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Sound and Vision: The Fall of R&B: How Pop Is Selling Its Soul for a Dance Beat

Remember the days when R&B and hip hop was the sound of pop? From the ˜90s to the mid ˜00s, music’s most dependable hitmakersMariah Carey, Whitney Houston, Toni Braxton, Boyz II Men, R. Kelly, Usher, Brandy, Monica, Alicia Keys, Destiny’s Child and Beyoncé, among themspecialized in crossover soul, climbing both the R&B charts and the Hot 100 in tandem.

But lately, something strange has been happening on Billboard’s R&B /Hip-Hop Songs chart: A hit is no longer necessarily a hit. Just because a song is big in the R&B sphere doesn’t mean it’s big anywhere else. For the week ending April 7, 2012, only one song in the R&B/Hip-Hop Top 10Tyga’s “Rack City”had managed a comparable placing on the Hot 100.

The song at No. 1, Beyoncé’s “Love on Top,” which had been there for multiple weeks, was way down at No. 54 on the Hot 100. (It briefly entered the Top 40 last September, debuting and peaking at No. 20 after Beyoncé performed it at the MTV Video Music Awards.) Meanwhile, there wasn’t a single R&B diva in the Top 40 aside from Janelle Monae, who got there by guest-singing on rock band fun.’s No. 1 hit We Are Young.

What happened to pop’s soul? There’s a disconnect between the pop and R&B charts that hasn’t been so pronounced since the days when Michael Jackson’s label, CBS Records, threatened to pull all of its artists from MTV if the then-fledgling network didn’t play Jackson’s “Billie Jean” video.

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Sound and Vision: Why Recording Artists Should Look on the Bright Side of Piracy

I’m a music fan that didn’t have a lot of pocket money as a kid. I bought what I could afford and taped the rest off radio or made a tape from my friend’s copy of the album.

That’s what John Taylor of Duran Duran recently told Time Out Melbourne on the subject of illegal downloading. When I read Taylor’s comments, I applauded as if his band had just completed a rousing encore of Skin Trade. Finally, a pop star who understands what it’s like to be low on cash but high on music.

Back in the old pre-Internet days, before iTunes, Amazon and having access to the latest hits 24/7 on YouTube, if you couldn’t afford to pay to listen to the music you loved anytime you wanted to, you had to improvise. For me, and, apparently, for Taylor, that meant pushing a tape recorder up the speakers of the radio, waiting for your favorite song to come on, pressing play when it did, and praying for no outside noise to interfere with the sweet music coming from the speakers.

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Sound And Vision: Strange Bedfellows — The Best of Music's Unlikely Collaborations

“I get high with a little help from my friends,” Ringo Starr sang on the Beatles‘ 1967 classic. These days, so do many of music’s top stars. Two’s company, and so is three and sometimes four. The more the merrier, the higher and higher they get.

On the charts, that is.

In the Top 40 of Billboard’s Hot 100 for the week ending December 10, seventeen songs were collaborations between separate recording entities. Four of them featured Drake, and three apiece featured Rihanna and Nicki Minaj, who both appeared on tracks with Drake and with each other. But will.i.am featuring Jennifer Lopez and Mick Jagger”and debuting at No. 36 with “T.H.E. (The Hardest Ever),” which the threesome performed on the November 20 American Music Awards”was probably the one that nobody saw coming.

Old-school Rolling Stones fans must be cringing at the idea of Jagger going anywhere near Lopez and will.i.am so soon after Maroon 5 featuring Christina Aguilera went to No. 1 by invoking his hallowed name on “Moves Like Jagger.” But for a sixty-something legend like him, hit records”even if in name only, a la Duck Sauce‘s GRAMMY-nominated “Barbra Streisand”are a near-impossible dream unless they’re in tandem with other, often younger, stars.

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Sound And Vision: Why I Miss the '90s

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 LennoxDiva

BabyfaceFor the Cool in You

BellyStar

Bjí¶rkPost

The Cardigans - Gran Turismo

Dolly PartonThe Grass Is Blue

Elvis Costello and Burt BacharachPainted from Memory

Faith No More - Angel Dust

John AndersonSeminole Wind

Kate BushThe Red Shoes

k.d. lange - Ingenue

Mary J. BligeMy Life

Morrissey - Vauxhaull and I (or Your Arsenal)

Neil YoungHarvest Moon

Neneh CherryHomebrew

Portishead - Dummy

Radiohead - The Bends

R.E.M.Automatic for the People (or Out of Time or New Adventures in Hi-Fi)

Sarah McLachlanFumbling Towards Ecstasy

SuedeComing Up

Soundcheck: Reality TV And Hip Hop = Friends Or Foes?

Whether or not you’re a fan of reality television in general, chances are you’ve been caught in the clutches of at least one guilty pleasure.  Reality television has taken over every facet of pop culture for the past decade; and its latest conquest is hip-hop.

Slowly but surely, we are seeing more and more hip hop stars on the reality show circuit, offering fans a glimpse into their real lives.  But how real are the pictures being painted for the camera? Does Chilli really want to find a man, or is it that “What Chilli Wants” is another shot at the big time? How authentic was Fantasia Barrino’s soul-baring season of Fantasia For Real? Are Toni and her sisters really as rambunctious as they seem on Braxton Family Values, or are they just trying to make a place for themselves somewhere, anywhere on the entertainment spectrum?

Of course the exposure of a television show would be attractive to someone looking to sell records, but does the marketing plan help or hurt these artists in the long run? Let’s see how some of urban music’s finest have fared from their dips in the reality TV pond.

Keyshia Cole: She kicked off the hip-hop reality craze when her hit show, The Way It Is debuted on BET in 2006.  After three successful seasons, Keyshia and her family were as famous as the Cosby’s, ultimately prompting a spin-off for her mother and sister, Frankie & Nefe in 2009.  Three albums, a husband and a baby later, Keyshia is still riding high, with her latest singles, I Ain’t Thru and Take Me Away carving out spots on the charts.

Salt N Pepa: Salt N Pepa first hit the small screen with their reality show, The Salt-n-Pepa Show in 2007.  It was a success, and led Pep to her spin-off, Let’s Talk About Pep, which was VH1’s second highest-rated program last year.  Now, the sexy spitters have reformed and are headlining a national hip-hop tour, packing houses again like they did twenty years ago.

Kandi Buress: Atlanta’s most talented housewife, Kandi Buress has been trying to re-launch her career since she joined The Real Housewives of Atlanta cast in 2009.  With priceless placement and countless cameos of her in the studio, playing records and touring the country for promo events, the music has yet to make a splash.  Even with sneak peaks of  “Me and U” and “Fly Above”, the publicity push hasn’t been enough to set her career soaring.

Fantasia Barrino: The second season of Fantasia For Real was VH1’s highest-rated show of 2010.  Fans watched her stage a comeback with real-life drama that spilled over into daily headlines.  A suicide attempt in the news was followed by the suicide attempt episode of the show, which conveniently aired the week before the album dropped. For all the hard work and dedication she seemed to be doing on the show; it was awfully easy for her to skip this year’s GRAMMYs in a hissy fit.  Not the behavior we’d expect from the girl we just watched beg for her career back. Still, her song, Bittersweet from her 2010 album, Back To Me earned her this year’s GRAMMY for Best Female R&B Performance. Guess I’m still on the fence for this Idol alum.

Ray-J: In 2009, he filled in for Flava Flav as VH1’s resident Rico Suave on his hit dating show, For The Love of Ray J.  The show, which depicted Ray as the pimp of all pimps, with gorgeous women competing for his affections, probably helped him achieve the sex symbol status he needed to push records like Sexy Can I and One Wish.  I would stick him on the list of reality show winners.

Brandy: After wrapping the second season, Ray-J was joined by big sister, Brandy, for another reality show, Brandy & Ray-J: A Family Business.  This show, meant to give us a true glimpse of the business just comes off as two starlets playing office and fighting with their parents”and each other. Still, it was nice to see Moesha all grown up, and her R&B resume is enough to keep her interesting, even without new music to judge. After she hung up her ball gown from Season 11 of Dancing With The Stars, she debuted her new self”BraNu, the rapper. With no singles to speak of, the jury is still out, but I’m thinking this may have been a real-life music mistake.

Jim Jones: Love & Hip Hop is definitely one of my guiltiest pleasures (I can’t get enough of Mama Jones), but I’d have to admit that Jimmy is probably the least interesting part of this ghetto-glam world it invited me into.  His “tough guy” persona comes off as an act, begging me to question the legitimacy of the street cred he seems so proud of. Still, his single, A Perfect Day is getting a lot more play than it would without the promo push, so in the end, it looks like the Dip-Set Dropout is having the last laugh.

Olivia: The other breakout from Love & Hip Hop is Olivia, former first lady of G-Unit.  Through the show, she’s managed to shed her Candyshop image and get out of 50 Cent’s shadow.  Considering I’ve been hearing her single, “My December” all over the radio, I’d say her plan is unfolding quite nicely.