It's a wide line that separates pop craft and inspiration--the difference between, say, Billy Joel and Don Henley--and Richard Marx is stuck on the wrong side.
The young pop-rock songwriter, who headlined the Greek Theatre on Saturday night, demonstrates the hit-making instincts of Joel, but little of the revelation or original vision of Henley.
That's why he has been able to register nine hit singles in the last three years, yet has developed, arguably, less of a musical identity than such newcomers as Tracy Chapman and Sinead O'Connor, even though they have had only one Top 10 single each.
Marx writes about the usual pop-rock themes, including relationships and the struggle for fulfillment, yet there is an anonymous quality about virtually every aspect of his work. His vocals and arrangements are passable but generally colorless, while his lyrics are almost totally void of surprise twists or memorable images.
Then why so many Marx hits?
The same thing could be asked of dozens of other artists, starting with Phil Collins and Paula Abdul. This is a time when pop radio looks for records that are easily digested--records that offer a sense of drama and allure, but pose no challenge to the listener.
Marx likes to think of himself as a biting and purposeful artist. He wore an Elvis Presley T-shirt on Saturday and delivered a customized, dirgelike version of John Lennon's "Help." But Marx doesn't live up to the best tenets of rock--or pop.
He can weave universal feelings in a vaguely appealing way in such songs as the intimate "Right Here Waiting" or the nostalgic "Endless Summer Nights," but he doesn't inspire or provoke.
The ordinariness of the songwriter's overall vision was demonstrated time and again in the routine nature of his lyrics. A typical example:
\o7 No one has ever made me believe so strong
You left me to wonder
How did our love go wrong?\f7
As a performer, at least, Marx was refreshingly unpretentious Saturday, exhibiting little of the bluster of Joel. He and his six-piece band worked hard during their nearly two-hour set, and much of the audience was wildly appreciative at the end.
At just 26, Marx, with his ability to design hits, should be a part of the mainstream pop scene for a long time. Without more originality and insight, however, he's going to be part of the problems engulfing the scene rather than helping to overcome them. The encouraging thing is that some performers--John Mellencamp, for instance--grow artistically after a flurry of undistinguished hits. The bad news is that no one else in recent years comes quickly to mind.
Saturday's opening act, Wilson Phillips, arrived with some great pop pedigrees--Carnie and Wendy Wilson's father is Beach Boy Brian Wilson, and Chynna Phillips' papa is Papa John Phillips.
The trio--whose "Hold On" single reached No. 1 on the national charts--sound promising at times on their debut album, infusing the mostly mainstream stuff with some surprisingly taut, imaginative vocal harmony. On stage, however, their inexperience was all too apparent.
The singers' manner was as awkward as contestants in a high-school talent contest, and their singing felt somewhat tentative, causing already marginal material to seem even more tenuous. It'll take time to learn if those great genes passed along talent or, mostly, the right pop connections.