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A crucial scene in many recent teen chick flicks is the makeover. Whether it’s a good girl being remade as a sexy slut/killer (Jawbreaker) or a smart girl being redone as a knockout (She’s All That), the natural look is out. The same is true of pop music that sells to the teen demographic. Teen-pop’s assembly-line sound emphasizes predominantly synthesized timbres and banal catch-phrase lyrics. This has become corporate rock’s only standard, so even the jammy Dave Matthews Band couldn’t resist being renovated by producer/song doctor Glen Ballard, the same L.A. studio rat who helped write the songs for Wilson Phillips and Alanis Morissette.
After all, kids today just don’t like live instruments, improvisation, personal expression, and the rest of the baggage of old-fashioned rock. One Washington Post reporter recently played some ’60s and ’70s hits for representative examples of contemporary teenagerdom; one test subject ventured that bands such as the Beatles had talent, but they just didn’t have the technology to make good-sounding records. Even more recently, another Postie profiled Clive Davis, the architect of such assembly-line successes as Carlos Santana’s best-selling album and Whitney Houston’s career. Davis was recently pushed out as president of Arista Records, only to be rewarded with $150 million to fund a new company, J Records (slogan: “Instantly major”).
J (named for Davis’ middle initial) recently sent out a promo teaser, J Records Urban Music Sampler, Vol. 1, which proves that Davis and his collaborators do indeed have the technology to make high-gloss pop. This sampler includes three full songs and snippets of another 14 tracks by some newcomers and one veteran, Luther Vandross, all of which combine hiphop beats and breathy vocals in roughly the same proportion. Such tender J Records ballads as “Silly Bitch” are bouncy, treacly, and antiseptic. The kids should love them.
But why? One crucial aspect of the Clive Davis story is de-emphasized in recent accounts of his latest career remodeling: payola. It’s also impossible to write a profile of Davis without mentioning that he was fired from Columbia Records for allegedly embezzling money from the company. (Ultimately, he pleaded guilty to one count of tax evasion and settled a lawsuit Columbia brought against him; the terms were undisclosed.) Davis was caught only because federal investigators were examining major-label ties to organized crime. Hit Men, Fredric Dannen’s account of Big Pop’s dubious activities, ends in 1991, but, of course, the activities didn’t.
Even if the pop biz has been squeaky clean for the past decade, there’s no question that contemporary teen-pop’s commercial success is primarily the result of merchandising. It was just announced that the first single from Eden’s Crush, the band created on the WB TV series Popstars, is the country’s top-selling single; it’s also the show’s theme song. Familiarity breeds contentment.
Another record recently achieved contemporary pop’s highest honor: being the biggest-selling platter for a week. That was the Dave Matthews Band’s Everyday, the album that resulted from songwriting sessions pairing the earnest Matthews with the calculating Ballard. Some may call it a sellout, but to a non-jam-band fan like me, Everyday is clearly the Charlottesville, Va., quintet’s best album. But it merely streamlines the band’s sound, shortening songs and magnifying melodies without excising the similarities to the Grateful Dead, Peter Gabriel, and Sting. Indeed, imbued with greater pop discipline, the band sounds more like Sting than ever, though I was surprised to discover that the collaboration with Ballard also made the group punkier. Ballard gave Matthews an electric guitar (which he’d never played with the band before) and told drummer Carter Beauford to keep it simplewith the unforeseen result that there are moments on Everyday that suggest the Psychedelic Furs.
For fans who grew up on Merseybeat, psychedelic rock, punk, and other such subgenres, a band’s enlisting a song doctor may seem like a betrayal. Lennon and McCartney wrote their own songs, after all. (Jeez, even Ringo wrote songs.) But commercial calculation has always been a part of pop, even before the rock boom made a music career’s possible financial rewards truly head-turning. And pop-minded producers and song doctors have long made good records with bands that might have seemed utterly incompatible (for example, Stephen Hague and Pere Ubu on 1989’s Cloudland). Just imagine the past 15 years of Aerosmith’s career without such helpmates as Diane Warren, Desmond Child, and, yup, Glen Ballard.
With the right spin, many unexpected things can be merchandisableincluding the semibreakdown that led to Matthews’ writing 12 songs that were too disheartened for RCA to release and his subsequent artistic rebirth in Ballard’s studio. This story has been planted repeatedly in high-profile media real estate, including the cover of Rolling Stone and a PBS special hosted by no less a connoisseur of middlebrow aesthetic striving than Charlie Rose. (Maybe Rose will be able to give Everyday more of a boost than he did his other recent rock ‘n’ roll cause, Almost Famous.)
Keeping it simple can be a useful strategy, and maybe Everyday’s tale is just as elementary as it’s been presented. But a lot of the stories being told about pop music these days are oversimplified. If the kids listen to only synth-driven assembly-line pop, for example, why have I never met a Dave Matthews Band fan over 25? As even Clive Davis knows, guitars still have their appeal; he wouldn’t have bothered to remodel Santana if lead guitarists were truly an obsolete species. And don’t pay too much attention to that teenager who wishes the Beatles sounded more like O-Town: Lots of people who weren’t born when the Fabs broke up bought 1. Interesting things can still happen in the shifting nexus of generations and motivations. Who knows: Maybe someday J Records will even release an “urban” record that has some soul. Mark Jenkins
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