I’ll tell you a story, but I can’t tell you who I’m talking about.
I got a call asking if I could spare some time today to meet with a singer/songwriter who was popular in the 1970s and has been pretty much off the radar screen since. It’s the kind of call you dread, because most times there’s nothing you can do for them. This artist doesn’t even have a record deal. How do you explain that no matter how good they are, VH1 can’t put ‘em on the air if most of the TV audience won’t watch? And the sad truth is, if someone has not had a hit in 25 years, most of the TV audience won’t know who they are and won’t stick around to find out.
Most of us grew up at a time and in a place where there were only five or six TV stations operating, and two of those were running Sgt. Bilko reruns. If you started to watch a show, you probably stuck with it. We sat through those tap dancers and plate spinners on Ed Sullivan to get to the Beatles. Hell, we sat through them to get to the Association. It was either that or The Mothers-in-Law with Kay Ballard.
Now there are 75 channels and the clicker is always in hand. There are hundreds of worthy musicians who will never get a shot on VH1, because the viewers won’t sit for them. I wish that weren’t true, but I’ve learned it the hard way. I’ve put on brilliant artists performing great songs to rapturous audiences and glowing press, and I’ve watched the ratings drop like a dead man’s temperature.
But this woman was in her day a great talent. I’d never met her, but how could I say no to just listening to her new songs? There was a time when I would have lined up on a sidewalk in the snow just to shake her hand.
So she comes in, she sits down, we make small talk, and before she takes out her demo tape I explain how little I can do, but mention a couple of record executives who might be sympathetic to the idea of doing something with her on a small scale. She cuts me off right there. Two of the three have made her offers already and she’s turned them down. (The other once insulted her; she has no use for him.)
The point she wants to make is that she is not interested in revisiting the sound she made as a kid–she is doing new stuff in a new style. She tells me how much she loved Nirvana and how she listens to a lot of hip-hop. My heart sinks a little–what’s sadder than an old folkie trying to be hip? It’s like the with-it mom we all dreaded getting stuck in the living room with in high school.
Well, I know nothing. Because this beloved ‘70s star put on her new songs and I almost fell off my chair. It could have been the next Fugees record, it could have been Macy Gray’s follow-up hit. The stuff was fresh and funky and had more hooks than a tackle shop. Her singing was extraordinary. I was stunned. It blew her ‘70s work away. It also blew away the work of almost everybody with a hit on the charts today.
I understood why she didn’t want to sign with people who wanted to sell her as a nostalgia act. And I admired her guts for resisting the temptation to grab any deal she could get. I have absolutely no idea how to sell a middle-aged woman to a hip-hop audience, but I strongly suspect that the kids who would love this would not be as bothered by her age and history as the record companies who would have to market it. I told her if she sent this out with a blank label, A&R men would fall over themselves to sign it. If she wanted to pull a Milli Vanilli and get a cute Mousketeer to mime singing it, she could make a million dollars in about 10 minutes.
But of course, she doesn’t want to do that. She’s an artist. She wants to believe that it’s possible for a woman of a certain age who is making the best music of her life to get up and sing it without being crossed off the list because she’s not a sex kitten.
I promised to hook her up with some young talent scouts. I’ll pass out copies of the demo to producers who might see past the prejudices of the moment and get at the heart of the music. I hope someone has the guts to go for it.
And I hope if they do, VH1 will find a way to play it. We spend a lot of time here on Diversity Training–we work to make sure that the environment is supportive of women, blacks, gays, and all the other people who have often been left outside in America. But when this talented musician left my office today, I found myself facing my own prejudices. There are a whole lot of people on the glamour blacklist–the ugly, the old, and the alleged has-been. I thought about how many times I rejected an artist proposed for a show by saying, “They’re washed-up.” How many times in cutting a show do I turn to the editor and say, “Get rid of the shot of the old guy,” or the bald guy, or the fat guy.
Today I heard some great music by a wonderful artist. I hope I can give her a hand. I hope she has a shot. And I hope I’m not the kind of person who’d keep her from getting it.