Sunday, August 31, 2008

A COMEBACK CUT SHORT?

Like dogs, every superstar has his (or her) day. You know, that unlucky moment when the hit singles start to become fewer and farther between. For some (Christina Aguilera, Kelly Clarkson, Ashanti and Maroon 5 come to mind), that day arrives sooner than expected. Others (like Kid Rock and Pink, whose first single from her upcoming hit-bound fifth CD just debuted in the Top 10 of Billboard's Hot 100) manage to outlive their expected sell-by date.

And then there is Mariah Carey, an artist who appeared to be finished at the dawn of the '00s only to make the most spectacular comeback since Tina Turner's mid-'80s roll with 2005's The Emancipation of Mimi. So, Music Junkie recently wondered out loud, what the hell happened with her latest CD, E=MC2, which is as good as, if not better, than Mimi? Good question. Although its first-week sales (463,000) were the best of her career, and it spawned her 18th No. 1 hit, "Touch My Body," follow up singles failed to follow suit, and the album quickly dropped off the radar. It's a magnificent failure coming not so hot on the heels of Mimi. But let's face it: Mimi owed its blockbuster success to one great single, "We Belong Together." Without it, the CD may have suffered a fate similar to E=MC2's.

So what's Mariah's problem? Number one: Weak singles. "Bye Bye" is a bore. "I'm That Chick" is an okay album track--empasis on album. "Migrate" and the haunting "Side Effects" (download) are far more exciting and as an added benefit, they feature hot rappers of the moment T-Pain and Young Jeezy, respectively. Number two: Her disappearing act. Since her quickie surprise marriage to Nick Cannon, she's pulled a big one. She seems to spend more time vacationing in the Caribbean than she does working the promotion circuit. Like Britney Spears with last year's Blackout, she actually has a decent album to promote, and she's asleep at the wheel.

Number three: An industry-wide phenomenon of which Mariah is just one victim. Rihanna can crap on a disc (which she basically did with "Take a Bow") and watch it go to No. 1, but several once seemingly indestructible talents--among them, Usher, Alicia Keys and Beyonce--have had trouble scoring multiple hits from their most recent albums. Blame iTunes. Back in the day, when record stores still existed and people had to go to them to get new music, before physical singles went the way of 8-tracks, vinyl and casettes, the biggest stars enjoyed multiple trips to No. 1 and the Top 10 with each album because the release of a new single was still a big event. If you liked the song but didn't want to pay for the entire CD, you had to wait until it was physically released to stores to snap it up.

Now, with iTunes, we're able to sample entire CDs the day they are released and cherry pick which songs we want. If you fancy, say, track six on Mariah's CD ("I'm That Chick") but don't want the full album, you can get just the song right here right now. So when her record label decides that it's the fourth single from E=MC2 (I must have blinked and missed single No. 3, "I'll Be Loving U A Long Time"), it doesn't really matter. Any Mariah fan who wants it already has it, and there is no physical product for completists to buy. So in order for the single to become hit, it has to win over news fans--people who don't care enough about Mariah to sample E=MC2 on release day--with a kick-ass video or tons of radio play. (For artists like Rihanna, Chris Brown, Fergie or Jordin Sparks, whose still-growing fan bases may take weeks, months even, to check out their CDs, this is less of a problem.) But even if Mariah attracts new fans, because the Hot 100 is determined by weekly airplay and sales, the old ones who already bought the album or downloaded the track don't fit into the equation. The result: Lower chart placings, which decreases the CD's profile and, ultimately, its cumulative sales.

It happened with "Give It 2 Me," the second single from Madonna's Hard Candy opus. Pre-release, critics inexplicably singled out the track as one of the album's best. My friend Dave, who is perhaps the world's greatest Madonna fan, even predicted it would be her biggest hit since "Vogue" (in a momentary lapse of reason, he forgot that she's already had two bigger ones, "Take A Bow" and "Music"). The buzz led to a premature Hot 100 debut at No. 57 the week Hard Candy entered the album chart at No. 1. But now that "Give It 2 Me" is officially a single, it has yet to re-enter the singles chart. A middling video and radio's continued lack of love for Madonna makes the winning over of new fans highly unlikely. As a result, the single flopped, a setback from which Hard Candy will probably not recover.

Artists like Rihanna and Chris Brown have sidestepped this problem by re-releasing their CDs with new tracks. For people who like to think of albums as self-contained creative statements, this cheapens the artistic process. But who said Rihanna or Chris Brown are artists? They are more like money-making corporations and their CDs are simply product. Aside from "Umbrella," which will go down as one of history's great pop songs, neither of them have ever released anything that we'll still want to hear or even remember in 2020.

But don't cry for Mariah just yet. Things could be a lot worse. (Ask Janet Jackson.) She could always go the repackaging route--something she did with Mimi, extending its shelf life and adding a 17th No. 1 single to her tally. Even if she doesn't, she'll be back. With another No. 1 album and another No. 1 premiere single. But what happens after that is anybody's guess.
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