Back in the day — and by "day," I mean the mid-'80s — a movie star wasn't really a movie star until he cut a shitty, self-indulgent music album that bombed everywhere except Soviet satellite states. After a Don Johnson Heartbeat here and an Eddie Murphy So Happy there, the trend blessedly pissed in its own mouth and died.
The lesson: Movie stars make for terrible pop stars. This isn't a specific criticism of their musical abilities. After all, Bruce Willis can play a mean harmonica, but that didn't stop If It Don't Kill You, It Just Makes You Stronger (1989) from going over like lead-tainted Chinese baby formula.
Now a new generation — and by "generation," I mean Zooey Deschanel — of moonlighting actors is challenging the movie-stars-make-shitty-singers paradigm. For reasons that have as much to do with image and temperament as musical ability, the star of Yes Man and (500) Days of Summer is about to become Hollywood's most useful dual-threat talent since Doris Day.
There's a reason why most movie stars look like asses when they try to chart a record: They're movie stars. Which is to say, they bring a lot of image-baggage to the studio. Willis is a good example. His debut album, The Return of Bruno, was an unctuous and opportunistic salute to his R&B heroes. Still, it sold pretty well, peaking at 14 on the Billboard 200 in 1987.
It should be noted that Willis wasn't a movie star yet. Riding his newfound Moonlighting celebrity, he was still a flavor of the week, a novelty. Then Die Hard (1988) hit theaters, simultaneously galvanizing his stardom and quashing his already sketchy appeal as a pop musician. Naturally, his follow-up album, If It Don't Kill You, was an abject commercial disaster. Was it really that much worse than The Return of Bruno? Not really. Audiences just couldn't reconcile the twin images of Willis as a Eurotrash-wasting badass and Hohner-tooting bluesman.
Among modern movie stars, Will Smith has probably fared best — which is to say, least embarrassingly — as an actor-musician hyphenate. Granted, he's different from Willis in that he enjoyed legitimate musical success ("Parent Just Don't Understand," "Summertime") long before he stepped foot in front of a movie camera, but Smith, too, has been forced to abandon his pop star affectations. Nobody begrudged "Gettin' Jiggy Wit It" (1998) during his rompy Men in Black phase, but notice how little jig Smith has produced since consciously becoming a "serious" actor (Ali, The Pursuit of Happyness).
Read between the lines: Smith wants an Oscar, and when it comes to chart-topping showbiz dilettantes, Oscar voters just don't understand.
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Which brings us to Deschanel, the actress-musician vegan moonwaif with the grade-school bangs and appealingly remote airs. As the singing, keyboard-playing half of the indie-folk duo She & Him (with guitarist-producer M. Ward) and perennially second-billed love interest to the likes of Jim Carrey and Will Ferrell, Deschanel isn't a "star" in the strictest sense of either movies or music. But she's the most vital musical personality that the movie world has produced in a long time. Maybe ever.
It goes beyond the fact Deschanel has a lovely, slightly smoky singing voice and is an accomplished instrumentalist; in fact, it has a lot to do with her movie work. In Elf, Yes Man, and other efforts we often find her singing, evading male affection, and indulging her inner artistic spirit — hell, it's like she's been auditioning to be an indie-music folk-frau all along!
But that works perfectly, because her film and music endeavors conspire instead of compete; like Day's unified front of 1950s virginal wholesomeness, Deschanel presents a compelling vision of contemporary female virtue: independence, rejection of material desire, integrity. Unlike fellow actress-siren Scarlett Johannson, she has a script. Unlike actor/emo guy Jared Leto, she doesn't make a big, douche-y spectacle of herself.
That, in my mind, makes her a more credible musician. And by "musician," I mean somebody whose music we might have listened to if she hadn't been a movie star first.