Monday, August 31, 2009

BOY, DON'T YOU KNOW SHE'S THE ONE?

Much of my early magazine journalism career was a blur, a balancing act of fear and courage, cockiness and insecurity, hit and miss. As a 22-year-old final-stage nerd working in the big city (New York), I wasn't exactly Ugly Betty (I lived in Jersey City and was a People magazine reporter and music critic, not a Mode executive assistant living in Queens), but I often felt more than a little bit out of my league.

Unless the subject was music.

One of my most vivid memories from those long ago days was a showdown that happened during a music department meeting at the end of 1992. We were gathered together that December day to compile our list of the 10 best albums of 1992 for People's year-end issue. Aside from R.E.M.'s Automatic For The People, I can't recall much of what made the final cut, but for the R&B diva slot (yes, these were casually racist times), it came down to two contenders: Mary J. Blige, for her multi-platinum debut album, What's The 411?, and Miki Howard, for her fourth album, Femme Fatale, which had done little business but produced exactly one great hit, "Ain't Nobody Like You."

Amy Linden, who was a freelance writer, and I were the two voices of authority on the subject of R&B, and we both had very different ideas about who should make the shortlist. I was a fan of both albums, but I gave Mary the edge, simply for helping to invent a new hip hop-soul hybrid (with her producer, P. Diddy, then known as Sean "Puffy" Combs) that I suspected would influence at least the next decade or two of upstart R&B divas. Amy was adamant: In 10 years time, she insisted, everyone will have forgotten about Mary. Miki Howard will have longevity.

Our editor, who had quite possibly never listened to an entire R&B album in his life, checked out both and broke the stalemate. He choose Mary, calling her opus "more exciting" than Miki's. I won the battle and the war. The rest, as anyone who has cast an eye on BET, VH1, MTV or the Grammys; turned the radio dial to an R&B -- or occasionally, pop -- station; or cracked an issue of Billboard magazine in the last 17 years knows, is history.

So why hasn't anyone told Mary? She has been one of the most consistently hit-making female artists of the past two decades. Unlike Madonna, unlike Janet, and unlike Whitney, she's never released a studio album that didn't hit the Top 10 on the Billboard 200 album chart and at least go platinum. (Mariah is the only modern diva from the pre-Britney era who regularly releases albums and can make the same claim). But Mary still doesn't quite get it. I've interviewed her several times, and I've always been impressed by her passion, her absolute lack of pretension, and how she doesn't seem to quite understand how huge she is. So it's no surprise that she never pulls out all the visual stops for her promotional videos. In a word, the video for Mary's great new (but so far underperforming) single is a little ghetto. But ghetto fabulous Mary is so early '90s. It's time to lose the ghetto and accentuate the fabulous.

Someone in her camp -- her creative director or whoever is responsible for her video concepts -- needs to get it together. Aside from some intermittent shots of a bronzed, lacquered and beyond gorgeous Mary in a sleek little black dress and the goofy-cute rapper Drake, who appears on the single, there isn't much to look at -- at least nothing new or interesting. Where is a little Lady Gaga drama when you need it (see the Jonas Akerlund-directed "Paparazzi")? You get the jerky editing (pass the Dramamine, please) and the colorful flashing lights that we've all seen in countless R&B videos. The dance moves look like rejects from a Britney rehearsal; the strobe effects are kind of chintzy; and the director has committed a cardinal sin: If you're gonna set a video in a nightclub, fill it with beautiful people, and make it look like a place where serious party people would actually want to get their groove on.

It's not that the video is terrible, but it could -- and should -- be so much better. "My girl is number one right now," Mary declares near the end. "Finally standing up for herself and saying she's the one." Better late than never, yes, but come on, Mary, you've been the one for nearly 20 years now. Put your money where your mouth is next time, and splurge on a kick-ass video that will send viewers scrambling to buy the single.

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