When Paris Hilton released her debut single, “Stars Are Blind”, critics and audiences were skeptical. That she decided to make music isn’t surprising; after all, the celebrity album isn’t something that Hilton created. As long as people are famous, there will always be the impulse for them to strut into a recording studio with songs in hand. This has also been proven by the many tinny, cheapo dance singles churned out by the RuPaul’s Drag Race contestants or any of the Real Housewives. Hilton is a notorious celebrity because she encapsulates the professional celebrity age of the reality TV/social media era. She’s famous for being famous, and the “work” comes after her fame.
In 2006, at the height of her fame, Hilton decided she wanted to buy herself a pop music career. There was a justified cynicism in response. However, Hilton’s sole record, Paris, is a surprisingly rich and enjoyable album that, like its author, is a perfect artifact of 2006 pop music (particularly, producer-driven dance-pop). When assessing the record, one cannot remove Hilton’s overwhelming fame or the public’s perception of her; it’s absolutely part of the album’s construction.
It’s a record that is a product of celebrity culture, one that relies heavily on pop music trends and cliches of its time. So much of Hilton’s celebrity is a reflection of societal attitudes towards fame, sexuality, gender, and class. As a result, anything she does—whether it’s reality TV or music—is informed by a layer of cultural context that gives it deeper meaning (regardless of how disposable the cultural product is).
By that time, Hilton was a pro at being a celebrity famous for being an heiress and an It Girl. She parlayed that ephemeral fame into a series of cameos in Hollywood films, a modeling career, reality TV stardom, publishing, and perfumes. Hilton found success by being rich, connected, and beautiful. Likewise, she captured the imagination of audiences through the insatiable coverage of the tabloid press (undoubtedly encouraged by Hilton and her PR people).
In the summer of 2006, she dropped her first single: the aforementioned reggae-pop confection “Stars Are Blind”, which peaked in the top 20. Despite the snarky expectations, it proved to be a fresh and appealing slice of escapist pop music that was far better than most naysayers anticipated.
The song starts with a lush synthesizer joined by the one-drop rhythm and introduces the world to Hilton’s voice. Most will remember its listless, vocal-fried Valley Girl affectations. However, when poured onto vinyl after being blitzed into a studio Cuisinart, it sounds lovely and pink sweet, with vague echoes of Gwen Stefani’s idiosyncratic crooning. Despite the baggage she brings to the song, she manages to come across as highly likable, credible, and triumphant.
Of course, the credit for the record’s success—both aesthetically and commercially—is also due to songwriters Sheppard Solomon and Ralph McCarthy, plus producer Fernando Garibay. Garibay, already an accomplished and prolific dance-pop producer, previously worked with pop giants like Enrique Iglesias, Ricky Martin, and even Sting so that he could create a creamy vehicle for his client.
The other important figure on Paris is Scott Storch, a wildly successful songwriter and producer who helmed projects for hip-hop royalty like Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and Ice Cube, as well as pop divas like Mariah Carey and Beyoncé. Although working with Hilton might’ve implied that Storch was slumming and cashing an easy paycheck, to his credit, he put together an expensive-sounding record that recasts America’s most famous heiress as a convincing pop singer.
The album’s second single and opening track is “Turn It Up”, a fantastic dance tune that plays with Hilton’s celebrity and public persona. As the club beats undulate, Hilton seductively pants her catchphrase, “That’s hot”, before she warbles deceptively simple but boastful lyrics about her sexual powers and beauty. “When I lose my clothes / You like that, dontcha? / Let’s get exposed / ‘Cuz you know you want to”. (It’s a seeming allusion not only to her sex symbol status but also to one of her biggest claims to fame, 2003’s leaked sex tape.)
Because the track is so super-charged with sexuality, it’s simultaneously one of the best songs on the record and one of the most difficult to listen to because of its subtextual reference to the sex tape. Let’s not forget that she was filmed without permission and was reportedly incapacitated, yet this happened before the #MeToo movement, so the violation made Hilton both a star and a punchline.
Heartbreakingly enough, the other selection on Paris that feels significantly dated 15 years later is the mindlessly poppy radio-friendly final single, “Nothing in This World”. It’s a midtempo, new wave-influenced song that is produced by the once-popular and successive Dr. Luke (who, in recent years, has been accused of rape by pop star Kesha). Though the court dismissed Kesha’s claims, the singer garnered support from many of her peers. Her allegations are distressing, and there’s an added layer of tragedy to the track because of the emotional and physical abuse Hilton endured at Provo Canyon School (when she was 17-years-old).
Paris ends with a solid cover version of Rod Stewart’s 1978 disco hit, “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy”. When he originally recorded it, it topped the charts; yet, many rock purists were offended that the singer decided to do disco, so he was accused of selling out. Back then, rock fans hotly disputed disco as producer-driven drivel, and Stewart’s devoted fans lamented him gracing dance floors with his gravelly voice.
Clearly, there seems to be some perfect irony in choosing this song as the sole cover for Paris. Firstly, and most superficially, it continues the LP’s sex theme. Stewart wrote it as a lascivious come on, and Hilton believably appropriates the louche Eurotrash disco attitude of his version. In addition, “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” is also seen by many rock critics as the crass epitome of the overt commercialization of music at the expense of good taste and authenticity. Stewart doing disco was seen as a way for an established artist to cash in on a trend quickly, all the while tarnishing his reputation in the meantime because the product was (supposedly) bad.
In retrospect, all of this pearl-clutching has been reassessed as narrow-minded bigotry, but the attention and scorn that “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” engendered is much the same as the attention and scorn that Hilton attracted. Her recording of it is brilliant not because she radically reinterprets the song in an innovative new way (honestly, she does a good but not revelatory job).
Rather, it’s because it’s a cheeky way of sending up the prurient and sex-charged hoopla that surrounds every public utterance or movement that she makes. As if to further highlight the impact of reality television on popular culture, Stewart’s daughter, Kimberly, would create a career that’s hugely influenced by Hilton’s (including some time on reality television).
Ultimately, what Paris achieves is stillness and timelessness as a piece of pop art that follows Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych (1962). Completed after Marilyn Monroe’s death, Warhol’s piece was able to take an already-iconic personality and flatten her into a ubiquitous work of art. Paris is similar in that it takes a figure typically seen as an amalgamation of sexual and gender mores and creates a plastic, disposable work of art. It’s at once a commentary on and a product of the culture it’s reflecting. Listening to Paris in 2021, one must assess the album in a variety of ways. (Primarily, how pop culture presents overt female sexuality and, in particular, white blonde female sexuality.)
American popular culture has always been fascinated by white blondes. For instance, Hitchcock fetishized them in his films, and the 1950s and early 1960s ushered in a boom of sex bombs that followed in Monroe’s wake, such as Mamie Van Doren, Jayne Mansfield, and Sheree North. Hilton shares some traits with Monroe (namely, both are embodiments of America’s sexual hangups and desires,). Like Monroe, Hilton provokes both strongly positive and strongly negative reactions that are often laced with misogyny whenever she creates a public spectacle. Undeniably, many stand-up comics and late-night talk show hosts from the 2000s have a lot to answer for today.
Paris is a snapshot of Paris Hilton at the peak of that public spectacle. That it’s also a damn fine record is serendipitous.