Sustaining success in the music business is tough. Elvis Costello said you get twenty years to write your first album and six months to write your second. A lot of women would argue that Costello was an optimist. Just as in film and television, musical career longevity has always been more elusive for female performers than their male counterparts.
It all comes down to who’s calling the shots. Women who steer their own careers, navigating each bump and curve themselves, last longer. Those who take a backseat attitude to their own destiny and let others do the driving typically burn hot, but quickly burn out.
Aretha Franklin tops the list of savvy survivors. Few female singers can match Lady Ree’s career mileage. As a child she sang in her father’s Detroit church, and the Rev. C.L. Franklin observed that she’s never really left; those gospel roots have given depth and resonance to everything she’s done since. A big part of Franklin’s faith is belief in herself. Managers and record companies tried to get her to do things their way, but she wouldn’t. Columbia Records signed her in 1960 and struggled for five years to shape her into an uptown torch singer like Nancy Wilson. But Franklin never felt comfortable in such plush surroundings. Rather than compromise her musical vision, she signed with Atlantic Records where, instead of trying to tone down her gospel fervor, producer Jerry Wexler encouraged her to use it on secular material. That worked, starting with four consecutive million sellers in 1967, including the seminal “Respect.” Franklin has stayed true to that path ever since, following her heart and her artistic instincts to earn hits in every subsequent decade — scoring with everything from the raucous “Freeway of Love” to her soaring 1987 duet with George Michael, “I Knew You Were Waiting (for Me)” — and 17 Grammys.
Elsewhere, things were different. At Motown, artists like Mary Wells, Martha Reeves and The Marvelettes where expected — indeed, commanded — to adhere to boss Berry Gordy’s assembly-line model for making hit records. That meant charm school, grooming and cookie-cutter choreography. More important, it meant that most Motown stars learned to deliver other people’s musical statements without ever learning how to make their own. When the formula ran out of gas, so did the careers that depended on it. There were exceptions — Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, to name two. Some would add Diana Ross, a woman who continued to thrive long after the Supremes faded. But Ross stayed on the merry-go-round without learning anything new. Through the early eighties at Motown and then for another half-decade at RCA, she let others choose or write the songs, produce the records and make the decisions. After 1985’s “Missing You” — ironically, a paean to one Motown artist (Marvin Gaye) written by another (Lionel Ritchie) — the public had had enough. Her biggest splash since then has been her DUI arrest in Tucson, Arizona.
Ross has, however, fared better than other pre-packaged female pop stars. Tiffany, for instance, came out of nowhere in the mid-eighties, was all over the charts for a few months, then disappeared just as suddenly, presumably back to the same mall where she was discovered. Her 2002 comeback plans were predicated on breast augmentation surgery and a spread in Playboy. “I have grown significantly, both personally and professionally, after nearly a decade raising a family and exploring my craft,” Tiffany said, unclear about exactly what kind of growth she was talking about. “I view my appearance in Playboy as the first step in presenting myself to the world as I am.” And how was that, exactly? Desperate? Half naked? Tiffany didn’t explain, and her subsequent return to total obscurity suggests there weren’t any other steps in her campaign.
Contrast Tiffany with The Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde, who made tough, challenging and utterly captivating records in the 1980s and ’90s. Writing about music — as she did before making her own — helped her better understand the industry and avoid many of the mistakes others made. She adroitly sidestepped all the clichés that have typically defined female performers: no kittenish cartoon sexuality, no provocative outfits. She was unmistakably female — defiantly so — but utterly on her own terms. She took breaks to deal with the deaths of two band members, to marry and divorce The Kinks’ Ray Davies and Simple Minds’ Jim Kerr, and to give birth to two daughters. Each time she returned, her audience was still there, eager to hear what sort of noise she wanted to make next.
Joni Mitchell, whose most recent release, Travelogue, is a career retrospective that covers three decades, has been entirely her own artist since the mid-1960s. Even her guitar tuning didn’t match anyone else’s; she needed a mix of open blues and modal tunings to accommodate a left hand weakened by a childhood bout with polio. Embraced for practical reasons, her tuning was one more thing that set her apart and cemented her singularity. She also stayed true to what she believed made sense artistically and in terms of her career. In 1969, her label, Reprise, wanted her to make a folk-pop record with a group of session players. Joni refused, pushing instead for a solo acoustic album. As a result, she stood out from her contemporaries with starkly beautiful and different work. Most players would have bolstered their first blush of success by working tirelessly to maintain the momentum. Not Mitchell. She insisted on taking a year off. Career suicide, warned her record company. The rapturous reception that met the release of Blue proved them wrong. Three years later she charged in the opposite musical direction with Court And Spark, which proved her capable of constructing flawless pop with a full band, engaging people’s feet as well as their hearts and minds. The possibility of alienating an audience that knew her as a solo acoustic folk artist seemingly didn’t occur to her.
Every time industry experts have told Mitchell she’s going the wrong way, she has ignored the advice and proved it wrong. No wonder she has little use for the music business, and has been threatening to walk away from it since 1972. Thankfully, she has yet to follow through on that threat. But she remains deeply ambivalent about it, apparently having come to an uneasy understanding that the “star-making machinery” she so despises (and so cleverly derided in Court And Spark’s “Free Man In Paris,” a backhanded salute to her former mentor, record mogul David Geffen) is a necessary evil.
Mitchell’s artistic authority, coupled with her suspicion of undue influence, has helped ensure a long career. Deliberate, constant reinvention can work too. Madonna, whose role model seems to be David Bowie, is the prime example. Continually alter your image, ethos and musical direction, and each new album will sound like it’s your first. Fans will call you versatile. Critics will admire your resourcefulness. And if some in the audience don’t like a particular incarnation, they can wait six months, when you’ll be somebody else.
Among contemporary artists, Norah Jones comes closest to matching Aretha Franklin’s feistiness, and not just because her début album was produced by Arif Mardin, who also produced many of Franklin’s biggest hits. Citing such personal heroes as Stevie Wonder, Sly Stone, Hank Williams and Dinah Washington as inspiration, Jones demonstrates her artistic independence by defying easy categorization. Jazz aficionados cavil that she’s not a “real” jazz artist; pop critics complain she’s too jazzy. Audiences don’t seem to know what she is, and don’t care — they just want more of it. She’s never been easy to pin down. Working in New York before her record deal for Come Away With Me, she split her time between playing and singing standards in a piano bar and tearing up clubs in what she described as the “loud rock-and-roll band” Wax Poetic. She connected with audiences in both arenas. A lot of traditional music business folks would probably have counseled her to stick to a single genre, which would have made packaging and marketing her easier, but would have limited her musical and creative scope.
It is, of course, still too early to know if Jones’s fierce independence and genre-hopping ability will result in a long career. She does, however, appear to have resisted every attempt by every kind of advisor to shape her into something she isn’t. Asked her opinion of the type of pre-packaged pop typified by artists like Britney Spears, Jones said she couldn’t imagine herself doing that sort of thing. Instead, she adheres to a philosophy that seems to comprise equal parts of Chrissie Hynde’s contempt for hypocrisy, Joni Mitchell’s insistence on artistic and emotional honesty and, most importantly, Aretha Franklin’s demand for respect. And that, to borrow another line from Franklin, makes her a do-right woman, one who should continue doing right for a long time to come.