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800 Words

Wish on a Star

June 03, 2007|Dan Neil

She comes out of that little pixilated square on YouTube, in videos she made in her darkened apartment by the light of a broken desk lamp, singing into a Kodak digital camera--not even a real video camera--propped up on her television. She doesn't have a band; she sings to karaoke tracks from her stereo. If pop culture in the wired world has a Ground Zero, this is it.

Her stage name is Ysabella Brave, except she has no stage beyond the punk proscenium that YouTube offers. She is 27, a fraud and security analyst for Yahoo. She lives in the Bay Area and goes to school at San Jose State. She has two cats and no boyfriend. She likes horror movies. She's a person of faith, and often refers to herself as a "young lady" in a way that suggests a finishing school she never went to.

And she's going to be a star.

I discovered her like hundreds of thousands of others have: late at night, meandering through the cheap laughs and pitiful self-made spectacles of user-posted Internet video. In a little more than a year hers has become one of the most-subscribed YouTube channels, with not quite 25,000 people waiting for her next zero-production video--"I just press the button on the camera and go," she tells me over the phone. She's posted at least 80 performances, most of them American standards and the best of them torch-singed cries from the soul, like her exquisite "Meu Fado Meu." Her rendition of Cole Porter's "Let's Misbehave" has been seen by 660,000 people in four months.

Her fame, such as it is, is just now beginning to pour over the broadband borders. "I was recognized yesterday," she tells me. "I had just stepped out of my house in my pajamas!"

In a way only the semi-anonymous and disinhibited Internet allows, the connection between Ysabella and her fans has been deeply intimate. "I've had people tell me they've played the videos at funerals and weddings," she says. "Three people said they played 'Landslide' at funerals, and it cheered people up."

Not everyone has been so positive. There are lots of people out there who think Ysabella--her real name is MaryAnne--is a fraud, like last year's Lonelygirl. She tries not to let it get to her. "If you're crazy, you get a YouTube account," she says. "If you're crazy and under 18, you get five YouTube accounts."

But my motives were different. I was not looking to be entertained, exactly. I was and am looking for the next big thing. I'm prowling the frontiers of disreputable homemade art, where commerce never goes, hoping to find the next YouTube phenomenon, the next kid who shreds Pachelbel's Canon at 200 mph on an electric guitar, the next Chad Vader, or the next time-wasting genius who re-creates the fountains at the Bellagio using liters of Diet Coke and Mentos. Believe me, it's a peculiar assignment, to survey the world's retail weirdness.

And there she was, singing Porter's "Night and Day" as if her desk lamp were a Copacabana spotlight. You may judge for yourself--she's easy to find--but do consider how all that bewitching energy, that poise and to-the-hilt allure, are being squeezed through the most meager medium available. What would this woman sound like with a real microphone?

And I had an eerie feeling. What if you had seen Cassius Clay wailing away on a speed bag in Louisville when he was 16 years old? What if you had wound up getting your butt kicked in chess by an 8-year-old Gary Kasparov in a city park in Baku, Azerbaijan? What if you had happened to be in a club in 1982, helping a grass-green REM set up their equipment (this happened to me). Would you have known that you were in the presence of something, someone extraordinary?

For all the Internet's open floodgates, and for all the uncountable homemade videos playing like audition pieces to infinite Chance, the star-finding record of the digital realm has been pretty unimpressive. Go ahead, name a big artist who broke out on YouTube or MySpace. You could point to OK Go, who were swept into the mainstream on the strength of their quirky white-boy yard-stomping, but there are actually only a handful of performers who have made the transition from small-screen volunteerism to actual paid artist.

So the odds against Ysabella are long. And yet, I feel like I'm onto something. She's lovely, with a pale, heart-shaped face and large and shimmering eyes she half-closes as the ecstasy of a well-turned lyric passes through her. She flirts with empty space. She's got the most amazing voice, mellow and perfect-pitched and smoky, the voice of a pack-a-day angel. She's sexy and chaste, a vampy Carmelite.

She's getting noticed. Ysabella was just signed to Cordless Recordings, an e-label division of Warner Music, though it's not clear if that means anything career-wise. She's had a little press, not much, and that's good for me. I want to be the first to declare her great.

This is my Jon Landau moment, when I say I've seen the future of the American songbook, and her name is Ysabella Brave. I could be wrong, but I'm not.

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