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Madonna

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: 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: “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: “Turn It Upside Down” by The Spin Doctors

UPDATE (07/06/2021): Thanks to Todd in the Shadows for citing this review in his latest episode of Trainwreckords.

We may remember the 90s as a turbulent period in music, full of angsty grunge and alternative bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, Alice in Chains, introspective singer-songwriters like Alanis Morissette, Sheryl Crow, Jewel and Sarah McLachlan, gangsta rappers like Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Biggie and 2Pac and superstars going through ironic and/or cynical stages like U2 and R.E.M.

But not everything was doom-and-gloom. Divas like Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, Whitney Houston, Madonna and Shania Twain sold boatloads of records and dominated the pop and album charts. The 90s also brought us the extremely non-ironic and safe-for-mass-consumption Hootie and the Blowfish, who became a cultural phenomenon when they released Cracked Rear View, one of the best-selling debut albums of all time. The decade also saw 80s stars like Bryan Adams, Aerosmith, Bon Jovi and Sting reach even greater heights. Even the hip hop world found room for decidedly non-gangsta acts like The Fugees, PM Dawn, Will Smith, Arrested Development and OutKast. And of course, by the end of the decade, the biggest-selling artists were bubblegum acts and boybands like NSYNC, the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears.

Then there were the Spin Doctors.

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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.

The original Tay-Tay (you know, unless you count John Taylor, Mick Taylor, Roger Taylor of Queen, Roger Taylor of Duran Duran, or to pop James Taylor) 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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Donald M. Kendall (1921-2020) (BOOK EXCERPT)

Donald Kendall, best known as CEO of PepsiCo, died over the weekend at the age of 99. Kendall played a large role in bringing Richard Nixon to Wall Street following his disastrous defeat in the 1964 California gubernatorial election, and helping him plan his successful comeback in 1968.

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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 artists like Fugazi and 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: “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: “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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The Reluctant Pop Star

“There is no such thing as a reluctant star. Stars are almost always people that want to make up for their own weaknesses by being loved by the public and I’m no exception to that.” — George Michael, 1987.

But there is such a thing as a reluctant pop star. George Michael was no different from the many singer-songwriters desperate for critical acclaim and credibility. What made him unique was that he was willing to throw away his chance at being the biggest pop star and sex symbol in the world because he believed that his songs were good enough to sell themselves.

And in most cases, he was right.

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9th Circuit Strikes Copyright Suit Against Madonna

Harry Potter, Hawaii Five-0
Alito teased Biden, Joe.
John Fogerty, CCR,
That suit went very far.
Robert Plant, Jimmy Page
Sued over “Stairway,” despite its age.
Robin Thicke and “Blurred Lines.”
Did Harrison copy “He’s So Fine?”
They had lawyers, they had fight
Accused of violating copyright.
Matrix, Seinfeld, New Girl too.
Don’t forget the 2 Live Crew.
Plaintiffs filing lots of suits,
Defendants argue they are moot
Don’t just stand there, let’s get to it
Strike a pose, there’s nothing to it,
Vogue.

Yeah. That lede got rejected. Oh well. I thought it was clever.

Madonna prevails in plagiarism lawsuit.

Music Was The Least Interesting Thing About David Bowie

I’ll admit it. I was never a David Bowie fan. I didn’t care for his music, nor did I really understand his appeal. I have one David Bowie song in my iTunes library – and it’s a song that’s more identified with Queen than with him.

Then I read about him.

Bowie passed away on Monday at the age of 69 after suffering from liver cancer. The news came as a shock to most people, as Bowie had kept his diagnosis private. His death has, obviously, prompted a tremendous outpouring of grief, as well as the usual assessments of his long and successful career. It was kind of a shock, actually, seeing the huge numbers of people who were sad to find out about his passing. After all, he hasn’t had a hit record in years and, arguably, hasn’t really been relevant as an artist since the 1990s. Whether it was because he kept a low profile away from the stage or because he never settled into the nostalgic oldies singer role that many of his colleagues had, most of us simply haven’t seen much of him in recent years. As such, it was easy to forget about him and the music that he continued to make up until his death (indeed, he released Blackstar the Friday before he passed away).

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