“Put it in my hand and tell me how much pressure it takes to get you off!”
Those are the indelicate opening words of Juliette and the Licks’ 2005 debut EP, …Like a Bolt of Lightning. And the ickiness oozes on, as singer Juliette Lewis crudely baits a “20 Year Old Lover” who still lives with his mom, then pants heavily over the neo-punk squall of “Get Your Tongue Wet.” A Spin staffer who shall remain nameless vouched for the band’s live show, but after watching Lewis thrash around onstage like a barefoot Cops perp being Tasered, it seemed obvious that her hammy attempt at PJ Harvey intensity would be short-lived.
Instead, in the years since, she has played Warped Tour, had Dave Grohl sit in on drums, and recorded two more albums (the latest, Four on the Floor, was just released). The explanation, of course, is that the Oscar-nominated actress is a celebrity, and since notoriety is our society’s ultimate blessing, the lameness of her music has been blithely overlooked. I mean, come on, she nailed Brad Pitt!
The modern phenomenon of the “celebrity musician” — typically an actor with marginal musical talent who tries to tap into the “cool” of rockers, rappers, etc., while attempting to express his or her “real” feelings — has been alternately amusing (Steven Seagal jive-talking about scrambled eggs on the blues jam “Talk to My Ass” from last year’s Mojo Priest album), annoying (Miami Vice‘s Don Johnson wailing the 1986 pop-rock smash “Heartbeat” with Dweezil Zappa on wank guitar), or plain baffling (whatever Viggo Mortensen, ex-wife Exene Cervenka, and Buckethead were up to on the 1999 album One Man’s Meat). But as celebrities have become more easily contrived and lionized, their dodgy side projects have become harder to laugh off or avoid.
April 27, 2007. During the sublime bum-out of the Jesus and Mary Chain’s Coachella reunion show, the actress Scarlett Johansson wanders onstage. Suddenly, as if the festival field has tilted, all eyes move from singer Jim Reid to her teasingly short dress, alabaster gams, and absurd fedora. Hesitantly, she begins to warble the hypnotic chorus of “Just Like Honey” (which scored Johansson’s devastatingly tender final scene with Bill Murray in Lost in Translation). But there’s just one problem: Scarlett Johansson is a horrendous singer! And just like that, the song’s desiccated, masochistic pathos evaporates and becomes just another boldface tabloid blurb. A shaky YouTube blip.
But that’s the new Coachella. Being the country’s most compelling music festival wasn’t enough. It needed a celebrity imprimatur. And with Madonna’s much publicized booking last year, the guest list bulged. Now the buzz really starts when a Hollywood slummer emerges from the VIP tent to traverse the grounds, bodyguards often in tow: Paris Hilton (who watched from offstage as Brazilian indie-funk brats CSS eagerly dedicated their supposedly sarcastic “Meeting Paris Hilton” to her), Drew Barrymore (whose first musical effort, the wan ballad “Cold Hard Truth,” was released soon after the festival), Lindsay Lohan (whose dance-pop jeremiad against her dad, A Little More Personal [Raw], caused a minor stir in 2005), Cameron Diaz, Jessica Alba, Danny DeVito, and, um, Ron Jeremy (who introduced Peaches).
For years, any relatively successful actor’s level of celebrity has made the members of a multiplatinum band like Fall Out Boy look like urchins extending a tin cup. And while Hollywood business booms (with a predicted $10 billion gross in 2007) and downloading petrifies the record industry, that gap is widening. In contrast to rappers, with their outsize, cinematic personas, artists from the rock world have rarely made the transition into TV or film successfully (save David Bowie, Chris Isaak, and flukish exceptions like Tom Waits in Bram Stoker’s Dracula and David Johansen in Scrooged). But at least they can stalk the Hollywood cafeteria line, grab some publicity scraps, get their songs licensed, or something.
The results have been twofold: First, gossip-column fixtures are now musical arbiters. If Angelina Jolie digs Arcade Fire — not a stretch, since she claims to be a Clash fan and once wore a Social Distortion T-shirt onscreen — then the band’s relevance increases. (In the past, she might have gained some cool-cred authenticity herself, but now that’s hardly necessary.) And second, actors have become comfortable emulating their musician buddies, who have become willing enablers. It’s truly a world of twisted priorities when Elvis Costello welcomes Billy Bob Thornton as his opening act.
And the celebrity-music onslaught is intensifying. Requiem for a Dream‘s Jared Leto and his band 30 Seconds to Mars, a.k.a. My So-Called Chemical Romance, have been haunting the charts for two years with A Beautiful Lie, their soullessly booming, clinically precise approximation of a modern-rock/emo epic. Just out are Minnie Driver’s second collection of sincerely inoffensive country rock and Thornton’s fourth album of clumsily poetic roots rock. In August, heiress/model Carla Bruni’s third folk-pop album is being released by Downtown Records (home to Gnarls Barkley and Art Brut). Rumors have circulated of a Halle Berry album with production by Scott Storch and Timbaland. Sonic Youth are devising a compilation for Starbucks, with celebrities like designer Marc Jacobs and actresses Portia de Rossi and Michelle Williams picking their favorite songs by the band. And Netflix is sponsoring a summer tour featuring the Bacon Brothers (i.e., Kevin), Dennis Quaid and the Sharks, and the return of harmonica-mangling, blues- hammering Bruce “Bruno” Willis (infamous for his 1987 hit “Respect Yourself,” a pale bastardization of the Staple Singers’ classic).
All this may be a lucrative marriage of career desperation and rampaging ego for the various participants, but what about the defenseless masses on the receiving end? While trying to sift through the deluge of music, good and bad, available online and elsewhere, another parasitical vanity dump is the last thing anybody needs.
Oh, by the way, Johansson reportedly has a covers album, Scarlett Sings Tom Waits, out later this year on Rhino’s Atco label. The synergy, it’s just uncanny.
Say it ain’t so, Clint Reno.
To dig up the roots of the celebrity-music nexus, you have to go back to this singing farmer, played by Elvis Presley in his film debut, the 1956 Civil War drama Love Me Tender. Driven by the success of the title song, the movie was a smash, and the King of Rock’n’Roll swept into Hollywood (31 films in the next 13 years), becoming America’s biggest entertainer and forever blurring the line between rock and showbiz. By inspiring TV star Rick Nelson’s remarkable singing career (30 Top 40 hits from ’57 to ’62), Elvis set the stage for decades of actors to try (and fail miserably) to equal Nelson’s achievement.
The cavalcade that followed was uniform in its impassioned cluelessness: Tough guy Robert Mitchum’s 1957 head-scratcher Calypso Is Like So (with the anthemic “What Is This Generation Coming To?”). Stoic Dragnet cop Jack Webb’s recitation of “Try a Little Tenderness,” on 1958’s You’re My Girl: Romantic Reflections by Jack Webb. Genial TV sheriff Andy Griffith’s assault on “House of the Rising Sun,” from 1959’s Shouts the Blues and Old Timey Songs. Clint Eastwood Sings Cowboy Favorites, spawned in 1963 by the series Rawhide. Meanwhile, dramatic readings of Bob Dylan ran rampant in the ’60s, including “Blowin’ in the Wind,” by Green Acres’ gentleman farmer Eddie Albert, and a full Dylan album by Family Affair butler Sebastian Cabot.
Then, in 1968, a record was released that still defies explanation today — William Shatner’s The Transformed Man. As Star Trek‘s Captain James T. Kirk, Shatner brought a furrowed portent to his sci-fi pronouncements, but none of that hinted at the conceptual nuance and mad playfulness of this record’s spoken-word pieces, which juxtaposed classic literature with current pop rock. A strutting Cyrano is reduced to an abject groupie trailing Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Baudelaire’s existential “Spleen” turns into a giddy, batshit flutter through the Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.” The starry love of Romeo and Juliet‘s balcony scene leads to the bitter regret of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “How Insensitive.” Shatner indulged and mocked himself, while still exploring the songs with a uniquely skewed seriousness. It was if he’d invented his own genre.
Though he would later be ridiculed for his so-called wackiness, Shatner proved that an actor could have an innovative musical spirit. But throughout the ’70s, the celebrity kitschfest continued (Steve Martin’s “King Tut”), with a constant emphasis on turning cute TV idols into pop stars — The Partridge Family‘s David Cassidy, his brother and Hardy Boy Shaun Cassidy, Here Come the Brides’ Bobby Sherman, Starsky & Hutch‘s David Soul, Welcome Back, Kotter’s John Travolta, the hapless Brady Bunch kids. As if to sum up the era, bald Kojak badass Telly Savalas explained why he had churned out three albums when he clearly couldn’t sing a lick. “I was asked to make a record,” he deadpanned.
During the money-lusting, America’s-back ’80s, celebrity worship kicked up a notch with the birth of cable TV, MTV, and a hit show dedicated solely to in-your-face decadence, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. While Bruce Willis, Don Johnson, and Eddie “Party All the Time” Murphy clowned around, punks retaliated with comic band names (Jodie Foster’s Army, Jerry’s Kids, the Mr. T Experience) and songs (“John Wayne Was a Nazi,” “Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing,” “Linda Blair”). But nobody went as deep as Sonic Youth. With their arty New York aesthetic, early pop-trash obsession (the Ciccone Youth EP), and songs like “Madonna, Sean, and Me” and “Marilyn Moore” from 1986’s Evol, they evoked the allure and empty dread of celebrity culture, intoning, “We’re gonna kill the California girls” like an avenging cult. Then they gradually became celebrities themselves.
As punk finally broke in America via grunge in the ’90s, its stars found celebrity’s trappings bewildering — and scary. Take the 1995 song “Michael Stipe,” by P, a Butthole Surfers side project with Gibby Haynes, new pal Johnny Depp (guitar, bass), Flea, exSex Pistol Steve Jones, and others. Over sparkly acoustic guitar, Haynes tells a rambling story about meeting Stipe, River Phoenix, Sofia Coppola, and other notables at a party in the Hollywood Hills; but halfway through, he begins growling that he’s gonna go back to Texas and shoot himself because “that’s what this town would have me do.”
Haynes later told Spin about the night P played at Depp’s Viper Room in Los Angeles. Starting “Michael Stipe,” the singer looked for Phoenix, who was supposed to be in attendance: “[The song’s] got River’s name in it, so it was going to be cool. He’s a friend of mine and he’s never heard the song. So we’re singing up on stage…and right at that moment, he was basically on the sidewalk…. I’ve got a guitar solo, and at the end of the solo, Johnny stepped offstage. He was frightened. River died [of a heroin overdose] just a few feet away from us, right on the other side of the wall.” Haynes, who was hooked on heroin and smoking crack around this time, landed at L.A.’s Exodus Recovery Center with Kurt Cobain, just before Cobain left the facility and returned to Seattle, where he committed suicide.
Though this was a harshly cautionary tale, things change and time grinds on, much like Courtney Love’s plastic-surgery disaster. And the rock world’s attitude toward celebrity in the next ten years wasn’t to shy away, but to stop caring about what it represented, and to cash a check. The Beastie Boys, who moved from New York to L.A. in the late ’80s, made some great music, registered a couple of Hollywood marriages (Adrock to actress Ione Skye, Mike D to director Tamra Davis), and transformed their hipster gestalt into a thriving celebrity youth-culture brand. They also had the good taste not to form a band with any of their famous friends.
Then there’s Girls Against Boys. By 2004 the brooding, New YorkviaD.C. post-punks were past their prime as major-label, alt-rock heartthrobs. The band’s music never really slipped in quality, but interest waned, and when actress Gina Gershon asked them to be her backup band for a reality show called Rocked, they couldn’t afford to say no.
Ultimately, the show was a stultifying close-up on Gershon’s faux-punk onstage posing and her endless whining about the ills of life on the road, although she had a personal assistant who was in constant contact with the actress’ doctor and even took on the task of replacing a riding-crop stage prop (don’t ask). Meanwhile, GVSB smiled and bantered and tried to maintain some modicum of dignity. Which they mostly did, though I cringed at the press release touting Gershon’s gig opening for Peter Frampton at the Cutting Room (a New York club co-owned by Sex and the City‘s “Mr. Big,” Chris Noth). Appearing the next night: singer/songwriter Bob Guiney, a.k.a. the Bachelor.
Frank Sinatra is rumored to have said of Judy Garland, “Every time she sings, she dies a little.” And that’s what we want from our musical heroes — not that they die, but that they give everything they have to their music. Because if you’re a true fan, especially when you’re young and maddeningly confused, music is so powerful that it can call your entire existence into question. And when you’re deeply moved for the first time by a band or a song — and exclaim, “Fuck, yeah, this is it!” — well, you can spend the rest of your life aching to recapture that feeling. Maybe that’s why people detach from music as they get older — they decide that it’ll never feel as transcendent as it did in the beginning and to experience a lesser version is just too painful to endure. They’d rather watch CSI.
And the problem with the vast majority of celebrity musicians is that they behave like all that doesn’t matter. They act like playing or recording music for paying customers is the same as showing up for a book signing at a Barnes & Noble in La Jolla and assume that we’ll be fascinated regardless. Although they’d deride a part-time actor who didn’t immerse himself in his work completely, they don’t grasp that if you’re going to pull all this attention away from devoted, lifelong musicians, then you should probably wipe that smirk off your face when you manage to survive a verse or guitar solo without screwing it up.
Nothing turns a celebrity into a run-of-the-mill mortal more quickly than trying to play music seriously. People who are viewed with awe onscreen suddenly become shmoes, sidemen, and charisma vacuums. As the bassist for earnestly derivative ’90s alt rockers Dogstar, Keanu Reeves was merely a hunky bystander. Russell Crowe, as leader of longtime roots-rock band 30 Odd Foot of Grunts, is just a surly, pseudo-literary bro trying to ape a different singer on every song. Jada Pinkett Smith, with her metal-noise band Wicked Wisdom (Fish from Fishbone on drums!), is a caterwauling disaster.
It’s rare when a celebrity shows any real honesty about a musical project, so credit actress Jamie-Lynn Sigler for coming clean this year about her 2001 pop flop Here to Heaven. “There was no creative process at all,” she said. “It was a very packaged thing, and people were wanting to capitalize on The Sopranos. I take responsibility — I was part of it — but I hated every moment. I was faking it the whole time.”
Of course, the media, as much as anybody, are implicated in all this, and Spin is no exception. I’ve never met a more disgusted reader than the young woman who grilled me about our March 2002 issue with Saturday Night Live‘s Jimmy Fallon on the cover (promoting his album, The Bathroom Wall, a set of musical comedy routines that recalled a more pretentious Adam Sandler). “What the fuck was that all about?” she said, scowling.
“Well,” I stammered, “the record’s not that bad, and he’s pretty funny, I guess, and girls think he’s cute.”
“Sure, whatever,” she replied, now sounding more betrayed than angry. “But I thought you guys were supposed to be a music magazine.”
Consider this a long-overdue apology.