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The Pop Surprise of '88

September 01, 1988|PAUL GREIN

It's the surprise success story of the year in pop music: A debut album by a black female folk singer tops the national pop charts.

Even in an industry in which surprises are the name of the game, insiders are startled by the speed and seeming ease with which Tracy Chapman, a 24-year-old singer from Cambridge, Mass., reached the top. Her debut album on Elektra Records, "Tracy Chapman," climbed over the glut of heavy-metal, rap and dance-music releases to reach No. 1, and even generated a Top 10 hit, "Fast Car."

That song--a bleak portrait of a poor inner-city couple--is a most unlikely pop hit. And it's not the only cut on Chapman's album with an uncommercial theme. Others concern racism, poverty, domestic violence and hopeless rage--the kinds of themes that haven't found a big audience since Bob Dylan revolutionized pop songwriting 25 years ago.

Industry insiders cite two main reasons for Chapman's breakthrough: the fact that there had been a void in the area of socially conscious music for so long and signs that the social and political climate may be heating up again.

Elliot Roberts, Chapman's manager, said he sensed this yearning for more substance. "There's no one where you can say, 'My, what heartfelt writing, what important words,' " said the Los Angeles-based Roberts, who also represents Neil Young and Bob Dylan. "It's been years since you could say that, since the era of Jackson (Browne) and Joni (Mitchell) and Laura Nyro and Leonard Cohen."

Michael Lippman, who manages the year's top-selling artist, George Michael, believes the timing was perfect for an artist like Chapman to break through. "People were starving for folkie, acoustic, real kind of music, not drum machines," he said.

Roberts was one of several insiders who cited political and social factors in explaining Chapman's breakthrough.

"I think the political climate was a big part of this," he said, "because that's the bulk of her material. I think the election year has a lot to do with it; the possible change of government. There's been eight years of apathy, and I think that young people are much more tuned in now."

While Chapman--who joins Bruce Springsteen, Peter Gabriel and Sting in London for the start of the six-week Amnesty International tour on Friday--appears to be here to stay, few expect her to trigger a full-scale folk revival.

Arista Records President Clive Davis observed: "It does show that the public is hungry for new artists, for new music and ground-breaking albums. Still, I don't think that thoughtful new folk singers will have any easier a time of it. It's not a general industry condition."

The success of Chapman's album has surprised even her staunchest backers.

Bob Krasnow, president of Elektra, said he initially projected that the album would sell 200,000 copies--a highly respectable figure for a new folk singer. It has since sold more than 2 million copies in the United States alone.

Peter Philbin, a vice president at Elektra, noted: "We felt that we had a very special, significant artist who over the course of two, three, four albums would become a major worldwide talent. But I don't think anyone here expected it to happen this fast. Bruce (Springsteen) didn't really sell albums until his third album, 'Born to Run,' and God knows he toured and God knows CBS worked it. It just took a while."

How did Chapman get so far, so fast?

Insiders praise her management team for making the right choices about touring, promotion and advertising, and avoiding several pitfalls.

Charles Koppelman, president of SBK, an entertainment conglomerate that publishes Chapman's songs, pointed to the fact that Chapman was exposed simultaneously in a wide range of media formats.

"Traditionally, record companies target one format of radio where they try to get a foothold. I felt this was music that belonged on (album-oriented rock) radio as well as adult contemporary and ultimately (Top 40) radio. We approached all of those formats, along with college and alternative stations, and took the video to MTV and VH-1 right from Day 1."

But Chapman's backers were conscious of the dangers of over-hyping.

Philbin noted that there were discussions about sending the album to such respected stars as Gabriel, Dylan, Mitchell and Springsteen in the hope of getting endorsement quotes for a trade magazine ad. "We nixed that because we felt that would be over-hype and that we should let the record speak for itself," he explained.

Marsha Vlasic, a senior agent at ICM who books Chapman's tours, said that ICM has never had so many requests for one artist. "Everybody wants to see Tracy Chapman," she said.

But not everybody will be seeing Chapman, thanks to manager Roberts, who is highly respected for his classy handling of the careers of Dylan, Young and Mitchell (a client from 1966-74). Chapman is one artist you won't see singing the praises of diet soda.

"The original plan we made when we got together is still in effect," he said. "She's still going to be doing what she does, which is trying to get her message and her words across. It has nothing to do with success and nothing to do with the amount of records sold. Those things will take care of themselves."

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