Sunday, January 31, 2010

15 Minutes...times a few million

I've been watching a lot of the live music shows this year; including the AMAs, Hope for Haiti concert and tonight, the Grammy Awards. My brother reminded me today that we always used to watch them as a family and my dad would growl "They're all on drugs". Not anymore, Dad. Now, they're all on ProTools.

A couple of things have struck me as I watched these shows. First, a startling number of today's biggest names in music simply cannot sing live. They've relied on so much technology or the camouflage of the spectacle to disguise that basic fact. Gaga is one of the few that combines the flash with the vocals. (Black Eyed Peas, I'm looking at you. You couldn't even sing in step with your own music tonight.)

The second thing that I noticed is that the same names are chosen to perform again and again at these events. Shakira performed at the AMA and Haiti benefit and she was just plain bad both times. Does the industry associate name recognition with talent? If that's the case, Spongebob SquarePants should open next year's Grammys.

Is Beyonce really that good that her ass gets kissed everywhere she goes? I will give her the credit of knowing her audience and feeding them exactly what they want. But when I saw the scene with her and Jamie Foxx in Dreamgirls where he tells her character something like "your voice is just ordinary", I immediately thought to myself that he just described Beyonce. But she's treated like royalty by the industry regardless of whether she has a hit or a miss. I mean tonight she was introduced as one of the most "exquisite and compelling artists of our time". Oookay. The screeching my ears heard after that introduction begs to differ.

Some hit it every time. Mary J. Blige always looks and sounds great. Taylor Swift deserves everything she has earned. Girl can't really sing that well live but she's so bright and fresh and her songs are important ones for her target audience. Her parents have earned my admiration.

When it comes to the Grammys, I always think about Clay Aiken. One of the best voices in the industry and one that actually sounds even better live than recorded. My hope is his new album due this summer will be nominated for Best Traditional Vocal Album. I hope Decca works their magic.

Recently, Clay asked his fans to help tally up his live performances on stage, along with his television appearances. I assumed the performance count would be high, he has toured nine times and starred for eight months on Broadway. But the overall number of total stage and television appearances was more than 750. I've been here for all of that and I was still impressed.

Clay's entering his eighth year as a professional singer/actor. I chuckle at those who desperately have been proclaiming his fifteen minutes are over...for the last seven years. Most careers in entertainment should be so troubled.

Clay's latest blogs have been oozing excitement over what is to come this year, as he readies promotion for his first album with Decca Records. We've been promised news in a week and I have a feeling that it will match one of my longtime wishes for him. His label seems excited about what he's created too, with tweets about the album revealing a little bit each time. Now I'm no novice, I recognize planned, pre-promotion when I see it. But planned promotion, pride and primetime have been missing from his mix for so long that I almost forgot what it's like.

So, I'll sit here tonight and watch the Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences reward some very deserving nominees, ignore some equally deserving artists and rubber stamp award some that just make me wonder if they have naked pictures of the accountants that tabulated the votes.

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Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Does Lefsetz get it wrong or right?

I've been subscribing to the Lefsetz Letter (written by music industry veteran, Bob Lefsetz) for about a month now. Some things I don't agree with, much finds me nodding like a bobblehead and a few I skip because the topic doesn't interest me. But most of the time I read them to the end. His musings about where the music industry needs to go are the ones that I find most thought provoking.

This afternoon, I got his latest about Simon Cowell and the whole American Idol/X Factor story that has been the entertainment story of the day. Here is an excerpt.
Simon Cowell is a star.

I like Kelly Clarkson. She's cute, honest about her weight/body image and is a good singer. But she's not a star. Her best material is written by others. And she has the depth of an Oreo cookie. If I asked her to wrestle between higher taxes and a social safety net, I'd expect her to go blank and suggest we get another drink.

But I'm sure Simon Cowell has an opinion. Real stars don't exist in a vacuum, but in the environment, they're aware of their surroundings, their context.

As for the other "Idol" winners...

Clay Aiken couldn't admit he was gay. Oops, he wasn't the winner that year? Well, he got the longest ride, which is just about over. A real star is not afraid of who he is, he owns his identity, he doesn't fake it.

Adam Lambert played coy with his sexual identity until the competition was over. Stars don't leave us guessing about where they stand. And after coming out, selling his music, Adam resembled nothing so much as a cartoon.

Let's see, other "Idol" victors...

I just can't think of one.

Oh yeah, that young woman, the plump one, what was her name again? Jordin Sparks... Let's see, we've got Jim Morrison, college-educated, writing poetry, and Jordin's number one asset is her smile. Whoo-hoo!

I'm not saying "Idol" will crumble without Simon Cowell, although I do expect it to sustain a deep ratings hit, but the reason the show has been so successful is because of this one man, who won't wear a tie on camera, who smiles like the Mona Lisa, daring us to wonder what he thinks, and when he speaks states his own, unequivocal truth. That's a star.

That's why we revere stars. They're not beholden to a boss. They do it their way.

Mmm... God, everybody on the hit parade seems to be beholden to someone else. Thanking their sponsors... Doing whatever their labels tell them to do... Unwilling to offend anyone in their pursuit of the brass ring. No wonder the public likes the song at most, and why music doesn't drive the culture.

Steve Jobs? The biggest rock star on the planet. Does whatever he wants, is beholden to no one and releases the best damn products. Don't agree? That's just the point, stars have haters, from the beginning of time. At least people CARE, have an opinion. Who's got an opinion on all those evanescent singers in the Top Forty?

Speak your mind. Take a stand. Don't be afraid to offend. The opposite is death.

I agree with him that Idol will crumble without Simon. He was the core of the show, regardless of the talent (or lack thereof) in any given year. It long ago lost my attention and I can't remember the last time I watched the show. Season 4, maybe? But the one thing you can say for most everyone from Idol is that they can sing and they can sing live.

But I disagree with his rather simplistic view of what makes a star. I am ambivalent about Kelly Clarkson but I don't think writing your own material makes you a star. It didn't matter for Frank Sinatra or Elvis Presley. She's still one of the best vocalists out there, when she's not yelling. There are plenty of singers out there singing their own stuff and it's crap.

Clay Aiken didn't have to admit he is gay, it isn't anyone's business and people need to come out on their own timeframe. It doesn't impact his ability to sing and entertain. Of course, I'll readily admit I am a fan of both his singing and acting, take a look around this blog and that's obvious. According to his interviews when he came out, he hadn't even told his brother until three years after Idol ended. Growing up in North Carolina, I am not so sure his Southern Baptist family would have appreciated learning that from Ryan Seacrest on the Wednesday night elimination show. As he has said a few times, he grew up with people who thought being gay is a choice.

Curious that Bob's letter came out today though, as Clay's new label just tweeted that they are listening to his new album due early this year and it sounds amazing. With that one tweet, this label (Universal's Decca) has done more online promo through social media than his old label at RCA did in the previous six years. Or as the fans are fond of saying "Clive took platinum and turned it to gold". Writing his own stuff? He wrote the brilliant Lover All Alone and Clive didn't even put it on his album. It was put on the next album and got the best reviews of any track.

Not sure how Lefsetz could say that Clay's on his way out either. Let's see, a year ago he was wrapping up a critically acclaimed 8 month run on Broadway. He had surgery on his jaw and did some charity work while he recovered and could sing again. He has been recording since summer, traveling all over Europe to work with the best musicians Decca could hire.

Lambert? Cartoon is a good word. (Back off of this blog, Glamberts. Your comments won't get printed. Been there done that putting up with the crazy ass extreme faction of the Claymates.) Oh and yay for Decca using the word FAN in their tweet and not the "C" word.

I'm not a fan of country but Carrie Underwood is shining brightly right now. Of course she's blonde, pretty and can carry a tune. If she failed, she would have really had to work on it.

Comparing singers to Steve Jobs (who is brilliant in many ways) isn't just apples and oranges.
It's so different, it's apples and lawnmowers. (That's apple with a small "a".) He answers just to shareholders so once he knows what the market wants, he has far more power at his disposal to deliver it.

Oh and this? Speak your mind. Take a stand. Don't be afraid to offend. The opposite is death.

Take a stand? Don't be afraid to offend? That's the Clay Aiken, post Idol that I know. I don't think Bob has followed Clay's blog or his fanclub posts on politics, the media, the music industry, or even American Idol. He blogged about Somalia on Huff Post. Blunt is putting it mildly. And that is what his fans love most about him, beyond the talent. We always know where Clay stands, even if we don't agree.

Decca is excited and so are the fans. We've got a new album on the way, a likely tour and special. And that's just what we know about so far. We're here seven years later. That's a star to me.

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