By Niki D'Andrea Photos courtesy of www.jordinsparks.com
Woe betide the “next big thing” who gets squeezed through the music industry hit machine, only to find their visions are all misshapen and the expectations are impossible to meet.
Once upon a time, an artist whose debut album charted at #10 on the Billboard charts and sold 119,000 copies the week of its release would be considered a success. Not so for American idol winner and Phoenix resident Jordin Sparks, whose self-titled debut is being flagged as a failure by music pundits because she didn’t debut at #1 like previous Idol winners Kelly Clarkson and Ruben Studdard.
Simon Cowell (far left), next to Jordin Sparks, shortly before Sparks' American Idol career-death sentence
It’s true that Sparks’ debut album has the lowest first-week sales of any American Idol winner to date. It’s also true that the 17-year-old’s debut doesn’t exactly blow the doors open on her potential. The first single, “Tattoo,” is a lame piece of pop triteness that glides along on a blasé beat and indistinct chorus, all while doing nothing to show off the formidable pipes that earned Sparks her Idol title. She might as well be singing in the shower.
Most of the other tracks on the album are equally non-notable, toeing a line between tweener pop and unsexy R&B. With a few exceptions (which I’ll discuss below), the songs on Sparks’ debut suffer from sameness, a side effect of having a “management team” and major label A&R people select songs they felt would be “right” for Sparks. Jive Records A&R exec Jeff Fenster told the Associated Press, "You have to make a record that is representative of who the artist is.”
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Too bad they didn’t do that. Sparks’ album sounds more like it’s representative of what record execs who don’t know what “the kids” are listening to these days think the kids are listening to these days. The proof’s in songs like “Young and in Love,” which sounds like somebody dug it out of a pile of tunes Britney Spears rejected for her self-titled 2001 club kitten album, and “One Step at a Time,” which sounds straight outta Whitney Houston’s ’80s dance pop catalogue.
That said, not every track on Sparks’ debut is an example of how the industry’s hit machine misses its mark. “No Air,” Sparks’ duet with Chris Brown, is a solid, smooth R&B number that hints at a maturation lacking on the rest of the tracks and showcases her soulful vocals. “Shy Boy” is a cool tune, even with its synthesizers and robotic vocal effects that recall Stacey Q’s “Shy Girl,” and “Permanent Mondays” is a layered, sophisticated song that puts Sparks’ rich singing at the front of all this squeaky-clean pop stuff.
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As for making a record that represents who Sparks is, what 17-year-old knows who they are, anyway? Sparks has a wholesome image, she’s a devout Christian, and frankly, she’s a wide-eyed, enthusiastic girl. When I spoke to Sparks on the phone, just five days before her album was released, she was practically screaming with excitement. Everything she said indicated that she was just along for the ride -- “They brought me a bunch of songs they thought would be good for me;” “I’m going to tour, but I don’t know with who or when. I guess they’ll tell me as soon as its planned;” etc.
Perhaps Sparks should have made an album of Christian music, but record execs wouldn’t have stood for streamlining her into a “niche market.” They probably didn’t like the ring of “Jordin Sparks, Christian soul singer.” They probably didn’t want to lose the hype of “Jordin Sparks, American Idol winner,” either. But it’s precisely that hype that’s getting Sparks killed in the press right now. And while her debut album is certainly no Thriller or FutureSex/LoveSounds, I’d argue that it’s not a total failure, either, and any failure is the fault of the machine behind the wide-eyed Idol, who was listening to the advice of people who’ve been in “the business” for a while and are supposed to know what’s what.
So how much of a “failure” is Sparks’ debut album, really? Seems like everybody’s talking about the numbers and not the actual music. Sure, the album’s sales pale in comparison to the seminal efforts of other Idol winners, but while we’re playing the Billboard numbers game, it should be noted that Sparks’ debut came in ahead of Miley “Hannah Montana” Cyrus’ album on the charts (taking into account that Cyrus’ album has been on the charts for 22 weeks, including the #1 spot), and that Sparks’ debut blew away first-week sales of new releases from Keith Urban, Nine Inch Nails, Taylor Swift, and Mary J. Blige.
For a recording artist’s first album, that’s not too shabby. If you’d like to listen and decide on the merits of the music for yourself, visit http://www.jordinsparks.com/music.