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Taylor Swift

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: “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: “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: “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: “Nathan Michael Shawn Wanya” by Boyz II Men

We’ve seen how splitting from hit-making songwriters or producers in an ill-fated bid for creative control can kill an artist’s or band’s careers. We’ve seen how record label politics can kill an artist’s or band’s careers. We’ve seen how failed musical makeovers in the face of changing times can kill an artist’s or band’s careers. We’ve seen how deteriorating personal relationships can fester and kill an artist’s or band’s careers.

What happens when all of those things happen at once? You get Boyz II Men.

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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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Album Review: “White Light” by The Corrs

White Light, the first studio album from The Corrs since 2005, is, to borrow a phrase from The Simpsons, a perfectly cromulent album. The first family of Celtic-infused pop could have used the time off to reinvent themselves and embiggen their repertoire. They could have modernized their sound. They could have experimented with different genres. Heck, they could have let violinist and background singer Sharon sing a few songs (during the last decade, both she and lead singer Andrea launched solo careers, and Sharon outsold her).

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