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En Vogue's 'My Lovin' is manufactured genius [May 17, 1992]
Plus: Guns'n'Roses, Ugly Kid Joe, and The Disposable Heroes of Hiphopricy
Welcome back to the week of May 17, 1992, where the Top 5 looks like this:
‘Please Don’t Go/Game Boy’ — K.W.S. (=)
‘Knockin on Heaven’s Door’ — Guns’n’Roses (New)
‘On a Ragga Tip’ — SL2 (↓)
‘My Lovin’ (You’re Never Gonna Get It)’ — En Vogue (↑)
‘Everything About You’ — Ugly Kid Joe (↑)
We’ll be exploring some of the Top 40 and listening to our Album of the Week, but first, let’s listen to…
This week’s Number 4: ‘My Lovin’(You’re Never Gonna Get It)’ — En Vogue
In September 1965, right at the peak of Beatlemania, the following advert appeared in Variety magazine:
Folk & Roll Musicians Singers
for acting roles in new TV series.
Running parts for 4 insane boys, age 17-21
Want spirited Ben Frank's-types
Have courage to work.
Must come down for interview.
The ad itself wasn’t all that unusual, just one of many casting calls for upcoming projects that typically appear in the pages of Variety.
But this particular project was different. The actors would have to do more than act. They were going to sing and play instruments. They would make records. They would tour to promote those records.
These four lucky actors were going to be in a TV show and in a band.
The Monkees—both the band and the TV show—were enormous worldwide hits. And deservedly so, because The Monkees had some incredible hits to their name. Name a better song than ‘Last Train to Clarksville’. I’ll wait.
But The Monkees also suffered a substantial backlash. People refused to accept them as a real band, even when they went rogue and started writing their own songs and made the extremely tripy feature film, Head.
People really hated the fact that The Monkees had been assembled via auditions. Real Music Fans preferred bands with an organic back story, like the way The Beatles had become battlehardended on the Hamburg live scene. The Beatles were a real band; The Monkees were four actors thrown together by some guy in a suit.
In a post-Simon Cowell world, it’s hard to understand why people got hung up on this. We’ve seen The X Factor, we’ve watched bands like One Direction and Little Mix being manufactured in real-time, and we’re okay with it.
But for many years, the concept of the manufactured band was toxic. Until the 1990s, when everything changed.
A potted history of Manufactured Pop Bands
So, look, here’s the thing: all bands are manufactured. Even The Beatles.
Hit records don’t happen by chance. They require a team of publicists and producers, stylists and strategists that mold the band into something that appeals to fickle pop audiences.
During the intense production process, the artists themselves—the ones on the cover of the record—sometimes get pushed into the background. Back in the early days of British Rock’n’Roll, acts were often employees, hired under contract by big-shot impressarios. People like Tommy Steele and Billy Fury worked under the same basic terms as the roadies and the bus driver.
In the States, producers and label executives often treated their acts like employees, making decisions that were good for the label and horrible for the band.
Phil Spector had a nasty trick where he would release recordings under the name of another act, without the consent of either artist. In 1962 he got Darlene Love and The Blossoms to record ‘He’s A Rebel’, which was very exciting for the then-unknown Love. You can imagine her shock when the record appeared, but with The Crystals on the cover.
The Crystals weren’t too happy about this situation either—they had to go out and lip-sync to someone else’s record. But Spector’s enormous power meant that both bands simply had to keep their mouths shut.
Stories like these illustrate the artificiality of pop music. Most of what we see and hear is manufactured, constructed by a behind-the-scenes Svengali who wants to sell you records.
And yet, there always seemed to be one red line that you couldn’t cross. Band members had to share some kind of natural connection. That was the rule.
3,000 girls, one band: the birth of En Vogue
Bands formed through public auditions remained relatively rare for a long time. The only example after The Monkees were another band formed for a TV show: The Partridge Family.
(Or, at least, they were the only ones who went on to be successful. I think—if I’m wrong, let me know in the comments.)
Most 80s pop bands had an organic core, even the ones that felt manufactured. For example, in the mid-80s, Maurice Starr tried to build a boy band around his protege, Donnie Wahlberg. They auditioned hundreds of young performers, but failed to find anyone who fit in. In the end, Donnie called in some of his old school pals, and they became New Kids On The Block.
The process of creating a band through auditions seemed to be a dead end, until 1988, when two songwriters called Denzil Foster and Thomas McElroy decided that they would try to use the audition process to create a 60s-style girl group.
Foster and McElory made one crucial decision early in their process. Each member of their girl group would have to be smart, be beautiful, and have a knockout voice. Essentially, they wanted four lead singers.
I think that this approach betrays almost a sense of shame in the project. It’s as if they were anticipating some backlash to the manufactured nature of the band, and they wanted to anticipate that by assembling the best goddamn band the world had ever seen. If they were flawless, if there wasn’t a weak link, then no one could criticise them.
Foster and McElory auditioned over 3,000 girls in the search for their band members, and eventually they whittled the list down to Terry Ellis, Cindy Herron, Dawn Robinson, and Maxine Jones. They called this band... 4-U.
Quickly, they realised that 4-U sucked, so they became En Vogue.
1990 saw the first En Vogue album, Born to Sing, which sold well and earned some award nominations. A success, but not a seismic event in pop history.
Then came the follow-up. 1992’s Funky Divas, a multi-platinum international success with five hit singles, the first of which is this:
If you haven’t listened to ‘My Lovin’ in a while, I recommend that you take four minutes and treat yourself. It’s sublime. An untouchable 90s pop classic.
Does it matter that this is a manufactured band, assembled in auditions and controlled by producers? I don’t know. Did it matter on ‘Last Train to Clarkesville’?
It’s En Vogue’s world, we’re just living in it
The floodgates were already open by the time Funky Divas dropped.
In 1992, Lou Pearlman was auditioning young singers for his new project, The Backstreet Boys. Bob and Chris Herbert were toying with the idea of a new girl group, and that concept would eventually lead to the Spice Girls.
Meanwhile, Take That were putting the finishing touches to their debut album, Take That and Party.
All of these projects were entirely shameless about their origins, and nobody really seemed to care. Later in the decade, it became part of the back story. Boyzone, for example, had a whole narrative about assembling a team of Irishmen that could challenge England’s Take That.
But this whole trend pivots here, on En Vogue and on Funky Divas. Their success showed the world that it doesn’t matter how a band comes together, as long as you’ve got the talent, the looks, and the songs.
Elsewhere in the charts
Number 2 (New Entry): ‘Knockin on Heaven’s Door’ — Guns’n’Roses
The fifth of seven singles from the Use Your Illusion cycle. It’s also the second cover version, following on from their reworking of Paul McCartney’s Bond theme, ‘Live and Let Die’.
And hey, look: ‘Heaven’s Door’ and ‘Live and Let Die’ are both great covers. But the fact that they’re among the strongest songs on Use Your Illusion just shows how directionless G’n’R had become in the 90s.
Number 5 (↑ from 15): ‘Everything About You’ — Ugly Kid Joe
Shortly after ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, good old Weird Al Yankovic released his version, ‘Smells Like Nirvana’, which contained the deathless couplet: “A garage band from Seattle/Well it sure beats raising cattle”.
‘Smells Like Nirvana’ is a parody of grunge, but it sounds Temple Of The Dog compared to ‘Everything About You’. This is grunge for tweens, grunge for malls, grunge for FM radio breakfast shows. This is to Nevermind what ‘Ice Ice Baby’ was to Fear of a Black Planet.
Number 10 (New Entry): ‘Keep On Walking’ — Ce Ce Peniston
This was co-written by Kym Sims, of ‘Too Blind To See It’ fame. It’s no ‘Finally’ and it’s not even a ‘Too Blind To See It’, but it’s still pretty good.
Number 13 (Non-mover): ‘Always the Last to Know’ — Del Amitri
Poor Del Amitri. There was a time when they were on the cover of Melody Maker, being touted as the future of folky pop. But as soon as they broke through, everyone turned on them as middle-of-the-road sellouts.
And look, they’re Del Amitri. They’re not going to change the world, but they’re pleasant enough. This is one of their best singles.
Number 38 (New Entry): ‘Believer’ — The Real People
Britpop gave a boost to lots of no-hoper rock bands that had nothing going for them besides sounding a bit like Oasis. Yes, that means you, Ocean Colour Scene.
The Real People somehow missed this boat, which is especially sad given that they helped Oasis get going. A young Noel Gallagher was trying to get his demo out to record companies, so he reached out to Tony Griffiths for help. By all accounts, Griffiths was overwhelmingly supportive and did everything he could to help, for no reason other than the fact that he is a sound bloke.
‘Believer’ is a cracking tune and absolutely would have made the top 10 in 1996. But timing is everything in this business.
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Album of the Week
Hypocrisy is the Greatest Luxury — Disposable Heroes of Hiphopricy
Hardly anyone has ever said anything bad about this record. Look it up, and you’ll find dozens of rave reviews in major publications. They give it five stars, 10/10, A+, they call it “important”.
That word, “important”, appears in almost every review. This is an Important Record.
One of the only negative comments about Hypocrisy is the Greatest Luxury comes from lead vocalist Michael Franti himself. After he had moved on to his next project (the superb Spearhead), he said in an interview:
“The big problem with Disposable Heroes was that it was a record people listened to because it was good for them - kind of like broccoli.”
That’s the real problem here. It is a self-conscious attempt to make an Important Record That Is Good For You.
Even the title hints at some of the problems. Hypocrisy is the Greatest Luxury by The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. What a mouthful. It’s reminiscent of a joke in Bojack Horseman, where Diane wants to call her memoir, “One Last Thing and Then I Swear to God I'll Shut Up About This Forever: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the War on Women: Arguments, Opinions, Reflections, Recollections, The Razor Tax”
The joke is that Diane wants to say so much, she can’t decide what to say. Something similar happens on this record. Here is a record where the opening line is: “In the 1970's/The OPEC nations began to dominate/The world's oil economy”.
The best-known track on the record is ‘Television The Drug Of A Nation’, a kind of unofficial sequel to Gil Scott-Heron’s ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’.
But while Scott-Heron’s classic focuses on rhythm and rhyme, Franti uses his track to explicitly state some statistics, like how many Americans read books (less than 10%) and how many murders a child sees before they turn twelve (1500).
And look, ‘Television The Drug Of The Nation’ is a decent track, but it comes nowhere close to ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’.
None of this is to say that Hypocrisy is the Greatest Luxury is a bad record. It is a good record. It is sometimes a great record. But it is a record that sometimes gets overwhelmed by what it hopes to achieve.
On side 2, the rhetoric eases off a little, and the beats start to take centre stage. ‘Socio-Genetic Experiment’ is a thoughtful, autobiographical story of growing up as a mixed-race kid. It also has an amazing skank bassline:
Towards the end of Hypocrisy is the Greatest Luxury, we even get something that is actually fun. A thrilling, madcap reimaging of Dead Kennedy’s ‘California Uber Alles’, with new lyrics about Governor Pete Wilson:
The final track, ‘Water Pistol Man’ is sublime, almost breaking into trip-hop at times:
When the Heroes relax a little, we hear what they’re really capable of. It’s just a shame that this record contains so many moments that exist because they’re good for you, like a bowl of overcooked broccoli.
The sad story of teen superstars Kris Kross, plus an album from Stereolab