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Rolling Stones

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: “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: “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: “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 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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“Urban Hymns” Turns 20

1997 was a banner year in British music. Radiohead gave us “O.K. Computer,” one of the best albums ever made and one whose central theme of being consumed by technology seems prescient given the world we live in today. The Blur/Oasis war entered a transitional phase, as Blur took a step back and released its low-fi, American style self-titled album while Oasis charged full-steam into pretension and excess with “Be Here Now.” The Chemical Brothers and Prodigy both released successful electronic albums, while one of their forerunners, Depeche Mode, made a nice comeback with “Ultra” (arguably, the band’s last good album). It was a good year for British pop, too, as the Spice Girls had two albums hit #1 on the charts, and Gary Barlow had his last solo chart-topper before reuniting with Take That.

But one album towered above the rest.

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Well Oiled Machine – A Concert Review of Depeche Mode at the Barclays Center

Concert Review:

Depeche Mode

September 6, 2013

Barclays Center

The reason I didn’t review the latest Depeche Mode album, “Delta Machine,” is because Stereogum summed it up better than I ever could:

At this point, Depeche Mode are pretty much new-wave synthpop’s Rolling Stones. They have such a deep and unfuckwithable catalog of hits that they could continue touring arenas until their bodies just completely give up. Nobody really needs them to keep recording new music, and yet they keep doing it.

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Not So Bitter, Definitely Sweet – A Concert Review of The Verve at MSG

This is an old favorite of mine. I originally wrote it for my Livejournal blog and decided it was time to import it over here. Still holds up, except for the fact that the Verve broke up shortly afterwards. That and the Robbie Williams line about not wanting to rejoin Take That.

Concert Review:

The Verve

April 29, 2008

WaMu Theater at Madison Square Garden

When the Verve released “Urban Hymns” in 1997, they seemed poised to become the biggest of all the British pop bands that were invading America from across the Atlantic during the mid-90’s. Oasis had great hooks, but they were about as likeable as smallpox. Blur couldn’t escape from the shadows of their biggest U.S. hit, the ubiquitous “Song 2” (currently playing at some sporting event somewhere in this country). Radiohead were too esoteric and were about as interested in promoting themselves as Robbie Williams was in rejoining Take That. The Verve, however, had great songs, a unique psychedelic/rock sound, a loyal and devoted fan base, and a charismatic frontman in Richard Ashcroft.

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