Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Things That Make You Go Hmmmm or I Just Want to be Popular Again



Sorry for the really hack-y title, but the other day I was thinking about C+C Music Factory—I apologize for letting you know about that too—and I was wondering where they all scattered. If you're not aware of “The Factory”, they were a group that had a bit of success in the early 1990s with dance hits like the aforementioned title of this Blog entry (the first part), “Make You Sweat” and there was another song whose title I can't remember, but the video was set in a factory where everyone danced and sweated.

Actually wondering is a bit of an exaggeration. I had a few brief thoughts about them and how at one point in my life this faceless band was as ubiquitous as Coca-Cola and then one day they were gone. And I never really gave them much thought after that. It got me thinking about the fickleness of popularity and how you can be at the top of your game, like C+C Music Factory and the next day you could be erased from the memories of the American public.

C+C Music Factory were about as big as any producer-driven, dance band could get. I'm pretty sure that their album was in the top ten (it peaked at number two, according to Wikipedia) and they had a bunch of singles that made it to the Top 10. Then the group got into a little bit of a problem when it turned out that the female lead singer (the model known as Zelma Davis) was lip-syncing the group's hooks. Turns out the real singer was someone by the name of Martha Wash who once sang Homer Simpson's favorite song (“It's Raining Men”) as a part of the duo the Weather Girls.

C+C (which stood for the first letters in producer's last names David Cole and Robert Cilvilles) decided that Wash didn't fit the right image of the Factory, so they hired this model to do the lip-syncing and everyone was pretty happy. Until Wash got pissed when she realized that the reason why she wasn't asked to be out front is because she was, well, uh, fat and Davis was not. In the wake of the Milli-Vanilli scandal, this was a big deal so they went to great lengths to let everyone know that while Wash sang the hooks, Davis visualized the vocals. This was even explained in the lower left-hand corner of the video when “Make You Sweat” aired on MTV.

The point of this entry was to lionize C+C Music Factory, it was to talk a bit about popularity. When C+C were at their apex, front man Freedom Williams* was on a lot of different shows sometimes by himself and sometimes with the group. He was on the Arsenio Hall Show, all over MTV, different awards shows and popped up on network TV shows. When on MTV, a lot of times he wasn't even on to discuss his music or dancing, it was to talk about other things.

* Not sure why he chose Freedom as his stage name, there was nothing overly patriotic or pro-American about the man. I don't think that he was from Philadelphia either. About the only thing that he seemed to want freedom from were his shirts, the guy was always walking around half naked. He was like a rapping Incredible Hulk.

MTV had a long-running “news” show called “Sex in the 90s” where they would interview kids, experts and celebrities about sex. Most of the times, the kids would say something generic (“All kids have sex in my school”) that would shock local parents. The experts were the reason why this was a “news program” and they would rattle off statistics or say something about AIDS and using a condom. These words, juxtaposed with what the youth of America said, would also shock parents even more.

But the celebrity part was usually the comedic element. Most celebrities would try to say something amusing (“There's nothing better than a bit of bump and grind, if you know what I mean!”) although there were a few “sage” celebrities that would try to give advice to the kids (“Always wear a condom!”) that was usually pretty obvious, but they tried to impart this wisdom with great gravity. A guy like Steven Tyler was the latter type of celebrity, while Freedom Williams was the former.

And that's what popularity gets you: people hanging on your every word. It allows you to go on television and talk about things that you don't have more knowledge about than the average person, but seem like an authority. Aside from knowing that he (presumably) enjoys sex, what does Freedom Williams know about the subject that most people didn't know when this show first aired? Probably nothing, but since he was semi-famous, somewhat popular and I assume had some free time in his schedule, MTV shoehorned him into their shooting schedule. And whatever he said (whether it made sense or not) made the final cut and was broadcast world-wide scores and scores of times.*

* I'm not even sure if Freedom Williams was on “Sex in the 90s”, I assume that he was but that isn't the point. The point is someone LIKE Freedom Williams (maybe one of the dudes from Trixter or Toni!Tony! Tone!) held people's attention because of their views on sex(or any other subject, really) when they didn't have any credentials other than their name. They're just regular people who know the same things that most Americans know. They just happen to dance better or play the drums more proficiently.

I think that's the most intoxicating thing about popularity. People genuinely care about what you have to say, even if you have nothing new to add to the conversation. While the money and the excesses are nice, the majority of people simply want a voice. They want to be heard and they want their opinion to matter. Even the most introspective, shy and withdrawn person wants to be validated. To be recognized above the din. And being popular gives you that voice and you can say whatever you want and be taken seriously.

Because their opinions matter when they're famous, most celebrities whose 15 minutes are up will do just about anything that they can to get back into the American consciousness. Even if it means completely degrading themselves by appearing on a celebrity reality show that are nothing more than glorified, televised car crashes. Aside from Ozzy Osborne, I can't think of one celebrity who has gone on a reality show and come out of the experience with more credibility or popularity than when they went in. And the reason why Osborne was able to make this transformation is because he (or, more accurately, his wife Sharon) created the template.

For many celebrities, they looked at Ozzy Osborne and thought that he was playing a role on his show. What they didn't realize is that the stage version, the public version of Ozzy Osborne was more of a character than the private Ozzy. The other celebrities saw what the show did for Ozzy's Q-ratings and attempted to do the same thing*. As a result each reality show became more and more scripted than a typical sitcom. This meant that each celebrity tried to play themselves as if it was a role which leads to the multiple personalities of the pubic celebrity, the “private” reality celebrity and the true private celebrity. And most viewers can see right through the charade of the first two personalities and are usually never privy to the third.

* Once it reached the level of its mondo-popularity, “The Osbornes” fell into the same trap too. What was so interesting about the first season of the show is that aside from Ozzy no one else in the family was famous nor did they seem to want any sort of fame. But once more and more accolades started rolling in, the family began to realize that the cameras were around and they began to put on their act. Eventually, the show was canceled and the family (minus Ozzy) has been chasing the dragon ever since. And yes, I know how wrong it is to use a heroin reference in regards to a family where most have spent a significant amount of time in rehab.

The strange thing about wanting to get back to being popular is that those who have fallen from the mountain, don't use the tools that got them back to the top. When an actor or a musician achieves popularity it's normally because they do something completely different or put a new spin on an old idea. When they fall from grace they start grasping at straws and try to jump on the latest trend, which is usually fading away.

Perhaps I'm giving celebrities way too much credit, maybe most of these celebrities only had one really good idea or just enough talent to matter for a brief period in time—there are literally millions of Americans who don't even get that far. And that's probably the crux of the issue, sustaining popularity, the never-ending process of trying to stay fresh and relevant never ends. And once it does, the real problem isn't spending their days in relative obscurity, it's that washed-up celebrities have been to the mountain top and they will continue to try and get there.

And after they've been spit out of Hollywood and there isn't anyone around to take their calls, most of these celebrities returned from where they came. Every few months a car dealership will give them a call asking for them to sit at a card table and sign autographs or VH1 will send an email letting them know that they're doing a retrospective on the 80s and they need them to reminisce. And these people are happy—damn near overjoyed—to do so. Why? Because even if they are sitting at a card table in a brand new McDonalds in Backwater, North Dakota someone less famous than them is going to stand in front of them rapt in awe as the celebrity tells a story. They'll get a taste of that wonderful popularity back on their lips and though ultimately it will be fleeting, it will taste oh so good.

And no matter what you choose to call yourself, that's not freedom.

1 comment:

Francesca da Rimini said...

It's funny you just posted this. Yesterday on NPR I heard that they made a documentary about Bill Withers and what happened to him after he fell out of the spotlight. I think it's called, "Still Bill." Very hip of you :)