So You Wanna Be A Pop Star? Good Songs Are Optional. Just Get the Look Right

The other day, almost by accident, I became obsessed with “Sultans of Swing,” Dire Straits’s 1978 Top 10 hit. I can’t remember where I was when I heard it for the first time in what must have been decades. Did I hear it on the radio in a taxi? Or in a supermercado near my apartment? I was so enthralled by the tune, which I felt like I was really hearing for the first time, that I must have lost track of where I was or what I was doing. I remember when “Sultans of Swing” was a hit (yes, I’m that old), but it wasn’t until this serendipitous moment in Buenos Aires that I finally got it. The lyrics, the music (Mark Knopfler did things with the guitar I’ve never heard anyone else do), the touch of Lou Reed in Knopfler’s vocal delivery.

I found a surprisingly high-quality 1978 video of Dire Straits performing “Sultans of Swing” on YouTube and posted it onto my Facebook profile page with the following comment: “Getting old is kind of weird, but I’m so glad that I was around when music really kicked ass.” Six of my Facebook friends clicked on the “Like” button. One asked, “Music doesn’t kick ass now?”

To answer his question, rarely. And when it does, chances are you won’t see it anywhere near the tops of the pops in Billboard.

I’m not saying that kick-ass, non-cookie-cutter music isn’t being recorded and released in 2010. But in general, it lives on the fringes, only occasionally making it big on Billboard‘s Hot 100. Lately, though, the Top 10 has been reserved mostly for lookers singing coventional pop songs that no one will remember in a few years (Katy Perry, Ke$ha, Jason Derülo, Drake — take your pick), and Lady Gaga, the queen of style over substance. I’m reserving judgement of Mike Posner, currently at No. 6 with “Cooler Than Me,” until I’ve had ample time to explore his debut album, 31 Minutes to Takeoff, which was released yesterday (August 16), but I wonder how successful he’d be if he weren’t so cute and didn’t sound a little bit like Justin Timberlake.

I don’t hate these new stars because they’re beautiful. In fact, I like some of their songs (see my recent Katy Perry post), though nothing by any of them is as challenging or timeless as “Sultans of Swing,” Queen’s greatest hits, or Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors/Tusk-era singles. That said, I’m mildly impressed by their ability to assemble catchy music for the masses that goes down easy, and on first listen sounds like we’ve already heard it a hundred times, if not exactly blown away by the tunes themselves. But I wonder where the beautiful people dominating the Top 10 would be if they didn’t look like perfect pop stars.

Will Jason Derülo’s hits be stopping anyone dead in his or her tracks 30 years from now? And if he were to stop serving up fast-food pop singles and switch to gourmet, would he be working on a fourth course of gold and platinum? These are hard times for quality R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A., no matter what an artist looks like. Alicia Keys failed to go Top 20 on Billboard‘s Hot 100 with back-to-back-to-back great singles — “Try Sleeping With a Broken Heart,” “Empire State of Mind (Part II) Broken Down,” and “Un-thinkable (I’m Ready)” — and Usher, one of the most talented R&B singers of his or any time, had to dumb down his sound in order to score his two recent Top 10 singles, “OMG” and “DJ Got Us Fallin’ In Love.”

I miss the days when smart pop singles regularly topped the charts. Mark Knopfler, who is widely considered to be one of the greatest guitarists of all-time, hasn’t had a hit since the mid ’80s, which was around the time when physical appeal became a de rigueur pop-star quality. If the 1978 version of Knopfler, with his receding hairline and scrawny physique, were starting out today, would he get a record deal? Would he make it to Hollywood on American Idol? Would Björk? P.J. Harvey? Patti Smith? Siouxsie Sioux? At least Kate Bush had the good sense to be born conventionally beautiful.

Though aspiring female pop stars always have been expected to be more attractive than their male counterparts, from the mid-’60s — after the teen idol explosion had subsided and the Beatles grew facial hair — to the mid ’80s, talent was, for the most part, valued over image. Otherwise, we might not have the great hits and iconic music of Billy Joel, Elton John, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Neil Young or Roberta Flack, another vintage non-traditional ’70s pop star I’ve been revisiting lately. Hell, if Barbra Streisand were just embarking on her course of world domination, she probably wouldn’t make it out of the starting gate. And since we’re on the subject of Streisand, the superficial focus on looks and easy marketability isn’t limited to music; it extends to Hollywood, which, for roughly 10 years (the 1970s) was a place where true talent reigned supreme. Would Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman, Glenda Jackson and Maggie Smith — all two-or-three-time Oscar winners — be cast as leads if they were 40 years younger and beginning their careers now?

Yes, video did indeed kill the radio star, at least the unpretty ones creating top-notch pop. I can’t think of one major female hitmaker who has emerged in the MTV era who didn’t have sex appeal or great visuals on her side. Bonnie Raitt comes to mind, but she was selling rock and the blues more than pop, and her multi-platinum heyday was relatively brief. Enya is a new-age star, and most people don’t know what she looks like. Mary J. Blige has never used sex to sell, but despite platinum records, her hit singles have been sporadic and she never became a huge crossover star. French-Canuck Celine Dion did, but her svengali/husband-to-be Rene Angelil practically reconstructed her physical appearance in order to make her palatable to U.S. audiences. Check out the cover of her 1993 album, The Colour of My Love, and it becomes obvious that she was selling sex appeal as much as talent. As for the guys, the biggest non-rapper solo male stars of the last decade or so — Justin Timberlake, Usher, John Mayer, Enrique Iglesias, Ricky Martin — all are easy on the eyes, and in general, so is at least one member of most emergent supergroups of the last 10 years.

Some contemporary stars — Beyoncé, John Mayer, Rihanna — are beautiful, successful and gifted. But how many great talents spend years languishing in obscurity — on those aforementioned fringes — because as Simon Cowell might say, they don’t have that elusive “X factor,” which, let’s face it, is 95 per cent, good looks? And before you mention Susan Boyle, ask yourself, how much attention would she have gotten if she looked like Leona Lewis? Would her voice have impressed so much if we hadn’t been expecting the worst when we first saw her on the Britain’s Got Talent stage? Even when beauty and sex appeal is removed from the pop-star equation, it’s still all about how you look. TC mark

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  • Madison Moore

    It seems clear to me that no star (pop, filmic or otherwise) can make it without having some sort of make over, or without being some kind of sex object. i think your example leona lewis is spot on, because she is absolutely gorgeous, absolutely gorgeous, but she also has the vocal chops to match. i don't agree that 95% of the X Factor is sex appeal, because Nicole Scherzinger is plenty sexy, but the bitch is still lack luster. And I'm sure there are plenty of straight dudes who'd love to ram into Kesha, but she has as much talent as a bowl of water.

    X FACTOR: Beyonce is the queen of X factor.

    MAKEOVERS: I love to cite Beth Ditto as an example. She fronts the band The Gossip, and 5 years ago before she was mainstream, she was fat fat fat and was like HEY IM FAT LOOK AT HOW FAT I AM! Now that the band is becoming popular, she's been completely glamorized and made over. You cannot enter the pop machine without the right look – THE LOOK IS, AFTER ALL, YOUR BRAND.

    • Jeremy Helligar

      Interesting that you'd mention Nicole Scherzinger. True, she IS plenty sexy. But I suspect that her solo career will never take off. I don't know if it's her unsexy surname, or the fact that she's like an amalgam of too many pop stars who have come before her (Vanity, Apollonia, J. Lo), but clearly whatever X Factor she has isn't completely working for her.

      Even Susan Boyle was made over into a handsome middle-aged Scottish lady before her debut album dropped. I suspect had she looked the way she did on her album cover when she first appeared on Britain's Got Talent, the judges wouldn't have been quite so awed, and her peformance wouldn't have received a zillion YouTube hits.

      I'm just thankful that there was a time when true talent was valued. A world without great pop hits like Phoebe Snow's “Poetry Man” and Al Stewart “The Year of the Cat” — to cite two extremely random examples of fantastic songs by non-traditional-looking pop stars — wouldn't be as wonderful. And they'd never get anywhere near the Top 10 — probably not even the Hot 100 — today. Sad but true.

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  • Wdefgb

    you wrote this with so much honesty

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