exploding in popularity. Grunge was dead and upbeat rock groups like Smash Mouth, the Goo Goo Dolls, Barenaked Ladies and Third Eye Blind all had a banner year in 1999.

Arguably, none of those rock bands were as big that year as Sugar Ray.

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Career Killers: “Alone Again” by Biz Markie

A bit of a departure for me on this one. I wrote an ABA Journal cover story in 2019 looking at songs that changed the law. The issue of sampling has become an important one when it comes to copyright law. A major reason why was because of two 1991 cases. I spotlighted the first: a lawsuit filed by members of 60s era band The Turtles against hip hop group De La Soul. I decided to take a look at the second one, which involves the recently deceased rapper Biz Markie.

When the Diabolical Biz Markie died in July, many publications made sure to emphasize that he was more than just a one hit wonder. Widely known for his big personality and sense of humor, the “Clown Prince of Hip Hop” (he once recorded a song about picking his nose called “Pickin’ Boogers” – either that or “Weird Al” Yankovic’s “Gotta Boogie,” is the best song ever written about nose doo-doo) was a highly influential rapper who was beloved in hip hop circles and by his fans.

But the fact remains that most people only knew him by his big hit, 1989’s “Just a Friend.” A major reason why he never had another was because of a lawsuit that helped set a precedent in the then-grey area of sampling.

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Career Killers: “Witness” by Katy Perry

It’s strange to think that Katy Perry’s career as a major pop superstar could be over.

Between 2008 and 2016, Perry released three multi-platinum albums and amassed 18 Top 30 singles as a lead artist, including nine #1 hits. Her 2010 album, Teenage Dream, produced a record-tying 5 number one singles (only Michael Jackson’s Bad has managed to match that). She’s been credited with selling 143 million records worldwide, putting her ahead of Bruce Springsteen, Metallica, Lady Gaga, Adele, Britney Spears and many others.

That track record of sustained success should have protected her career from being completely derailed by one flop. And yet, plenty of critics and observers wrote her off after 2017’s Witness, with some even wondering if her decline marked the end of an era in pop music. Perry’s career choices since then have only seemed to confirm that her best days are behind her. In 2018, she went to the place where many music careers go when they’re on life support — the judge’s table at American Idol. Then, she did what a lot of over-the-hill pop stars do when they start to transition to being a nostalgic act: she announced a Las Vegas residency, which is scheduled to begin in December. Meanwhile, her 2020 album, Smile, landed without much fanfare and became her worst-selling record since her 2001 self-titled Christian music debut, when she was still known as Katy Hudson.

So what happened?

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Career Killers: “Results May Vary” by Limp Bizkit

What was the talk of this year’s Lollapalooza festival? Was it the fact that it was the first big rock concert in Chicago since COVID-19 restrictions were lifted? Was it whether the proof of vaccination/negative test requirement for entry would be effective in preventing the show from turning into a super spreader event? (So far, it looks like it has been successful in that regard.)

No. It was Limp Bizkit seemingly replacing frontman Fred Durst with either his dad or an extra from the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” video.

Gone was the trademark red Yankees cap. In its place was a thick hat of gray hair that made people wonder whether or not it was a wig. Throw in the long grey handlebar mustache and sunglasses and he looked like he was wearing a disguise — as if he were in witness protection or something.

The consensus: He kind of pulled it off. The other consensus: Limp Bizkit were reasonably well received by attendees and live stream viewers, most of whom probably hadn’t heard of them since “Nookie.” As such, in the days following the show, the band’s back catalog saw a nice spike in sales and steaming numbers. Keep rollin’ rollin’ rollin’, indeed.

Of course, there was a reason why he seemed so unrecognizable. Once reliable hitmakers and a ubiquitous presence on MTV, Limp Bizkit has been long forgotten about and reduced to a punchline — a much maligned footnote from a bygone era when nu metal was so popular, even established superstars like Metallica tried it.

This is the album that started Limp Bizkit’s decline.

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