Life is full of surprises, and sometimes, so is pop music. In recent weeks, it’s recovered its long-dormant ability to shock, or at least catch us off guard with the unlikely hit, or the unexpected comeback.
Several months ago, I never dreamed I would ever ask the question that is the title of this article. It had been more than twenty-five years since Lionel Richie’s commercial heyday, and on the charts, he had been succeeded by younger romantic leads in pop and R&B many times over (Babyface, Usher, Ne-Yo, among others).
Then came one of those surprise developments seldom seen in pop anymore: On Billboard magazine’s Top 200 album chart for the week following the March 26 release of Tuskegee, Richie’s first studio album since 2009’s Just Go (which didn’t make the US Top 20 and failed to go gold), he debuted at No. 2 with first-week sales of 199,000 copies, right behind Madonna’s latest, MDNA.
A US Presidential election, Summer Olympics mania (London’s calling”again!), Rihanna’s film debut (in Battleship, out May 18) and the possible end of the world. Those are a few of the things I won’t be looking forward to in the coming year. Fortunately, music will offer enough thrills to distract us from all that we’d rather forget. Here’s what’s topping my 2012 anticipation list:
1. Madonna makes fiftysomething fabulous all over again. Although I’m curious to hear what Madonna does with Nicki Minaj and M.I.A. on the final cut of “Gimme All Your Luvin'” when the single is released the last week of January, that’s not the main reason I’m excited about her upcoming twelfth studio album (due in late March), her first since turning fifty in 2008. “Masterpiece,” a new song featured in the Madonna-directed W.E. (which goes into wide release on February 3, two days before her Super Bowl XLVI performance) and her reunion with her Ray of Light producer William Orbit, is an achingly beautiful ballad that recalls the best of ’90s Madonna while gently proving that she can still create pop magic all on her own.
2. Madonna vs. Elton John vs. Mary J. Blige vs. Chris Cornell vs. Glenn Close (!) at the Golden Globes. Too bad the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has disqualified Madonna’s “Masterpiece” from competition at the February 27 Oscars. Why? Because it’s the second song featured during the closing credits, and eligible songs must either be in the body of the film, or the tune that plays when the credits start to roll. Oscar’s loss. The January 15 Golden Globes showdown featuring five monsters of pop, rock and soul and acting will be just as star-studded”and as tough to call”as George Clooney vs. Brad Pitt vs. Leonardo DiCaprio vs. Ryan Gosling in Best Actor in a Motion Picture Drama.
Every singing voice is unique. After all, that’s what makes vocalists special, and what makes music so interesting. But besides tonal quality, range and timbre, there is another factor that sometimes contributes to a singer’s sound”his or her accent. For some singers, accent doesn’t play a huge role in their music, but for others, it is a defining factor.
The Beatles‘ Liverpudlian accent is, in my opinion, a defining factor in their music. It is very apparent in many of their songs, and is one of many factors that makes the band great. For example, the way that customer is pronounced in “Penny Lane” stands out, as well as countless other examples throughout their catalog of music. Still, it’s hard to know where exactly certain artists come from.
There are so many examples of British singers who sound as if they could easily be from the US. Elton John, Amy Winehouse and even Adele have been known to shed their British accents in song. And then there’s a band like Phoenix, who you’d never suspect comes from France. And this makes sense if you think about it. A regional accent is made up of differences in features like intonation, speech rhythm, vowel length and vowel quality, all of which naturally disappear in song. Intonation is replaced by the melody which the vocalist sings, typical speech rhythm changes based on timing and rhythm of the song, and vowel length and quality are oftentimes elongated and enunciated when sung. (more…)
The fact that some musicians make their living off something that they love to do is spectacular. And the fact that singers can forge a career with just their voice is mind-boggling. To a struggling singer, living a life of luxury thanks to their voice is the ultimate dream, one worth striving for no matter the costs. Those who have made it are success stories, and they give others a sliver of hope that one day, the dream could be theirs. But because the human voice is such a unique instrument, and can be irregular, there is even more pressure on singers to be able to sustain a career.
This is why singers have to take care of themselves. Take the famous, raw voice of Steven Tyler, which is one of the most valuable assets of Aerosmith. Not only does Tyler’s career depend on his voice, but so does the band’s success as a whole. Due to Aerosmith’s long career, Tyler has put a great deal of wear and tear on his voice. Throw in his past heroin addiction, it’s no real surprise that Tyler’s voice became weaker and raspier as time went by. After cancelling a series of shows in 2006, it was decided that he would undergo throat surgery in hopes of fixing the damage. National Geographic’s The Incredible Human Machine did a feature about his voice and the surgery, which turned out to be a success. But not all singers get that lucky.
The Country Music Association set the stage again for their annual CMA Festival in Nashville, TN. With artist appearances ranging from fan-favorites Taylor Swift and Shania Twain to newer guns like American Idol winner Scott McCreery, there was certainly something for everyone to enjoy.
But this isn’t your typical festival. Yes, fans do get to experience a weekend full of their favorite music, but this is a different business model. Artists volunteer their time, money and equipment to perform for them. What gives? As impressive as the lineup was and how many celebrities showed up to mingle with the crowd throughout the weekend, what’s more impressive is what purpose this gathering serves for the CMA. In 2006 CMA launched “Keep The Music Playing” (KTMP), a charity that supports music education in Metro NAshville Public Schools through the Alliance for Public Education. With the money raised from ticket sales and donations, the CMA has purchased nearly 4,000 instruments, funded music education campaigns, built music labs and donated to various regional charitable causes.
If a single institution can raise nearly 1.5 million dollars to charity in a single weekend event, how much of an impact could the collective efforts of the entire music world have on their surrounding communities? Yes, we’re all familiar with Live Aid and some of us in the younger crowd might have even been a part of the more recent Live 8, and these events had massive political backing. But this is a singularity: there is no consistency in what is done. Of course, there’s no denying the effect that tthe Live Aid concerts and rallies had, but it came and went. There was no follow-up, nothing continuous. It left our minds after the media hype was over. Since the CMA has a long-term investment with KTMP and needs to show results in order to keep functioning, it assuredly manages its funds and expenses in a decidedly more detailed manner. Not only that, but the whole country music community will be consistently aware of this particular social necessity.
Music has the power to bring people together: what better cause than this?
Every decade lives twice. Each one seems to get a second shot about twenty years after the fact. The ’50s were hot again in the ’70s (which might be why Happy Days was one of TV’s biggest hits). The ’60s resurfaced in the ’80s (as did tie-dye t-shirts and the British invasion), and Saturday night fever flared up one more time in the ’90s (though that didn’t stop the film 54 from flopping).
We’ve been stuck in the ’80s for a while now, but the ’90s are coming around again. I recently attended a ’90s party at a nightclub in Sydney, Australia, and the dance floor was packed with the retro-obsessed. The beats were technotronic indeed, but thanks to the varied playlist, I remembered that there was so much more to the decade in music than grunge and Europop. (Bell Biv DeVoe‘s “Do Me” and Elastica‘s “Connection” provided particularly pleasing trips down memory lane.) Here are five reasons why the ’90s rocked even harder than you might recall.
1. Sisters with voices ruled. And I’m not just talking about Sisters with Voices (otherwise known as SWV). TLC was arguably the most unique multi-platinum girl group ever, while En Vogue was the most glamorous one since the Supremes. Solo stars like Mariah Carey, Toni Braxton, Mary J. Blige, Celine Dion and Sarah McLachlan joined the hit parade, and Whitney Houston could still raise the roof”and she did with the soundtrack for The Bodyguard. Aside from Adele and Beyoncé (when she’s not huffing, puffing and trying way too hard to bring the house down), none of today’s female hitmakers can match the fierce ruling divas of the ’90s for sheer vocal power.
2. Rock & roll was king. Grunge may have been a relatively short-lived turning point, but for a moment there, the music was actually more important than the marketing. Thanks to bands like Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and Radiohead (all of whose platinum success seemed more accidental than calculated), Britpop (Blur vs. Oasis was so much better than Kings of Leon vs. Glee or the lead singers of Coldplay and Muse being married to Hollywood), and the grrrl power of female and female-driven acts like Bjí¶rk, P.J. Harvey, Alanis Morrisette, Hole, Belly, the Breeders and L7, rock and alternative music was both popular and interesting.
3. Stars were born, not manufactured on television and YouTube. This year, Rebecca Black went viral on YouTube and became a “star” without ever actually having a hit. (“Friday” topped out on Billboard’s Hot 100 at No. 58, 24 notches lower than the Glee remake.) And nothing against American Idol” it’s given us some bona fide, hit-making talents (Kelly Clarkson, Fantasia, Carrie Underwood and Adam Lambert, among them)”but it’s also gave us William Hung! When music stars are created instantly (in Hung’s case, due to an extreme lack of talent) or groomed in front of our very eyes, pop stardom starts to lose its mystique. Clarkson’s fame will never seem as hard-won as Celine Dion‘s; Carrie Underwood will never be as good a story as Shania Twain; and I’d trade soulful, one-hit wonders like Dionne Farris and Des’ree for Fantasia every day of the week. At least we never had to watch them almost self-destruct in public. Which brings us to…
4. Less was more. Before Twitter, YouTube and tabloid media overload, pop stars always left us wanting more. Now they reveal every thought and all of the minutiae of their lives via endless Twitter updates. (Sean Kingston recently tweeted a photo of himself surrounded by medical equipment while recovering from a jet-ski accident in Miami that nearly cost him his life. Too much?) The tabloids give us 24/7 access, showing them doing just about everything except going to the bathroom (including having sex!). And we can catch them whenever we want to on YouTube (and make them seem more popular than they actually are by continuously pressing play in order to increase their “views”) and watch them falling and bombing onstage, tangling with the paparazzi, and getting prickly with TV interviewers before doffing their shirts and hitting the streets of New York City.
Lauryn Hill was one of the biggest stars of the late ’90s yet she always managed to sidestep overexposure. Where is she now? God only knows (though it recently was revealed that she’s pregnant with her sixth child). If only Amy Winehouse, her critically acclaimed late-’00s equivalent, had been able to fall apart in the privacy of her own home.
5. Courtney Love was far more daring than Lady Gaga. I’ll admit it: I miss Courtney Love. Whatever you thought about her music, the lead singer of Hole was never boring. Take away Lady Gaga’s freaky-creepy visuals, though, and all you’re left with is a talented but over-earnest, politically correct pop star. She’s says all the right things, but listen closely”none of it is even slightly provocative. Her carefully considered soundbites are intended to be up with underdogs and offensive to no one. Even her pro-gay agenda is as respectful as possible to the political right. Just once, I’d like to see Gaga get naked and sexy (for someone who wears so little clothing, she’s remarkably, and safely, asexual), or totally lose it, throwing good intentions out the window and engaging in a public bitchfest. Isn’t the moral majority asking for it?
20 Essential ’90s Albums
Annie Lennox – Diva
Babyface – For the Cool in You
Belly – Star
Bjí¶rk – Post
The Cardigans - Gran Turismo
Dolly Parton – The Grass Is Blue
Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach – Painted from Memory
John Anderson – Seminole Wind
Kate Bush – The Red Shoes
k.d. lange - Ingenue
Mary J. Blige – My Life
Morrissey - Vauxhaull and I (or Your Arsenal)
Neil Young – Harvest Moon
Neneh Cherry – Homebrew
Portishead - Dummy
Radiohead - The Bends
R.E.M. – Automatic for the People (or Out of Time or New Adventures in Hi-Fi)
Sarah McLachlan – Fumbling Towards Ecstasy
Suede – Coming Up
By now you’ve read the (mostly glowing) reviews, and Born This Way is probably well on its way to becoming Album of the Year. So who needs me on the Lady Gaga bandwagon? She’s already sold millions of albums and singles without the benefit of my adoration, and her second full-length effort (launched worldwide on May 23) is destined to pad her coffers with more gold and platinum. But after single after sound-alike single from The Fame and The Fame Monster EP, I was hoping for a change of course, her very own Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1, a follow-up to a mega-platinum breakthrough that defies expectations and stands on the strength of the music alone. (Remember how George Michael made only one video for that album, and he didn’t even appear in it?)
I like Gaga best at her piano with a bare minimum of camp and circumstance, and I wish she’d go there more often. There’s something about way-over-the-top freaky Gaga that leaves my eyes in perpetual rolling motion. Plus I’m generally allergic to anything that’s hyped by the majority of the universe. I won’t bother to review the new album since pretty much everyone with an opinion has offered it on Facebook, Twitter or any other social-media forum where people will read it, but I’ll say this: Since the marketing of Gaga is often more interesting than the music she releases, my expectations were low. This time, though, in a nice surprise twist, she exceeded them. Still, it’s so hard to listen without prejudice, unaffected”positively or negatively”by a publicity push that shoved Gaga in our faces 24/7 and screamed, “You must love her!” So what exactly fueled my pre-release discontent and keeps my Gaga resentment bubbling just under the surface of my grudging respect? Read on.
1. “Judas.” Here we go again! Another busy video in which Gaga bombards us with visual stimuli. (Enough with the religious iconography, girl!) This one’s an eyesore, and I’d rather go blind than ever watch it again. But the biggest problem with “Judas,” the second Born This Way single, is that it isn’t much of a song”it’s basically just a noisy rewrite of her previous hits. No wonder it spent all of one week in the Top 10 of Billboard’s Hot 100, at No. 10, after its initial characteristically over-hyped release.
2. The onslaught of Born This Way teasers. Though Gaga would surely have us believe that this is yet another of her brilliantly “original” ideas, Taylor Swift did the exact same thing in the weeks before the release of her third album, Speak Now, last October, and Katy Perry pulled a similar stunt with Teenage Dream. After the title track, Born This Way‘s three follow-up singles were released in too-quick succession to have much impact, and when you add the streaming of songs from the album on Farmville in the days leading up to May 23, it’s like an extended trailer that gives away the entire plot to the Event Movie of the Year, to which Born This Way was born to be the musical equivalent. I’m surprised she didn’t add “in 3D” to the title!
3. Her publicity blitz cut into my Justin Timberlake time on the Saturday Night Live season finale. Watching Justin Timberlake host SNL made me long for the good old days of gimmick-free pop stars who weren’t trying to save their fans from the big bad evil world. He’s talented, nice to look at and his music stands on its own. He don’t have to take his clothes off to have a good time, or to make his tunes interesting, though he’s certainly welcome to! So why should he have to share the SNL spotlight with musical guest Gaga?
4. “You and I” was not a pre-release single. If anything good came of Haley Reinhart’s run on American Idol, it’s this: She dug up a then-unreleased Gaga track called “You and I” and almost did it justice. I immediately marched over to YouTube and sought out Gaga’s live performance of the song on the Today show last year. I felt like I was watching a female Elton John in her prime. Too bad the Born This Way version is more heavily produced by Shania Twain’s ex, Robert John “Mutt” Lange.
5. As an Idol mentor, she didn’t even acknowledge the free publicity Haley gave her little-known song. Did it happen off screen? Does she not watch the show, or was she simply unimpressed by Haley (Lord knows I usually was)? That said, Gaga made an excellent mentor and gave constructive advice. James Durbin didn’t do as he was told (come on, dude, put some Elvis into it!), and look what happened to him.
6. She’s probably going to leave Adele’s 21 in the dust as the top-selling album of 2011 so far. But then again, Adele made her mark fully clothed without the benefit of flashy videos and a billion-dollar publicity campaign. She didn’t even bother to get out of her seat in the “Rolling in the Deep” clip, and the single still went to No. 1.
7. Does every Gaga video need a cast of thousands? Just once, I’d like to see her go stark and minimalist, Beyonce’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)”-style”no controversial imagery, no cheap group choreography, no grandiose aspirations. Yes, there’s strength in numbers, but less could be so much more.
8. “The Edge of Glory” is like a bad ’80s flashback. It would have been perfect for the Top Gun soundtrack. Images of Kelly McGillis dance in my head. Bonnie Tyler, or Stock, Aitken and Waterman-era Donna Summer, would have killed for this. I almost expect Laura Branigan to rise from the dead and start singing back-up halfway through. If only it were half as good as “Gloria” or “Self Control.”
10. Her return is totally eclipsing Beyoncé’s. Queen B should have done what Kelly Clarkson did and sit out a few months while Gaga rules. A stronger first single would have helped, though. If the premiere of the “Run the World (Girls)” video on Idol and Beyoncé’s May 22 Billboard Music Awards performance don’t put her in charge, maybe she can still pull a Britney/Rihanna and get Gaga to add her two cents to a “Run the World” remix and watch it soar straight to No. 1.
The year seems to be ending as it began: with Susan Boyle practically interchangeable snoozaks ruling Billboard’s Top 200 album chart. Who would have guessed? Well, I did, but enough dwelling on the bad. Let’s focus on the good stuff that happened in the last 12 months, and dream a dream that next year’s gift is a Boyle-free holiday season. And now (in roughly chronological order), the best of the rest…
1) Journey’s trek to the tops of the pops. Glee still makes my ears bleed, but by helping Journey score its first-ever UK hit”the band’s ’80s classic “Don’t Stop Believin'” piggybacked on the smash Glee cover all the way to No. 6 in early 2010”those kids finally earned a round of applause. (We’ll spare you the Glee link. Instead here’s Sam Tsui covering Glee covering Journey)
2) Alicia Keys’ sleepless nights. Sunshine from rain. Pleasure from pain. “Try Sleeping with a Broken Heart” was the finest of Keys’ string of great 2010 singles. I’m still up all night myself, tossing and turning, trying to figure out how it never climbed higher than No. 27 on the Hot 100.
3) Pink goes up in the air. When I met Pink in 1999, before the release of her debut album, I was impressed, but I never suspected that a newcomer named after the hue of her hair would be a hitmaker a decade later? Topping off her continued chart success in 2010, the now-blonde, now-mom-to-be took the GRAMMYs over the top (in the very best way) with her highwire-acrobat act while performing “Glitter in the Air.”
4) Leon Russell lives! Susan Boyle isn’t the only one who began and ended 2010 on top. Russell kicked off the year wowing us at the GRAMMYs alongside the Zac Brown Band and finished it wowing us again, on the GRAMMY-nominated The Union alongside Elton John. Old Hank Wilson is back”but then he never really went away.
5) Sade returns, with guns blazing. Out of sight, out of mind, yes, but in the case of Sade, absence made the heart grow fonder indeed. Soldier of Love, the band’s first album in nearly a decade, made one of the splashiest debuts of 2010, and” in a rare, welcome twist”was worth the wait. May the long-MIA-from-the-charts Shania Twain follow suit in 2011.
6) Carrie Underwood hooks Ted Mosby. Britney Spears’s How I Met Your Mother guest spot got more hype in 2008, but Underwood, in her acting debut, was just as good in March’s “Hooked” episode, nailing her stunt casting as a pharmaceutical-selling hottie stringing Ted along. Not even that adorable teacup pig could upstage her. More, please.
7) Robbie Williams hearts Gary Barlow in the “Shame” video. Boy meets boy, boy falls for boy, boy and boy live happily ever after in the newly reunited Take That members’ send up of Brokeback Mountain. If only real life were so simple.
8) Vanity projects that rock. Timbaland’s “If We Ever Meet Again” (featuring Katy Perry, from Shock Value II) and Mark Ronson’s “Bang Bang Bang” (with Q-Tip and MNDR’s Amanda Warner, from Record Collection) were pop rarities in 2010: distinctive producer-as-artist singles that matched the behind-the-scenes best of the guys who created them. David Guetta, king of the sound-alike musical tricks, this is how you do it.
9) The British are coming… again! With Coldplay and Amy Winehouse in a holding pattern, La Roux and Florence + the Machine picked up the UK slack. La Roux became the first UK act in forever to reach the US Top 10 with “Bulletproof,” and Florence + the Machine finally became more than hipster darlings as their debut disc, Lungs, burst into the Top 20, while their “Dog Days Are Over” single became a big enough hit to get the Glee treatment.
10) Girls girls girls! Love or loathe them, it was refreshing to see single ladies like Katy Perry, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, Taylor Swift, Ke$ha, Gaga and others continue to transform music from a man’s man’s man’s man’s world into an estrogen-fueled empire. What are you waiting for, Shania? Come on, join the party!
Jeremy Helligar is a former staff writer for People, Teen People, Us Weekly and Entertainment Weekly, who now writes about celebrities and pop culture from his couch in Buenos Aires.