What Grammy Goddess Adele Can Learn from Whitney Houston...And Norah Jones
It was as subtle as a Michael Bay car chase. On the same weekend that Adele officially ascended to the throne of the Pop Goddess status, winning six Grammys for music from her hit album 21, one of the previous occupants of that lofty perch, Whitney Houston, was found dead in her hotel room. The parallels were both sad and inescapable. But there’s also less obvious analog, with a happier ending, in the person of another Grammy It Girl, Norah Jones, giddily belting out punk rock wearing a platinum blonde wig.
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Today, Adele, her own hotel room full of tiny Victrola-shaped trophies, faces a fundamental question? What next? Where do you go from the top?
Houston’s short, troubled time provided a blueprint of what not to do. Her talent was boundless, summarized in Ann Powers’ stirring NPR remembrance. Her life, if the tabloids and Bobby Brown’s proto-reality show are to be believed, was at best a roller-coaster. It’s impossible to parse the root causes of this level of dysfunction, but the pressures of being at the apex of the music business and trying to stay there surely didn’t make matters easier for Houston.
Unlike, say, the late Etta James, who had her own demons but managed to keep it together on an artistic level, Houston was not even a particularly good steward of her own vocal gifts. Still, given the public’s eternal appetite for a second act, fans hailed every Whitney Houston record as a comeback, until the comebacks ended for good this weekend at the age of 48.
Is there another way? Rewind to the 2003 Grammies, when Norah Jones won five Grammys for her debut album, Come Away With Me. Overnight, she went from playing for the door in small Manhattan clubs to multi-platinum fame. The celebrity hamster wheel beckoned. Miss Jones demurred.
To see the obvious differences between Jones and Houston, just click on their respective IMDB pages. Houston essentially played herself in the big-budgetThe Bodyguard. Jones? Her first film role was My Blueberry Nights, playing alongside Natalie Portmanin the first English language film made by Taiwanese inide-auteur Wong Kar Wei. And she played a waitress who doesn’t sing.
Musically, Jones’ post-stardom journey has also been a story of alternate routes. While she hasn’t collected another armful of Grammies, her career has been a triumph of artistic independence. Jones’ three follow-up records to Come Away With Me have been pleasant, if a little bit safe, designed to appeal to the same demographic as her transcendentally successful debut record.
When recording under her own name, Jones has stretched in measured ways, writing more of her own songs and adding new band members but has largely stayed true to the easy-on-the-ears vibe that won her all those Grammys. And her record sales–23 million copies worldwide after Come Away–have supported the wisdom of the decision to protect her brand and give the record companies what they want.
To stretch her wings musically, Jones has done a wide variety of guest appearances, working with artists ranging from Ray Charles to the Foo Fighters, from Danger Mouse to the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. But even that wasn’t quite enough.
For her next trick, Jones performed a brilliant spin on a traditional music biz trope. Musicians from successful bands, from The Who’s Pete Townshend to Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, have routinely taken artistic vacations from their peers by releasing solo albums under their own names. Jones did exactly the opposite. She started up bands for the same reason that kids in garages do: to have fun with her friends and make cool music in the process.
If El Madmo was a fling, The Little Willies was a full-fledged musical affair. It started out as a living room project, Jones and some old friends getting together to play loose, impassioned versions of the old-school country songs that she loved growing up in Texas.
They played a few gigs.
They had fun.
They made a record.
A good one.
The band’s self-titled debut featured chestnuts like Bob Willis’ “Roly Poly” and Kris Kristofferson’s “Best of All Possible Worlds,” and ended with the original “Lou Reed,” a tall tale about alt-rock pioneer in a Texas field tipping cows. The rhyme “boot varnish” with “Jim Jarmusch” tells you everything you need to know about the spirit of this record.
Jones readily shared the spotlight with fellow vocalist Richard Julian, and especially withguitarist Jim Camplilongo, whose incendiary Telecaster licks defined the band’s sound. Jones’ charmingly loopy version of Gotta Get Drunk is the band’s signature tune, combining her vocal gymnastics with Campilongo’s sly guitar heroics.
More to the point, the Little Willies was a win-win. Jones got to stretch artistically without alienating her more casual fans—or diluting that valuable brand–and her friends, worthy musicians all, got additional exposure and made meaningful amounts of cash. And her hardcore fans got a couple of albums of brilliantly casual music.
So it’s somehow apropos that, as Adele ponders her next move, Norah Jones is quietly playing gigs and making television appearances in support of the second Little Willies album. What’s the antidote to multi-platnium expectations? Maybe it’s nothing more than a band, a blonde wig, and a red guitar.