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Coming back for seconds

Recording artists who hit it big as newcomers have scant assurance of success in their follow-up albums.

September 14, 2003|Geoff Boucher | Times Staff Writer

When exactly did the industry whispers begin? Did they wait until newcomer Alicia Keys climbed into her limousine after the 44th Annual Grammys with five trophies in tow? Or maybe they started even earlier on that February 2002 night, with audience members debating the singer's future even as she giddily accepted the award for song of the year.

Can she do it again? Is she for real? You can argue that art should not be handicapped like a horse race, but in pop music they measure success by chart position and in the cynical business every new success is considered a one-hit wonder until proved otherwise.

"After any breakthrough, the skeptics come out and wonder if the artist can repeat it," says J Records chief Clive Davis, who discovered Keys (as well as Aretha Franklin, Santana, Janis Joplin and a host of others). "The questions go with the first success, they always have and it is expected. But she will prove herself because she is a true artist, an artiste."

The challenge is this simple: You made magic once, now do it again. Others facing that challenge this season include John Mayer, the Strokes, Dido, Nelly Furtado and Josh Groban. Keys, coming off the once-in-a-lifetime Grammy night 17 months ago, would seem to be the most likely to succeed, but don't forget that she isn't the first newcomer to win trophies for best new artist and best song. Christopher Cross ("Sailing") won both of those in 1981 as well as best album and best record, and seemed to be cruising into a major career. And how's that going?

The well-documented travails of the music industry today and the increasingly rigid playlists at commercial radio make it even more difficult to follow up a hit than in past years. The hook comes quicker now than ever, and career missteps are less forgiven. To help the sophomores pass their exams we present some campus rules that are suggested by past sophomores:

The Wallflower Rule -- Timing Is Everything: The Wallflowers had their breakthrough album, "Bringing Down the Horse," in stores in summer 1996 and its signature hit, "One Headlight," seemed to announce the arrival of a significant new artist in Jakob Dylan, son of a not-so-obscure songwriter named Bob. The disc sold 4.2 million copies in the U.S. and picked up some Grammys. Their follow-up album, "Breach," did not arrive until fall 2000, and the dance had continued without them -- the sophomore CD sold a sobering 467,000.

What had changed? Music trends for one thing, with melodic, lyric-minded rock giving way to the bombast of rap-rock (Counting Crows out, Limp Bizkit in) and perhaps the public awareness of the group.

"You can't say people forget, but there is a sense that if you wait too long people get disinterested or just sort of move on," says Tom Calderone, an executive vice president at MTV. "There's a science to it that's not really a science, but you have to be away for a while but not for too long."

The new Mayer album appears blessed with a perfect sense of timing, Calderone says. "People had time to live with the first album, but now it's off the radio and people are ready for more. They got it just right."

Andy Slater, now president of Capitol Records, has been manager or producer for artists who enjoyed major success early and some of them -- Fiona Apple, Macy Gray and the Wallflowers -- saw their follow-up albums sag. Each instance was different, but Slater says artists who write their own material are pressed for time as sophomores.

"Look at it this way: You live your whole life, you're a writer and you create art from your experiences, and you have 20 or 30 songs when you go into the studio to make your first record, you pick the best 10 and you make a body of work that is a reflection of your life up to that point," Slater said. "Then you have six months to figure what you're going to write about for the second album."

The Lauryn Rule -- Everything Is Not Everything: Not all artists are hung up on matching their breakthrough success, and the former Fugee is clearly one who sought refuge after her solo debut, "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill," became a smash in 1998. Hill, then 23, won five Grammys in 1999 for her solo debut and promptly dropped off the radar to be with her growing family. Last year, she finally recorded and released a CD, but instead of a studio album it was an MTV performance with new, challenging material -- a clear declaration, Calderone says, "to artistically get something off her chest" and "shake off some of the mainstream fans but present a document of where she was and what she was feeling at that moment."

Taking it down a notch and looking inward was also the course taken by Alanis Morissette after the monster success of her 1995 disc, "Jagged Little Pill" (14.7 million copies), one of the most impressive breakthrough albums in pop history. Her follow-up, "Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie," sold 2.6 million copies, but it was clear her ambitions were not defined by sales charts.

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