Is BC Jean the future of pop music? Clive Davis would like for you to believe so. The legendary music executive (we have him to thank for artists ranging Patti Smith to Whitney Houston) hosted a party for key music journalists and radio programmers on Monday to introduce us to the spunky newcomer. Davis, whose career spans more than five decades, is founder of Arista Records and J Records, but now holds the title of Chief Creative Office for Sony Music.
Jean’s main accomplishment is penning Beyonce’s lovely “If I Were a Boy”--no small feat considering she just turned 23. Davis believes she has the potential to be the next Alanis Morissette or Pink. He also thinks she can be an artist who sells albums, not just digital downloads.
Before he played five tracks from Jean’s forthcoming debut album, he lamented how Top 40 disenfranchises so many artists. It’s a topic most executives are too afraid to bring up for fear of pissing off programmers, but he’s absolutely right. While Top 40 is opening back up, for the last few years it has been dominated by urban-leaning pop. Trends are always cyclical, but it’s been quite a long cycle with very few rock bands breaking through (remember, we’re talking only Top 40 airplay here) or male singer/songwriters.
Davis also scoffed at the popular notion that the world no longer needs labels and that an artist can simply disseminate his or her music via the internet and achieve mainstream success. On this point, I agree with Davis. To be sure, there are acts that can make great livings and earn large followings without a label’s assistance, but at some point--for now--they reach a plateau simply because unless they are independently wealthy, they don’t have the money to promote songs to radio or produce professional videos. The landscape has been changing for the past decade, but we’re not to the point where major labels--or labels in general--have become obsolete. Jeff Castalez, who runs Dangerbird Records, best known as home of Silversun Pickups, said it best to the LA Times recently--and we’re paraphasing: instead of only a few skyscrapers (i.e.the four major record companies), we’re morphing to where there are many two-and-three story buildings. In the short term, Davis is absolutely right: to reach the mass mainstream, most artists still need to be signed to a major--or at least to a large indie. There are a handful of exceptions, like Ingrid Michaelson, but they are very rare, and even they often hire major labels for some kind of distribution or other services.
So back to Jean. Davis played tracks written by Jean with such ringers as the Matrix, Max Martin and Ryan Tedder (she also had a co-writer for “It I Were a Boy” in Toby Gad). They were straight-up pop tunes, mainly propelled by a massive beat. Davis is thinking Alanis, I’m hearing Avril Lavigne. First single, “Just A Guy,” which went to radio this week, is a galloping rush of a song that will be catnip to female-oriented Top 40. The other stand-out track was mid-tempo ballad, “Anyone,” which could be her “I’m With You.”
Jean then came out to perform the same songs that Davis had just played us, but the move served two purposes: it started to build familiarity with the material--which is key to any pop tune’s success-- and showed that Jean can deliver. In fact, she sounded better and edgier live in some cases than on the slickly-produced tracks, especially on “Narcissistic Boys,” which took on a perky, Gwen-Stefani feel live that has been washed out of the recorded version.
Do we think she’s an album artist? Davis has more knowledge in his pinkie than we have in our whole body, but we don’t think so. If nothing else, Katy Perry’s weak opening album sales for “Teenage Dream” two weeks ago--combined with her tremendously strong digital singles downloads--showed that even loyal followers of a pop artist prefer to buy a la carte on a song-by-song basis. Do we think a year from now “Just a Guy” will have sold 2 million downloads. Yes, we do.
Below is Jean’s first single, “Just a Guy.”
What do you think?
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