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Hits That Hurt : In Some Cases, That Top 10 Smash Can Smash an Artist's Image

January 03, 1988|PAUL GREIN

It's not hard to guess what thousands of musicians around the country have at the top of their wish lists for the new year: a Top 10 record.

After all, a hit record is supposed to bring fame, fortune and happiness.

But it doesn't always work that way.

Rod Stewart, Pat Benatar, the Carpenters, Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder are just a few of the dozens of artists who probably wish they'd never recorded certain hits.

Even though a hit may sell a million copies or more, it can end up hurting in the long run if it accentuates an unflattering part of the artist's image. Worse, a hit might project the wrong image. Some cases in point:

Case Study No. 1: Berlin

The Los Angeles-based band had a worldwide smash in 1986 with "Take My Breath Away," the love ballad from the movie "Top Gun." But Perry Watts-Russell, the group's manager, has mixed feelings about the song.

"When that song went to No. 1, it seemed like a very beneficial thing," he said. "And it was useful in the short term. But it hasn't been particularly useful in terms of the career of the band. It alienated rock stations, which considered it too pop."

The pop charts reflect this problem. Where Berlin's two pre-"Take My Breath Away" albums both reached the Top 30 in this country, "Count Three and Pray," its only album since the No. 1 hit, barely grazed the Top 100.

"We don't have anything against the song," Watts-Russell emphasized. "It's just that the nature of the song was not representative of the identity of the band. The lesson here is that if you're going to have a big hit, it better be with a song that is truly representative of who you are and how you want to be perceived."

Rob Kahane, who co-manages George Michael, among others, noted that the key is consistency.

"Everything has to be telling the same story--the image, the record, the video," he said. "Once you deteriorate that image and destroy your base, it's very hard to get that back. . . . Once you sell out and do something that's obviously not you, people start to expect that. You gain a new following. But that following probably isn't nearly as loyal as the original fans were."

Kahane, formerly a booking agent at Triad Artists, added that video has accelerated this phenomenon. "Videos can be just as damaging as the music, especially if the song doesn't really reflect the essence of the band. The video takes it to the next step in people's minds."

Kahane said the best way for artists to avoid this pitfall is to be true to what makes them unique.

"It's got to be them," he said. "It can't be contrived. When artists do records that they normally wouldn't do or shouldn't do, it limits their long-term potential. It becomes the flavor of the month--and next month there'll be a new flavor."

Case Study No. 2:

Rod Stewart

Stewart was one of the top rock stars of the '70s. His records were consistently played on both pop and rock-oriented radio stations.

Then, in late 1978, he released "Da Ya Think I'm Sexy," which quickly became the best-selling single of his career.

Instead of sending him through the roof, however, the single suddenly put Stewart on the defensive.

The problem was multifaceted. "Sexy" was a disco record at a time when rock-oriented stations and fans considered disco a shallow, commercial sell-out. Also, the record projected a jet-setting, playboy image that alienated Stewart's core rock 'n' roll audience.

Though Stewart had six Top 10 albums in the '70s, he hasn't placed an album in the Top 10 since. His 1986 album, "Rod Stewart," barely cracked the Top 30.

And, the phenomenon isn't all that rare.

Pat Benatar learned that the hard way in 1980, when she cracked the Top 10 with "Hit Me With Your Best Shot." The record gave her a one-dimensional, tough-as-nails image, reducing her persona to a "tough chick" pose. In recent records like "We Belong," Benatar has tried--with mixed success--to broaden that image.

The problem is that once an image is set, it's very hard to change.

Case Study No. 3:

The Carpenters

The Downey-based duo made some of the classiest pop hits of the early '70s. Their long string of million-sellers included such mature, sophisticated records as "Rainy Days and Mondays" and "Superstar."

But their image--while never "hip"--suffered greatly with the 1973 release of "Sing," a sing-along record of a song from "Sesame Street" complete with children's chorus. It was a smash, climbing to No. 3 on the pop charts, but it gave Karen and Richard an undeserved bubble-gum image. That image was reinforced the following year when they released the rather juvenile "Please Mr. Postman"--complete with a video shot at Disneyland.

"Postman" reached No. 1, but the Carpenters never again topped the chart. In fact, they logged only one more Top 10 hit.

One of the words that comes up a lot in talking about records that hurt artists in the long run is wimpy .

Case Study No. 4: Paul McCartney

and Stevie Wonder

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