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MTV

Career Killers: “Be Here Now” by Oasis

I read several articles commemorating Oasis’ mammoth 1997 album, Be Here Now, which was released 25 years ago this week. 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: 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: “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: “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: “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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Career Killers: “Cyberpunk” by Billy Idol

As we’ve seen, bad concept albums can kill careers and destroy their creators in the time it takes to throw a CD into the garbage, send it to China to be used for road paving or sell it to a used record store for half-pennies on the dollar.

In Billy Idol’s case, it did that and then some. But it also set the stage for an interesting critical re-evaluation. Was 1993’s Cyberpunk, a bloated concept album about machines, technology and consumerism that also happened to be one of the first major studio releases recorded mostly on the computer, packaged with a floppy disk containing bonus content and marketed via the internet actually ahead of its time?

Yes, it was. Without question.

Content wise, Idol’s musings about technology proved to be prescient, while his recording and marketing methods established a blueprint that almost every artist of the mid-to-late 90s and early 00s would copy and emulate, right down to the bonus floppy (although CD and DVD-ROMs predictably replaced the floppy as the technology became more ubiquitous and affordable).

But that doesn’t mean the album is good or deserved to be successful. And it’s certainly no surprise that it ruined Billy Idol’s career.

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Career Killers: “Kilroy Was Here” by Styx

There have always been extremely successful artists that were so unlikeable, unappealing or unoriginal that it became fashionable to hate them. Nickelback, Creed, Dave Matthews Band, Coldplay, Michael Bolton, Phil Collins, Limp Bizkit, Train, and more recently, Justin Bieber, Imagine Dragons and the Chainsmokers have generated significant amounts of vitriol from critics and the general public — all while stockpiling hits and performing sell-out shows before thousands of adoring fans. If anything, the widespread hatedom only makes their fans love them even more.

Before them, Styx was the one that it was cool to hate.

Critics, in particular, despised them and commonly referred to the band as “Stynx” (one memorable review compared their music to a parking lot full of whale vomit – something that may very have inspired the famous “Shit Sandwich” scene in This is Spinal Tap).

Despite that, Styx sold tons of records and performed countless sold out shows. From 1972 to 1982, the band amassed 11 Top 40 hits, including their sole #1 hit, the polarizing “Babe,” as well as four RIAA-certified gold and five platinum albums. Starting off as a progressive rock group, the band found success when it moved to a more arena-friendly (some would argue, “corporate”) sound, merging hard rock with synth pop while displaying a flair for the dramatic (or melodramatic, as their detractors might argue). Even as it found mainstream success, Styx retained some of its prog leanings, writing thematic, narrative style songs, while releasing a series of concept albums throughout the late 70s and early 80s.

With 1983’s Kilroy Was Here, Styx took on its most ambitious and risky project yet. A concept album about a dystopian future where religious and political fascists have outlawed rock music and use technology to enslave mankind, Styx planned an elaborate live show that would be part rock-opera, part concert, part multimedia spectacle. If the boys from Chicago could pull it off, they would set themselves up to be the spiritual successors to Pink Floyd or The Who.

They did not pull it off.

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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: “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 Frey’s son, novice musician 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). Joy Division never replaced Ian Curtis, instead guitarist Bernard Sumner moved into the frontman’s role and the band became New Order, one of the most acclaimed and popular synth bands of the 80s.

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: “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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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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Album Review: “Unplugged 1991/2001: The Complete Sessions” by R.E.M.

In 1991, R.E.M. chose the MTV “Unplugged” stage for its coming out party. Recorded at Chelsea Studios in New York City, the band was just about to hit it big. “Out of Time” was one month old, and “Losing My Religion” was beginning its steady climb up the charts. Despite riding the wave of their biggest hit ever and their most successful album to date, R.E.M. chose not to tour. Instead, the “Unplugged” show became one of only a few concerts the band performed to promote “Out of Time.”

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