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

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

In the annals of '80s pop, the quintessential wimp record is Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder's "Ebony & Ivory." The song--a sugar-coated plea for racial harmony--logged seven weeks at No. 1 in 1982 and earned a Grammy nomination for Record of the Year.

But the song's soft, gentle nature--which was mirrored in a video featuring the singers sitting on giant piano keys--didn't do much for their street credibility. Released in the same year as Michael Jackson's "Thriller" and Prince's "1999," it made them seem very much the elder statesmen of pop.

McCartney reinforced his "wimp" image later that year with an equally soft duet with Michael Jackson, "The Girl Is Mine." He redeemed himself somewhat with the 1983 success of the spunky "Say Say Say"--another duet with Jackson--but plunged back into wimpdom with "No More Lonely Nights" in 1984.

Wonder cemented the wimp image in 1984 with the sing-song ballad "I Just Called to Say I Love You," which some fans consider charming but many regard as sickeningly sweet. Though the song reached No. 1 and won an Oscar, there are signs that it has hurt the acceptance of Wonder's subsequent releases. The Motown veteran's recent single "Skeletons"--a funky, earthy record--failed to crack the Top 15. One likely reason: Fans who might have liked such a record tuned Wonder out years ago.

Case Studies Nos. 5-7: Styx, Robert Plant and

Electric Light Orchestra

Black pop isn't the only field where wimpy is a dirty word. That's even more true in rock, where image and credibility are all-important.

ELO, one of the top pop-rock groups of the mid-'70s, never recovered from its association with the 1980 Olivia Newton-John movie vehicle "Xanadu." The British band landed three Top 20 singles from the hit sound-track album, but would probably trade them in for the opportunity to go back and pass on the project. Though the band's four pre-"Xanadu" albums all went platinum, it hasn't since returned to that status.

It's often risky for rock acts to play the pop singles game. Blondie's rock credibility was hurt by its series of pop singles, including the disco-oriented "Call Me" and the rap-influenced "Rapture." Likewise, Wang Chung's rock base has been undermined by its recent pop/dance hits "Everybody Have Fun Tonight" and "Let's Go."

The Starship may face a similar problem this year. There are signs that its flurry of ultra-commercial pop singles in the past two years--including "We Built This City" and "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now"--has alienated the group's core album-buying audience.

It's especially risky for rock bands to cut ballads. That's a sure way to get on a wide range of radio formats--witness the success of records like Journey's "Open Arms" and the Cars' "Drive."

But too many ballad hits can undermine an act's rock credibility. That's what happened with Styx, one of the most commercially successful bands of the late '70s. A string of ballads, including "Babe," "The Best of Times" and "Don't Let it End," led fans to think the band had gone soft.

The band's 1983 album, "Kilroy Was Here," sold about a third as well as its peak '70s collections. Styx subsequently disbanded, and group members Dennis DeYoung and Tommy Shaw have released solo albums to indifferent response.

It's not just by chance that Foreigner chose a rocker ("Say You Will") to introduce its latest album, "Inside Information." The enormous success of the ballads "Waiting for a Girl Like You" and "I Want to Know What Love Is," the biggest hits from the band's last two albums, greatly softened its image. A third ballad smash might have done them in.

Look what happened to Robert Plant.

Plant was the lead singer of Led Zeppelin, the undisputed champs of powerhouse hard rock in the '70s. After Zeppelin broke up in the early '80s, Plant went solo--and cracked the Top 10 with his first two albums.

In 1984, Plant cut a mini-album with a few all-star friends under the name the Honeydrippers. The project yielded a smash single--a soft, melodic remake of the '50s hit "Sea of Love." The song reached No. 3 on the pop chart--and made No. 1 on the "adult contemporary" chart--something that would have been unheard of for Zeppelin. But the record may have confused Plant's long-time fans. His next rock 'n' roll album, "Shaken 'N' Stirred," barely grazed the Top 20.

There are several other types of hits that can hurt more than they help.

Hits that are too similar to an artist's previous records. The Bee Gees made this mistake in 1979 when they released their follow-up to "Saturday Night Fever." Rather than change direction, they came right back with more throbbing, falsetto-laced dance material. The album's biggest hit, "Tragedy," went platinum, but helped wear out the trio's welcome at pop radio.

The two hottest female vocalists of the '80s--Madonna and Whitney Houston--were recently accused by pop fans of cloning their prior hits. Madonna's "Causing a Commotion" was labelled "self-parody" by one long-time admirer, while Houston's "Didn't We Almost Have It All" was identified as a copy of "All at Once," a song from her blockbuster debut album. Both were hits, but neither advanced the artist's career. The Houston record, in fact, led to a biting parody, "Don't My Songs All Sound the Same."

Hits that are too similar to other artists' hits. John Cafferty & the Beaver Brown Band's 1984 hit "On the Dark Side" was so close to the sound of Bruce Springsteen's records that it undermined whatever chance Cafferty might have had to establish his own identity. Likewise, Jennifer Warnes' 1977 hit "Right Time of the Night" was such a note-for-note duplication of Linda Ronstadt's hits that it hurt her credibility at pop radio.

Hits that project a novelty image. Melanie's 1971 smash "Brand New Key"--a '30s-sounding tune laced with mild sexual innuendo--did little to enhance her image as a serious singer/songwriter. Likewise, the gimmicky nature of Rupert Holmes' 1979 smash "Escape (The Pina Colada Song)" hurt his chances of being taken seriously as a singer/songwriter.

Hits too closely identified with a particular era or style. The Bee Gees' songs from the "Saturday Night Fever" sound track and Donna Summer's "Bad Girls" album perfectly encapsulate the disco era of the late '70s. The problem is that there was a severe backlash to that sound--and fans (or at least radio programmers) have been unable to separate the artists from their disco-era hits.

There is good news: Artists can bounce back from "wrong" records. Donna Summer's first hit, the erotic disco entry "Love to Love You Baby," was basically a novelty record, but she developed into one of the top stars of the '70s.

Likewise, George Michael's early hits in Wham!--including "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go" and "I'm Your Man"--were bubble-gum, but he too is developing into a respected record maker.

But his manager Kahane acknowledged that the transformation hasn't been easy.

"Once you have that image of being a teeny-bopper, it's very hard to be respected," he said. "An artist's career can end before it even begins."

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