It is startling to hear the voice of a person whose words you’ve read in books or whose face you’ve seen on billboards and in magazines. This used to be more the case, before the internet before the internet padded out our sensory experience of celebrities.
If nature doesn’t distribute talents evenly across the population, it would appear that culture tries to correct this by regulating the number of models (zero!) allowed to moonlight successfully as musicians. Yes, it’s difficult to concede that a person with a steep allotment of physical beauty might also, on top of it, wield separate talents. And also: models have a poor track record of transitioning from one field to the other, both in terms of merit and commercial success. Athlete-musicians are an analogous phenomenon. Actually, athlete-musicians probably have it worse.
Knowing this, it’s worth paying attention when Vogue designates column inches and the likes of writer Jonathan Van Meter (who has profiled Hillary Clinton and many others for the magazine) to Karen Elson, a supermodel who emerged in the late nineties with a bob and shaved eyebrows, married Jack White in 2005 and has released, this year, an album of songs called The Ghost Who Walks. Tellingly, it is not Elson’s modeling or lifestyle that Van Meter focuses on in the piece, but rather—really!—her music. Van Meter calls the album “a canny, beautifully produced mix of spooky alt-country, English folk music, and lullaby” that “somehow manages to evoke the Robert Plant-Alison Krauss vibe on Raising Sand, Courtney Love circa “Doll Parts,” and the sixties English folk-rock group Fairport Convention.” The piece is not only a sidebar to a fourteen-page spread of gauzy Annie Leibovitz photos, but one of very few times a model-turned-musician has received serious consideration in a magazine like Vogue. In light of this, we’d like to offer a consideration of the top five model-musician moments in recent history. Remember: it’s all relative.
Karen Elson – The Ghost Who Walks (2010)
Elson has the child-woman vocal habits of country singers like Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton, and her songs read like the soundtrack to a modern remake of To Kill a Mockingbird. They’re atmospheric and eerie, “beguiling but a little monotonous”, as the Guardian (UK) put it. Since “beguiling but a little monotonous” doubles as a fair description of a model’s duty, it would seem that Elson is onto something.
Carla Bruni – Quelqu’un m’a dit (2002)
Bruni’s Quelqu’un m’a dit is a pretty and melodic album that the Sarkozy bride followed with an awful album in 2007 and then a pretty good one in 2008. It is the sort of music that emphasizes vocal vulnerabilities and makes a sexy woman even sexier. Cf. the music of Jane Birkin, Brigitte Bardot, Ann-Margret.
Milla Jovovich – The Divine Comedy (1994)
An album from Jovovich didn’t come as a dire surprise given that the model had played a musical babe in Dazed and Confused the year before, but what a pleasant one! Jovovich’s O’Riordan-style yodeling on an album made for fluttering across the astral plane. Semi-druggy and very nineties, the album prompted Rolling Stone to determine that Jovovich was “no crossover opportunist or vacant pretender,” but “a natural poet and melodist.”
Kate Moss – “Some Velvet Morning” (2002)
A song, not an album, but Moss’s guest vocal on this Primal Scream song is too good to pass over. She sings the Lee Hazlewood cover like a breathy, indolent alien in repose. It is also worthwhile to hear the model articulate the central rule of modeling in the guise of a creepy pastoral lyric: “Look at us but do not touch.”
Naomi Campbell – Baby Woman (1995)
So many strikes against this album, it’s hard to know where to begin. Cheesy dance floor thumping, dum-dum lyrics, a cover depicting Campbell sitting on the toilet coyly shaving her legs. But then there’s also “Love and Tears”, a silky slow-jam with powerful Q Lazzarus overtones. It is seductive and worth exactly 99 cents, which, incidentally, is what the song costs on iTunes.