Thursday, April 17, 2008

All You Need is the Right Person, and Poof! You're a Star

I originally didn't even want to blog about Leona Lewis, because there's no need to feed the machine, but after reading this article I'm again reminded why she's doing well: it's all the media push. Look at all the key words here:
  • Although other winners of "The X-Factor" haven't been given a strong U.S. push...
  • Simon Cowell believes that Lewis' "television connection was being overblown in the media. 'I've never signed anyone from Star Search, he said."
  • Yet Davis and Cowell designated Lewis as a star-to-be and lined up A-list producers such as Akon and Stargate for her "Spirit."
  • As for the criticism that "Idol" and its ilk put technique over artistry, Cowell has heard it. "I worry about this," he said. "I'm interested in the person as well as the talent. . . . I'm not interested in singing robots."
First of all, why is she given a push and not any others? There are Idol clones in 40 countries, including India, South Korea, and a regional version in the Middle East. "Bleeding Love" was even reshot and remixed to fit an American audience, so clearly we're not even ready for the real thing. (I heard this on VH1's "Top 20 Countdown", in case you're wondering.) To add insult to injury, the song and the video are boring and aren't worth the extra effort.

Second, it's her television connection that's selling her. She is a media creation--at least in the U.S., her claim to fame is she won a British talent contest and the guy who runs that show also runs the American version, and he and one of the world's top music producers love her. It's the same as any other American Idols--at first they're sold as a product of the show. If they're lucky, they transcend that.

Third, because she was anointed she gets top producers to replicate a sound that will connect with American audiences, because they're familiar with similar work.

Fourth, the only thing setting Lewis apart right now is that she's shy, making her the polar opposite of the exhibitionistic pop stars that seem to be synonymous with America right now. That could be a major selling point if it's played well and if Lewis was actually interesting, but she's not and no one focuses on that because there's nothing much to say and she would be drowned out. For all we know, she is a robot stylistically. Granted, this isn't fair, as most first albums are based out of a desire to get material out there and please producers; it's often only in follow-ups that true artistry, vision and personality can begin to see the light of day.

It's clear that for whatever reason, Lewis was handpicked and stamped for approval for Americans, and because she had big-name backers she became a star. But not really. Her numbers are inflated. How many people really like her? We don't know anything about the girl, except that she's shy. Since her album just came out, the reviews will follow soon, but the only people talking are ones connected to her. No one saying anything about the music, just that she's talented and she like certain other American stars. So? That's nothing. It's empty praise, much like her music.

And it's people like her that prevent other artists from getting a fair chance.

Ever wonder why that band you love just cannot seem to ever really get the exposure they need? It's because they usually don't have enough marketing dollars at their disposal.

Artists bitch and moan about how unfairly treated they are by the industry, how discriminated they are for whatever reason, and many listeners will just nod their heads. But it's true. Even an artist as celebrated as Kelly Clarkson complained that she wasn't given the proper push behind her last album, My December, because she and Clive Davis notoriously butted heads over the musical direction. Guess what? The album bombed. The best cut from the album, "Sober", wasn't even released as a single, which is a shame. Instead, the first (and only?) single was the very depressing "Never Again", accompanied by a dark, angry video that clashed with the effervescent Clarkson's personality, and the label barely bothered a follow-up, thinking there was no point. ("Sober" might be listed as a single in the link, but the fact that there's no video and virtually no radio play belies this fact.)

And this is the original American Idol we're talking about.

There are so many great artists out there, just as there are so many great songs out there that have a small fanbase, just because people aren't exposed to the song enough times to make it stick. This might sound like a silly argument to make now that Israeli-French chanteuses are broken on computer commercials, that an American Idol contestant can sing a version of a famous song that was featured in numerous television shows and movies, and that generally the public is exposed to more channels and has more options of finding music they are interested in than ever before. Technically, there is no need to follow mainstream music at all, and there are plenty of people who don't. But for every Colbie Calliat there are hundreds of MySpace artists that just need their Simon Cowell to blast the media with his endorsement.

Update: The LA Times actually agrees with me, calling her "unremarkable" and unfavorably reviews her music. Thank you:
At a time when major labels have trimmed their rosters and their staff, Lewis represents a carefully handled safe bet. Lewis, and the string of "Idol" artists who have come before her, are representative of an extremely risk-averse major label climate, one where artist development means winning a contract on a television show.

Will there ever be another movie so exclusively anticipated by women?

A friend pointed out an excellent observation to me tonight: That the upcoming Sex and the City movie is the only theatrical release she could think of that was so highly anticipated by women.

Maybe it's because movies are now marketed to teen boys and young men, maybe it's because traditional romantic comedies have lost cachet, but all the big blockbuster movies that had advanced buzz and expected huge grosses recently were either sci-fi or fantasy franchises (Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter) and had a basis in another otherworldly mythology (Spider-man, Rocky). While none of these films had an exclusive male base, it was a given that these were guy movies...and the girlfriends and the kids would come along too. Sex and the City, just like the show, will be enjoyed by some males, but they're only going to say that if they're reviewing it. The funny thing is, when you think about it, Sex and the City does fall into the above pattern: It is a fantasy, an otherworldly mythology, one without trolls or hobbits or robots (at least not literal ones). While some fans undoubtedly know this, and many more profess to understand it, there are so many who unconsciously try to model some aspects of their life on the show. I find this symptom extremely dangerous--and while it's attached itself to this particular movie, there have been other programs where girls tend to model themselves after main characters. Gilmore Girls is one such show--even though Rory Gilmore is a terrible role model, somehow her magical life transcends all that, much like the girls on SATC.

It's not that girls don't like fantasy or sci-fi, but there are many that just don't find allegories fascinating instead of confusing and hard to follow. "Realistic fantasies" are stories that really wouldn't happen, but technically could happen. Most romantic comedies and meet cutes fall under this category. They're based in real life, so there are no intergalactic planets and funky orbital rules to follow. The interpersonal conflicts are generally realistic, if heightened. In reality, Carrie Bradshaw would not be able to afford her lifestyle, financially or emotionally (your columns are based around you and your friends' love lives, and no one ever gets mad that you spill their secrets to the world?). But that doesn't matter, because we could live fabulously in our own world and pretend those shoes we bought cost $1000 instead of $15 at Payless. We can't magically pretend we can shoot spiderwebs from our wrists and jump buildings; somehow we lost that ability in childhood.

My friend compared the Sex and the City frenzy to Star Wars. It's a good analogy--both will have fans camping out before to score exclusive first dibs, and both have cultlike fanbases. But what's more interesting is to see if there will ever be another movie that's so grabbed women in this way even before it was released. More women watch primetime TV than men (they're off playing videogames or glued to their computer, apparently), so it naturally follows that a movie they'd be waiting for on baited breath would be an extension of a television show, even one that ended four years earlier. Nowadays, no movie is going to have an inherent fanbase without having the necessary backstory to propel it through, meaning it is affiliated with another medium, usually comics or books. This hasn't worked for female-centered book adaptations, as that Jane Austen movie a few months ago underperformed and The Nanny Diaries sank. But one can argue that those fanbases were very narrow, and more people have watched at least some SATC than have read either of the books, especially with the DVDs and syndication on two stations as further means of access. And many of the blockbusters mentioned above were sequels, so the original source material (the comic, the book) didn't necessarily matter. Star- or producer-driven movies don't have the same cachet; Forgetting Sarah Marshall will do well, but it won't whip up people the way other defining movies have. It's the story we're after, not the star, and knowing the background, mythology or source material is a way of getting more engaged with the story, of also feeling part of something and having insider cachet, a type of spoiler, in a way--which is exactly how many people want to interact with their entertainment, especially the kind that feed off the internet and follow trends and hype.

Of course, people will say there are no heavily anticipated women's movies because females are underrepresented in the movie industry, and once they begin to get movies made that they want to see the audience will come to them. Perhaps. But the Sex and the City movie is written, directed, and produced by a man, so that argument doesn't work here. Maybe because television is a continuing story, with characters we grow to love and fret over, which demand time and energy that women give freely that the connection is strong, whereas movies are about the loud bang buck, the hustle and bustle and action and one-time out-of-sight-out-of-mind, which is more inclined with male habits. But that's a gross oversimplification. Either way, it's safe to say that the hysteria surrounding the Sex and the City movie--which will only grow more overpowering in the next month and a half--will be a very rare occurrence, until the next generation-defining critically-acclaimed television show about women's lives is made into a movie.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

God damn

Leona Lewis scores the #1 spot on the Billboard album charts this week, making her the first British artist to debut in that spot.

Both the song and the video suck; even her personality (stuck on shy and grateful) isn't interesting. The whole thing is so boring and underwhelming...SO WHY IS SHE DOING SO WELL??

Stop listening to the music gatekeepers. She sucks.

Just for the record:

I really, really hope the Office makes some sort of reference to the April 22 Pennsylvania primary. It would be so, so awesome.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

"New Soul": Just What's Needed

One of the reasons I really like Yael Naim's "New Soul" is that it's not a love song. It's not about breaking up, it's not about a really hot guy in a club, it's not about finding or losing a guy. It's not about relationships at all. This is a very rare thing in music--very rare. I've always said 90% of songs are about sex and love, and that is so boring and depressing. Is there anything else in this world worthy of song? Graduations have their place; so do the “Taking Chances”/ “Breakaway”-type of “inspirational” ballads about taking leaps of faith. There are plenty of songs about dancing, but they often include a romantic interest (“Get Into the Groove” and “Please Don’t Stop the Music” come to mind immediately). There are "moving on" ones, but they're usually kiss-offs of bad relationships. There aren't many good songs about death, as Rob realized in High Fidelity. I can't think of any songs (except ones that are meant to be comic) that are about mundane things or getting a promotion or money (unless they're rap)...Songs about friendship always fall into romantic territory (minus "You've Got a Friend" and "You've Got a Friend in Me")...but when you think about all the hundreds of songs you've listened to in your life, and the hundreds more that you will listen to, they're all about that person, finding a person (or people) to be with, and everything that goes with it. This is what kids listen to for years before dating ever crosses their minds, and this obsessive, omnipresent focus is one reason we cannot ever move past it. Singers must be sexy; they must coo and cajole and profess their heartbreak over and over. We’re surrounded, and there’s no escaping. No wonder I love this quote so much:

What came first, the music or the misery? People worry about kids playing with guns, or watching violent videos, that some sort of culture of violence will take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands, literally thousands of songs about heartbreak, rejection, pain, misery and loss. Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?

The eternal question.

But Yael Naim is the rare soul who lucked out with a midtempo ditty about finding yourself. “New Soul” isn’t particularly inspirational, but I can see it becoming a sort of mantra:

I'm a new soul
I came to this strange world
Hoping I could learn a bit bout how to give and take
But since I came here, felt the joy and the fear
Finding myself making every possible mistake

That’s real.

The video smartly plays off this, with her moving into a new house, hanging out with her slightly strange friends and being happy. It's light, low-key, and different (exactly the reason it was picked to advertise the MacBook Air). Essentially "New Soul" is about life, coping with the mistakes you inevitably make and trying to muddle your way through. Exactly the kind of message that's needed.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Leona Lewis Is Not All That and a Bag of Chips

I do not like Leona Lewis.

A large part of it stems from the fact that the media is shoving her down our throat. "She's going to be the next Mariah Carey! The next Whitney Houston! Listen to those powerful pipes!" Last I checked, Whitney Houston is now more known for being a disgusting nutjob married to Bobby Brown. Just watch some MadTV. She hasn't had a hit single since 1999, and that was another kiss-off basically telling the world that "It's Not Right, But It's Ok" that her husband (yes, the rumors were around then) cheated on her. Mariah Carey is the template for overly tanned, skin-baring women, and she's gotten this reputation as being as fake as she looks. (I've never heard radio stations trash an artist so much after she was interviewed on Z100 the other week. I was shocked, and very surprised that I didn't hear anything else about it). I guess Leona Lewis could replace them, but so far I haven't seen an iota of her personality, just endless yammering among the music influentials about how fantastic she is. "Bleeding Love" is bland, a mediocre combination of vocals and a bass line. Who are the "they" that keep trying to pull her apart?

Leona Lewis is British, and just because she won a talent contest there--I believe it was The X Factor, not the British version of American Idol, the original Pop Idol--marketers are saying that that means Americans should like her. Newsflash: there are a lot of British groups that never did well in the U.S. Most of them sucked and rightly deserved to stay in Europe with the rest of their genre. Many of them were also boy bands, or derivatives of the form. The only exception I make is Robbie Williams, whose The Ego Has Landed I love. Granted, he was a former boy band member (Take That, who scored one American hit in 1995 with "Back to Good"), but he was cocky, charming, and very funny. I've read many articles over the years trying to explain why he's never done well here, and I've never understood it. The arguments were always incredibly dense and nonsensical. He also wrote his own songs, which reflected his easygoing, carefree life, but The Ego Has Landed was also very pensive, with songs about the paranoia of celebrity ("No Regrets", which really doesn't even come across that way at all) and disintegrating relationships. Standard stuff, but considering the pop songs on these subjects that have come since then ("Pieces of Me", ugh), his album sounds even more lyrical, playful, and forthright than we expect an ex-boybander to be. The songs aren't about exploiting his current troubles, trying to make a statement, but are merely take-it-or-leave-it musings, integrated with the rest of the things in his life. Robbie Williams, like Kylie Minogue, is mainly known as a tremendously successful and talented artist who just cannot replicate their success in America. But they're probably better off for it--not only are they not hounded by TMZ, but we aren't forced to listen to their songs about being hounded by TMZ.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Bound to happen?

The news broke last week that The Office is going to have a spinoff.

Details are nonexistent, except for the fact that it will be produced by the same people behind The Office and will air after that show. Allegedly something major is set to happen soon (eeeee!), which will undoubtedly take us into spinoff territory.

Hypothesis: The Office can’t really part with any of the main guys: Michael is the show. Dwight will follow Michael anywhere; he’s Mr. Loyalty. No point in Oscar, Angela, Toby, Kevin, Creed, Stanley, Phyllis or Meredith…those characters are either too small or don’t have the requisite background to sustain a separate series. As much as people love Kelly, she’s a girl that’s good in small bursts. A whole show would be grating.

What about the warehouse? Then we can see a greater scope of the wackiness on the other side of Dunder Mifflin, plus cameos to boot. It’s perfect for crossovers…except they might feel they’ve done that already.

Staying in the building, there’s Vance Refrigeration and Bob Vance. If they made selling paper funny, imagine what they can do to refrigerators!

Following Jan would be interesting, but it depends on how her and Michael’s relationship pans out. She’s nutty, but she’s great to watch and has the background and the temperament to be a main character. It also makes perfect sense for her to completely change her life.

There’s also corporate, with Ryan the Boss and David Wallace. It would basically be an excuse to watch Ryan be an ass, which could be fun.

We could follow Karen and the Utica branch, but as she put it in “Branch Wars”, “It’s a pretty easy gig when your boss isn’t an idiot and your boyfriend’s not in love with somebody else,” so that means Utica is boring.

So that leaves the other main characters, the ones we relate to, the ones whose choices we agonize over. Although Jenna Fischer says she knows nothing, bets are on that the spinoff would revolve around her character and John Krasinski’s Jim. I’ve said this before, but as much as I want both of those characters to leave Dunder Mifflin, the show would be over if they left. Would it be like House, new hires we’re supposed to suddenly care for, missing our requisite cute couple? Like Cheers, with a spitfire receptionist in the manner of Rebecca? Jim and Pam are the everycouple in a way, except with a dramatic realistic would it be that they would see Dwight and Angela and Michael again? You know they would in televisionworld. Would their story be just another pleasant family comedy? NBC hasn’t had one of those (in the traditional mold) in, well, forever. It’s not their thing.

Sooner or later, whatever surprises that come our way will seem natural, linear. It’s the nature of reruns, and now things are rerun so much quicker. It used to be that a show had to reach 100 episodes before being considered for syndication, but The Office, which started airing on TBS before season four started, doesn’t have nearly that many partly because its first season was a measly six episodes. But the show was a critical fave and consistently buzzworthy, and so seemed a worthwhile investment, especially considering that there are few big comedies in the pipeline now. Thursday’s episode, “The Dinner Party”, will give us a hint to where the show is heading. Even though the show’s coming back, it’s time to start preparing for good bye.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Breaking Records Isn't What It Used To Be

There has been much brouhaha over the fact that both Mariah Carey and Madonna broke records last week.

Mariah Carey now has 18 #1 singles. Back in the day, before digital media took over the world, it actually took work to get a number one single. I know, I know, it’s hard to get a number one single now—any non-superstar would loudly argue against my point. I understand, I do, but before a number one song had to be out for several weeks, gaining on the chart, becoming a massive hit. A number one song, even for just one week, is a hit; it’s earned that spot. But nowadays songs just appear at number one, and it’s unfair. All Mariah Carey had to do was act like herself (“Mimi”, since that’s her post-“comeback” persona and not the crazy loon who pushed an ice cream cart on TRL), and therein the songs kept rollin’. “Touch My Body” is catchy enough, and it’s certainly not her worst single, but it’s not particularly memorable or great. I disagree with critics who say it’s a ripoff of “Always Be My Baby” (seriously?), although radio stations need to branch out into their Mariah Carey hit catalog and play something other than songs that originated from her Tommy Mottola period. “Touch My Body” is helped by the video, featuring geek man-boy Jack McBrayer of 30 Rock fantasizing how luscious touching Mariah’s body can be, but it hasn’t been out long enough to attain the notoriety that a number one song should carry, especially one that breaks Elvis’ record. Of course, an artist that has so many hit singles obviously has a few less memorable ones than others, but it seemed that there was no suspense regarding whether or not she would actually break the record; it was a foregone conclusion. Results rigged, anyone?

As for Madonna, at least her very deep catalog is accessed somewhat more on radio than Mariah Carey’s. I haven’t even heard all of “4 Minutes to Save the World”, which is quite a feat, yet it took me a few to realize that horrible snippet of Justin Timberlake was Madonna’s new song. Oh, the disappointment. Again, it hit the top ten already? The song’s been out for two weeks, maybe three. Songs should earn their high status, because it proves they are hits. In reality, both “Touch My Body” and “4 Minutes to Save the World” are going to be midlevel and minor (to put it nicely) hits, respectively. By July, you’ll have forgotten them already, and when you hear them at the end-of-the-year countdowns you’ll have a vague if misbegotten memory of the songs coming out last year. Nowadays songs flash out quickly, peaking early and then dying. Those aren’t hits, but they’re always described as one. A real hit has staying power. Current hits include anything that Chris Brown has sang on (including the bloated “No Air”), “Love Song” (which is actually a retort to her record company—now that song makes sense), and of course, “Low”, which is heading downward but still hasn’t gotten old. And that song’s been out since November/December.

As someone who’s always followed airplay and chart positions as a hobby, I’ve never understood how exactly they figure out a song’s ranking. Requests favor novelty songs (“The Bad Touch” “Because I Got High”) and teen and tween favorites (Backstreet Boys/Avril Lavigne/Jonas Brothers), but overall they have their small moment in the sun and wear out their welcome quickly. Bands like Matchbox Twenty and Maroon 5 do extremely well on Top 40 stations as well as ones that cater to older demographics, but you will never hear a Rob Thomas-penned tune on 9 at 9. Sales has something to do with it, but those figures are changed yearly as factors like iTunes gained traction and older forms of counting became obsolete. Every December when I make my predictions and listen to all the end-of-the-year roundups, I’m inevitably scratching my head at how one song ended up in the fifties when it clearly should be twenty points higher and how a top ten song managed to squeeze in when it clearly wasn’t that big a hit. Whatever…it at least makes the countdowns good betting material.