This Year's Model

Jonesing bad: Norah Jones teeming with talent and seething with resentment.
Clay Patrick McBride

If Bryan Nesbitt — the super-hot Phoenix-born car designer who gave the world the PT Cruiser before being wooed away from Chrysler by a bigger paycheck from Chevy — had defected instead to Blue Note Records, he might have designed Norah Jones.

Like Nesbitt's instantly iconic car, Jones is a creative packaging miracle who seamlessly blends reverent retro styling and smart, youthful attitude into one irresistible classic-chic composite. The songs on Come Away With Me, her debut album for the legendary jazz label, sport touches of everything eternally cool about jazz, traditional country and pop standards — the American heritage music that took a goofy George Clooney movie and a Ken Burns PBS series to get everyone digging into — in the same way the Cruiser shows off dashes of the '30s and '40s roadsters in its aggressively retro silhouette and trim. The sinewy standup bass is her nostalgia-inspiring forward-raked roof; the whispering brushes on the snare drum her indulgently oversize gold emblem on the hatchback.

But this jazzy ride is no rusted, oversize Buick Riviera shirking off the scrap yard for a few more years, as the seasoned, old-soul voice on the album might lead the listener to imagine. One look at Jones' alluring CD cover photo and a glance through her photo session shots for People, Rolling Stone and Maxim's Blender tell you this racy model comes with all the standard features of a brunette Britney. She's got the party-ready attitude, too, sprinkling earthy four-letter words throughout her hastily conducted interviews and taunting audiences with a playfully tossed-off sensuality between songs.

No wonder critics and buzz-following music fans have been swarming around Jones wherever she goes, gushing over her attributes and snatching up copies of her CD at a rate Blue Note hasn't seen in all of its 62-year history (nearly a quarter-million units in its first three months). If Norah Jones really was a hot new production vehicle, there'd be a six-month waiting list for one of her at the dealerships.

But Jones is a real, 23-year-old girl: a high-spirited Texas lass who moved to Manhattan after two years of college, took a job waitressing in a bar that also allowed her to sing and play piano on occasion, and was soon discovered by a Blue Note accountant who quickly introduced her to label president Bruce Lundvall, who in turn reportedly signed her on the spot.

She's nobody's high-concept vehicle; even when veteran producer Arif Mardin was brought in to work the same magic for Jones that he did decades earlier for the likes of Aretha Franklin, the Bee Gees and Diana Ross, the 70-year-old legend decided to pretty much let Jones' natural talent speak for itself, adding little to the minimalist jazz combo instrumentation complementing her soft, slinking voice.

And while she seems to be a marketer's dream creation, combining an image and musical prowess that could only have been imagined in the prototype sketches of a brainstorming ad agency, Jones is proving to be a most reluctant product, whining about the publicity process in the few big magazine interviews she's granted and already refusing any more interview requests a scant three weeks into her first U.S. tour.

If Jones really is This Year's Model, she's quickly become a forlorn showroom beauty who's already tired of everyone kicking her tires.

She calls them "brain suckers" in a New York Times Magazine interview: the hordes of enthusiastic new fans who've been filling up the concert halls since her quiet little album cracked the Billboard Top 20 and her obligatory video began showing up on MTV and VH1.

"I mean, they're very nice," she says of her new admirers, "but I don't want to hang around schmoozing about my record. I'm just eager to get to the next one."

That goes double for all the journalists who've been tailing her lately for a chance to hang out with pop's Next Big Thing. "Don't you have enough yet?" she snaps at a Rolling Stone scribe sent all the way to Amsterdam to catch the rising star on her European tour. "Haven't we given you enough?"

She uses her first big splash in the influential music mag to gripe about the demands of her newfound stardom. "People told me this was going to be a European tour, but I get here and it's mostly press," she complains. "I don't want to quit, but the thought has crossed my mind more than it should in the past two months. More than I ever thought it would." To the Los Angeles Times, she grouses, "If I do interviews before I do a show, it just sucks my energy dry. And then the music suffers . . ."

And while every young singer from Beyoncé to Tweet seems to grasp the importance of exuding a sexy image for print and TV, Jones shows up for her Maxim photo shoot wearing her own Willie Nelson tee shirt and a look for the camera more "let's get it over with" than "let's get it on."

"I don't want people to want me," she tells Entertainment Weekly when the photographer suggests a shot baring her midriff, à la every other girl of her generation. "I just want to look nice."

You can almost hear the execs at Shore Fire Media, the Brooklyn-based publicity firm tapped to handle press for the reluctant singing sensation, nervously popping the caps on their Motrins. "We do have some good photos on our Web site you can download," offers an apologetic Matt Hanks after failing to accommodate yet another press request for a private sitting.

Hanks knows Jones' arresting image alone offers enough counterpoint to the record's subdued old-old-school charm to keep the fire burning for the barely legal-aged torch singer. You simply can't play Come Away With Me for a friend without snatching up the CD cover 30 seconds into the first track and declaring, "And here's what she looks like!"

Looks matter — even in jazz, as the disproportionate media attention given the past few years to the comely Diana Krall has proven. And there's a certain unspoken astonishment at work today behind every pretty face who manages to display some true talent: After three years of pretty pop princesses with weak voices and a distinct lack of interest in getting anywhere near a musical instrument, we're all amazed to discover drop-dead beauty and musical chops don't have to be mutually exclusive things.

Jones' youth is a big factor, too: Chat rooms on the WB's Web site are filled with shout-outs to Norah from young fans who fell in love with the singer when one of her songs was used at the end of a Dawson's Creek episode and are now thrilled to be discovering their own inner mellowness.

"I usually don't like this kind of music," writes Andrea from Downey, California. "I usually go for rock. But I absolutely loved Norah Jones' CD! It is very relaxing."

Perhaps the venerable Mardin nailed her appeal most elegantly when he heralded the release of her album earlier this year. "People are bored with formula records," he noted. "There's a certain age group that would like to get their hands on records that feel natural, and I think she may be the advance guard of this movement."

Whether Jones can remain natural amidst the wasps' nest of public buzz swarming around her distracting mane of cascading black hair is anybody's guess. For its part, the famously laid-back Blue Note, none too certain itself how to market its first big pop crossover star, seems content to give its breakout star the requested room to breathe, and grow.

It's a marketing strategy as simple and old-fashioned as the music Jones favors — and one all of us "brain suckers" following her had better get soon, before the disinclined media magnet up and quits on us: Just let the girl play.

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