Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

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Friday, Jul 31, 2009
"In World War II, the average age of the combat soldier was 26. In Vietnam, he was 19."

In 1985, Paul Hardcastle, a talented jazz musician, released a single that topped the dance chart, reached #15 on the Billboard Hot 100, and spent five weeks as the number one song in the United Kingdom. And his inspiration was an ABC television documentary on the Vietnam War.


It’s hard to imagine a more unlikely hit. Hardcastle combined an instrumental track with Peter Thomas discussing post-traumatic stress disorder, added a disco beat and a group of women singing, “All those who remember the war, they won’t forget what they’ve seen,” and had a massive hit. More amazingly, he took what could have been a cheesy or disrespectful disaster and ended up with a compelling recording that reminded a younger generation that war comes at an incredibly high price.


Although Paul Hardcastle never had another track chart on the Billboard Hot 100, he recently won the Billboard Smooth Jazz “Artist of the Year” award for 2008 and continues to be a well-respected artist. Hardcastle’s producer back in 1985, Simon Fuller (creator of American Idol), named his management company 19 Entertainment after the song.


And 24 years later, teenagers are still fighting in wars and dying thousands of miles from home.



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Friday, Jul 24, 2009

In the beginning, there was Britney Spears, dressed as a Catholic school girl with a bare midriff, short skirt and pouty lips, selling sex and CDs to the tune of “Baby One More Time”. It was easy to predict Britney Spears would become a major force in pop from the moment the school bell rang in her first video and the iconic notes of “One More Time” began to play.


In the music industry, imitation is the sincerest form of profit, so a legion of young girls began flooding radio stations and MTV countdowns.


Although most would argue that Christina Aguilera is far more talented vocally than Britney Spears, it hasn’t helped her much. Even with twice as many number one hits and four Grammy Awards to Britney’s one, Christina seems forever destined to be overshadowed by her former Mickey Mouse Club co-star.


Jessica Simpson had a beautiful voice, but her affected vocal style and lazy annunciation hurt her chances of ever being a major star, so she found success by making ignorance look charming on reality television.


And then there was Mandy.


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Friday, Jul 17, 2009
Years before Milli Vanilli, Baltimora featured an actor playing the part of a singer.

More than 70 years after Edgar Rice Burroughs first saw his Tarzan of the Apes novel published, Baltimora had one of the biggest hits of the ‘80s with “Tarzan Boy”. A perfect dance pop confection incorporating playful lyrics about “monkey business on a sunny afternoon” with Tarzan’s iconic yell, the song spent an incredible six months on the Billboard Hot 100 beginning in October of 1985, eventually peaking at #13. A few years later, “Tarzan Boy” returned to the chart for three more months after being featured on the soundtrack of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III and on a popular commercial for Listerine mouthwash.


Jimmy McShane, the flamboyant Irish front man for Baltimora, died in 1995 from complications resulting from AIDS. Six years later, Tom Hooker, a successful Italo Disco performer and producer in the ‘80s, revealed that while McShane appeared in the Baltimora videos and on their record covers, he wasn’t the vocalist of the group. Instead, McShane was lip-synching to the voice of Maurizio Bassi, the man who produced Baltimora.


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Friday, Jul 3, 2009
The second biggest selling artist of all time in the United States only had one single become a Top 40 hit.

Garth Brooks is one of the most successful singers of all time. In the United States alone, he has sold more than 68 million copies of his albums since 1991 (when Nielsen Soundscan began monitoring sales), and only the Beatles have sold more albums in American history. He was largely responsible for the massive growth in popularity of country music during the ‘90s, and he has consistently broken box office records when he toured.


Yet, for all of his huge success, he only had one song reach the Top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Even more incredibly, his only major mainstream hit wasn’t one of his 19 #1 singles on the Hot Country Songs chart. It wasn’t even officially released to country radio and peaked #62 on the country chart as an album cut.


This is the story of the “Lost” one-hit wonder.


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Thursday, Jun 25, 2009
DNA made "Tom's Diner" into an international sensation but barely profited from their work.

The first time I heard “Marlene on the Wall” playing on the radio, I fell in love with Suzanne Vega. The song was catchy, her voice was soft yet defiant, and the image of a Marlene Dietrich poster passing judgment on a woman searching for love stayed with me long after the song finished playing. Suzanne Vega’s self-titled debut was one of the best albums of the year, with tracks like “Cracking” (“my heart is broken; it is worn out at the knees”), “Small Blue Thing”, and the devastating “The Queen and the Soldier”. But none of the three singles A&M released from the album charted on The Billboard Hot 100.


Surprisingly, neither did “Left of Center”, her enigmatic but hypnotic contribution to the Pretty in Pink soundtrack.


So I was happily surprised when, a couple years later, “Luka” became a major hit, spending three months in the Top 40 and peaking at #3. Finally, other people were discovering what a phenomenal talent Vega was. The Solitude Standing CD peaked at #11 on The Billboard 200 chart, and she was poised to become a major star.


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