By Jim Murphy
A couple of months ago I wrote a piece for these pages about my then-soon-to-be budding career as a singer-songwriter. Predictions of musical greatness and visions of grandeur were based upon a highly successful debut appearance at the open-mike night of a local coffeehouse. In the parlance of the music biz, I was getting a "buzz" (even if it was of my own making).
To recap, my act A while admittedly lean, with just two songs in the repertoire A had all the ingredients necessary for massive commercial appeal: a heartfelt, tearjerking, nearly true ballad about unrequited love cruelly interrupted by the untimely death of the desired lovee, and a clever cover version of the theme song from a popular Seventies TV sit-com. (If you need to know, clever covers of theme songs from popular Seventies sit-coms are guaranteed to cut across demographic lines and generational boundaries, thus assuring maximum sales. And perhaps I forgot to mention the first time around that, if you were to add a tasty guitar lead, some synthesizers, and a background vocal cameo by Bryan Adams to the tearjerker, it could easily by converted to what's known in the biz as a "power ballad.")
I was so confident of a bidding war among the major labels that I quit my day job, just so I could monitor the telephone around the clock and take that life-changing call on the first ring.
So far the reaction has been less than expected.
Despite my understandable disappointment, I'll admit it's been a thought-provoking (and possibly enriching) experience. Stewing in my not-so-creative juices waiting for the phone to ring, I've had plenty of time to thumb through back issues of Rolling Stone, Details, Spin, and Request; ponder the nature of celebrity, stardom, and cultural icon-hood in the Nineties; and think about how I can tap into the river of bottomless wealth that celebritydom represents these days.
It's not really that difficult, if you think about it. Achieving the status of Pop Culture Celebrity these days is a lot like hitting the lottery, the cultural equivalent of a slip-and-fall accident at the local Kmart. It's essentially a matter of timing and luck.
Only the hopelessly naive still believe that talent has anything to do with commercial success in the music industry. The presence of talent accounts only for artists who have achieved the comfortable level of cult stardom, like Lou Reed, Tom Waits, or Paul Westerberg.
Those who are more cynical might say success is not based on talent but on how many people think you must be talented if you're on MTV and recording for a major label. That still falls short of the truth, and explains only the temporary prosperity of one- and two-hit wonders such as Hammer, Billy Ray Cyrus, and Jesus Jones.
Actually, one more crucial step is involved to get you over the hump to genuine, long-lived celebrityness: Enough people must believe that enough other people think you must be talented if you're on MTV and recording for a major label. Once you've achieved that kind of status, you're a set fixture in the semipermanent constellation of stars. At the very least, your career should glitter for a decade or more, giving you plenty of time to rake in the dough while humbly proclaiming that you owe it all to your fans.
What's more, anything you do will henceforth be considered worthy of attention, applause, and glowing news reports, feeding your fame (and unit sales) all the more while commercial failures such as Lou Reed and Paul Westerberg play small clubs and mumble nonsense about the importance of "art."
For a case in point, look no further than South Florida's own Gloria Estefan. Now, I wouldn't bet my life on it, but I'm fairly sure that when I went to Miami High in the late Seventies, Gloria and Emilio must have put on at least a few sixth-period concerts in the school auditorium. Back then, of course, it would have been in the guise of a cover band with some godawful late-Seventies disco moniker such as Rhapsody, Babe, or Oui (or, for that matter, Miami Sound Machine).
Not that I mean any disrespect to Glo and Emilio. As I remember, we were a fairly appreciative audience -- even those of us who composed the tiny but vocal antidisco faction at Miami High in 1978 -- if not for the music itself, at least for the mere fact that we got a respite from dreadfully boring lectures on topics such as plant reproduction or the War of 1812. In fact, I'd put our degree of appreciation for Gloria and Emilio's band right up there with the wave of gratitude that swept over us whenever Mr. O'Hearn decided to forgo the usual lecture on plant reproduction and let us dissect frogs instead.
But I digress. The point being made here is that the Estefans' (probable) appearances at Miami High back then didn't even warrant coverage in the school newspaper or yearbook. Nope. The most they could muster was announcement on the PA in between the Pledge of Allegiance and Vice Principal Spreen's daily reminders about picking up after ourselves in the cafeteria. Whereas if Gloria and Emilio were to pull the same stunt today, it'd surely be fodder for a special advertising section in the Miami Herald, continuous live remotes by local TV stations, and breathless accounts that same evening on -- Current Affair and Entertainment Tonight.
It's all a matter of famousness, really. Get yourself to a certain level where enough people think that enough other people think you must be talented if you're on MTV and recording for a major label, and your fame is no longer simply multiplied. It's squared, over and over, until even vicious rumors, cruel parodies, and substandard work serve only to nudge sales up another quarter-million units or so.
As I read Rolling Stone's cover story about Liv Tyler (Steven's daughter), I realized that my mistake was concentrating on the act first, rather than on the much more important fan base that can bring true stardom. So let's cut to the chase: I want to be an obscenely famous celebrity. If you're like most people, you'd like to be on a first-name basis with an obscenely famous celebrity. I believe we could work something out.
You want accessibility? I'll be accessible. No, I'll be ultra-accessible to the nth degree. I'll be so damn accessible you'll be reduced to feigning yawns, casting exaggerated glances at your watch, and making up some lame excuse about having to get up early the next day for work just to get me out of your house at two o' clock in the morning.
After my shows at the Miami Arena, I'll run and get your car. For free. I'll come by your house while you're entertaining old college pals from Ohio and drop obscure industry references as we munch from the deli platter.
I'll be sure the record company's advance press kit included a detailed piece about our personal friendship and how it made me the artist I am. I'll name my album after you. I'll drag you along for my interviews with MTV's Kurt Loder. I'll hook you up for a night on South Beach with Tara Solomon.
Wait! Come back! I was only joshin' ya with that last promise. But I think I made my point.
If you're a savvy record-company executive reading this, you'll no doubt recognize that I've laid the groundwork for a considerable fan base that is just waiting to consume my product. I'll sit here and wait for your call.