Sunday, September 21, 2014

How They Got Over: 10 Hitmakers That Survived "Flop" Albums (Can Lady Gaga Do It, Too?)

"Don't call it a comeback." -- LL Cool J, "Mama Said Knock You Out"

Alas, popular music is all about the comeback. Look at Tina Turner, Cher, The Kinks, Heart, Natalie Cole and the artists formerly known as Jefferson Airplane (then Jefferson Starship, then simply Starship), all of whom have made at least one spectacular comeback over the course of their U.S. chart careers. Of course, for every stunning comeback, there's a recording act that falls victim to the dreaded Mommie Dearest effect: One false move (or scandal, or public gaffe, or non-hit), and their careers never quite recover, as was the case with Faye Dunaway in the decades after she turned Joan Crawford from a fellow Oscar winner into a camp classic in the 1981 Razzie-anointed biopic that gives the made-up (by me) effect its name.

In 2004, the effect began to affect Janet Jackson, whose chart powers were never the same after "Nipplegate" at Super Bowl XXXVIII. Is Lady Gaga the latest pop victim of the Mommie Dearest effect for daring to release an album (2013's Artpop) that had the nerve not to cross the one-million mark in U.S. sales? I'd be surprised if Cheek to Cheek, Gaga's Tony Bennett collaboration that comes out in the U.S. on Tuesday, is her comeback or if it even outsells Britney Spears' 2013 mega-flop Britney Jean, but if doesn't, it probably wasn't intended to. Bennett has won over the kids before, but is anyone really expecting an 88-year-old icon to help Gaga sell The Great American Songbook to her under-30 "Little Monsters"? Betty White, he is not.

A day or two ago, I came across a think piece titled "Has Gaga Lost the Gays?" on Advocate.com. My first thought: Has she? I'm on the fence about that one. Yes, her last album, Artpop, under-performed on the charts, but can we blame a lack of interest among the general music-downloading public on a lack of interest among gay men?

It has been suggested (last year by Advocate.com's Neal Broverman, for one) that the era of the gay diva might be over, but the continued popularity of Beyoncé among gay men, despite everything about her image and her music being so blatantly heterosexual, would suggest otherwise. Gay audiences have always been somewhat two-sided when it comes to picking musical divas. On one side, they're suckers for the underdog, the ugly duckling who becomes a swan when she's onstage (the Judy Garlands, the Liza Minnellis, the Barbra Streisands). On the other, they're all about the beauty, the glamour, the fabulous Diana Ross-ness of it all. Beyoncé is like a modern-day Ross with stronger pipes. She's the aspirational diva. She may not stand for anything important (except how to leave a girl group in the dust and become a breakout solo superstar -- sound familiar?), but we're blinded by her sparkle. Maybe it can rub off on us.

Gaga's gay appeal, though, has never quite fallen into either diva camp. In fact, I don't think she's ever been really regarded as a conventional diva. At her peak, she always felt more like a movement (similar to the once-a-decade rise of boy bands and rock & roll in pop), and not just with gay men. Every movement has an expiration date. Gaga's stratospheric ascent was destined to plateau and then curve downward, with or without a gay following behind her.

If we blame her current career trajectory, even in part, on a lack of interest among gay men, can we say that they've abandoned her completely, or that they won't return to her "Little Monsters" fold? History has proven that no fan base is more loyal than gay men. Whoever came up with the saying "Nobody loves you when you're down and out" couldn't possibly have been considering us. Once you're a gay icon, you're pretty much set for life. If you're smart and talented, like Cyndi Lauper, whose gay iconhood actually came after her rising star began to slip, you can even transition from a Grammy winner into an Emmy and Tony winner decades later.

As for Gaga, I think it might be too early for think pieces on why she's over. From what I can tell, she simply released an album that didn't connect with the masses the way her previous work did, and now she's coasting with Bennett while plotting her next official move. (Remember, pre-Beyoncé, Miss Carter failed to set the world ablaze with 4, prompting similar "Is Beyoncé Over?" trains of thought onto which we all started jumping.) The aforementioned Starship sang it best during one of its comeback phases: "It's not over till it's over" -- especially if you wait three years between the flop and the follow-up. Here are 10 under-performing albums that predate Artpop and back up Starship.

Desperado, The Eagles (1973) Although it would eventually go mutli-platinum and spawn a rock classic in the title track (thanks, in part, to Linda Ronstadt's remake, which appeared on Don't Cry Now some five months later), the sophomore Eagles album slumped at the time of its release. It just missed the Top 40 (reaching No. 41), and its highest charting single was "Outlaw Man," which peaked at No. 59 on Billboard's Hot 100, making Desperado the only '70s Eagles album not to give the band at least one Top 10 single. (The next four would produce at least one No. 1 apiece.)


Livin' on the Faultline, The Doobie Brothers (1977) The Doobie's '70s run can be divided into two distinct parts: pre- and post- Michael McDonald. Had the band called it a decade after Faultine's commercial drop-off and 1978's Grammy-winning Minute By Minute (featuring Record and Song of the Year "What a Fool Believes" and the Top 20 title track) hadn't happened, would anyone even care about Michael McDonald and/or the '70s Doobies 2.0 today? Fun fact: Carly Simon would score a No. 6 hit the following year with "You Belong to Me," which she co-wrote with McDonald for Faultline, while "What a Fool Believes," which McDonald co-wrote with Kenny Loggins (who, interestingly enough, wanted to work with him after hearing Faultline), initially appeared on the latter's 1978 album Nightwatch.


Talking Back to the Night, Steve Winwood (1982) The Top 10 success of "While You See a Chance" from 1980's Arc of a Diver must have seemed like a one-off fluke when Winwood's follow-up album peaked at No. 28 on Billboard's Top 200 album chart and failed to produce another Top 40 single, but Winwood was destined for better and much bigger. In fact, after his comeback commenced with 1986's Grammy-winning Back in the High Life album, a remix of a Night track called "Valerie" became a Top 10 single.


Hearts and Bones, Paul Simon (1983) And then, three years later, there was Graceland, which beat Winwood's Back in the High Life for the Album of the Year Grammy and made Simon matter again.


Liberty, Duran Duran (1990) Honestly, despite the greatness that was Duran Duran in the 1980s, I was kind of surprised that the band's hit streak lasted as long as it did, which made the 1993 comeback all the more spectacular and unexpected.


Glitter/Charmbracelet, Mariah Carey (2001/2002) Count me among those who didn't see 2005's The Emancipation of Mimi and "We Belong Together" coming.


American Life, Madonna (2003) Though it topped Billboard's Top 200 album chart, it remains Madonna's second-lowest-selling studio album in the U.S. (after 2012's MDNA) and the only one in her entire discography that didn't produce at least one Top 10 single.


Try This, Pink (2003) Sandwiched between 2001's Missundaztood and 2006's aptly titled I'm Not Dead was this, Pink's best album and the only one that failed to sell one million copies in the U.S. or produce a Top 10 -- or Top 40! -- single.


Folklore, Nelly Furtado (2003) Does anyone even remember that there was an album between 2000's Whoa, Nelly! and 2006's Loose?


My December, Kelly Clarkson (2007) You know you've got a problem album when the head of your record label (Clive Davis) disowns it, but the first American Idol rebounded nicely and went on to score one No. 1 single apiece from each of her two studio follow-ups.


10 More Temporary Pop Setbacks
Here, My Dear, Marvin Gaye (1978)
Playing for Keeps/Where's the Party?, Eddie Money (1980/1983)
Get Closer, Linda Ronstadt (1982)
Madness, Money & Music, Sheena Easton (1982)
Gone Troppo, George Harrison (1982)
Beauty Stab, ABC (1983)
Hysteria, Human League (1984)
In Flight, Linda Perry (1996)
Return of Saturn, No Doubt (2000)
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