Drastic image overhauls rarely, if ever, work in the pop-music realm. Liz Phair has been the subject of much critical derision for slicking up her sound and acquiescing to fuck-me-faster photo shoots. Vanilla Ice could never quite make that transition from zebrahead poseur to spliff-smoking ganja rapper. Pink's ongoing mutation from bling-ass hip-hopstress to fully realized punk has proven to be a disaster at the box office. Christina and Britney have had their share of growing pains while attempting to straddle the not-so-fine line between teddy-bear-wielding teenybopper and strumpet. Even the world's so-called greatest band, U2, was basically left for dead during its Bono-dubbed "Fat Elvis," Zoo TV era, before smartly retreating to its winning formula of politically charged rock anthems.
But can't nobody hold a candle to Garth Brooks and his infamous "Chris Gaines" dalliance. You remember Chris Gaines, yes? At the top of his country-crooning game, Brooks created the Gaines falsetto-pop alter ego, supposedly as an excuse to don a mod toupee, grow a soul patch, sport copious amounts of eyeliner and surpass the Beatles' career milestone for record sales -- or so went the blueprint.
Long story short, the Gaines plan backfired. Big time. Despite plans for a Chris Gaines movie and follow-up albums, Gaines became Brooks' personal Battlefield Earth, an experiment so perilously miscalculated that the balding mouth-breather had to all but kiss the toes of Nashville just to get his country career back.
It seemed hard to imagine anyone ever coming close to Brooks' bout with bellicosity -- until now. Ladies and gentlemen, meet Jewel Kilcher.
Jewel's latest album, 0304, is wholly mediocre. No surprise there: Jewel's always been mediocre. Even still, such elementary folkie hits as "You Were Meant for Me" and "Who Will Save Your Soul" off her multiplatinum 1995 debut, Pieces of You, found a large audience of intellectually challenged youngsters for whom Dylan, DiFranco or even the Indigo Girls were apparently way, way too heavy to get one's mind around.
Sophomore slumps are de rigueur in pretty much any entertainment genre, and Jewel's Spirit was no exception. Still, both Spirit and its poppier successor, This Way, charted respectable, if not spectacular, sales numbers and produced cheesy little hits such as "Hands" and "Standing Still" without betraying Jewel's folkie mantra and core audience.
"Jewel's certainly proven that she's more than a one-hit wonder," says Gary Bongiovanni, editor in chief at Pollstar, a major concert industry news outlet.
Fair enough, but that still doesn't explain Jewel's decision to grab her guitar case and tear ass out tha coffee house, only to emerge as a thong-wearing, beat-manipulating techno-whore. Artistically, the reshuffle hasn't worked: The album's lead single, "Intuition," is arguably the worst to hit mainstream radio this side of Spears in the past year, and it topped out in the twenties on Billboard's all-important chart o' hits. And despite a first-week flurry of sales, the album has moved a disappointing 700,000 units since its release in June, according to Kevin Boyce, editor-in-chief for leading industry publication CMJ.
"On the surface, it would appear that [Jewel's] change in direction has seriously hindered her credibility," says Boyce. "Her transformation from Alaskan folkie to wanna-be teen queen alienated her core fan base, who respected her as a singer-songwriter who relied on her unique voice and talent over blatant sexuality and whored-out gimmicks exploited by Britney Spears and the rest of Madonna's tongue-touching tarts.
"Pieces of You sold a gazillion copies because of memorable songs like 'Who Will Save Your Soul,'" he continues. "Though most would agree that Ms. Kilcher's physical assets are equally impressive, her attempt to capitalize on them seemed as desperate as it is. I give her credit for trying to evolve, but she's hardly going to gain credibility as an artist while flirting with routine dance-pop -- the most disposable, corporate and useless drivel in popular music. It's like eating a five-star meal and stopping for a Big Mac on the way home."
Worse yet, despite massive amounts of free media and money shots generated by Jewel's oh-so-calculated sexed-up image, album sales for 0304 have been a drop in the pan, and her latest tour finds her relegated to riverside casinos, ice rinks and the like in such cosmopolitan meccas as Rapid City, South Dakota; Topeka, Kansas; Davenport, Iowa; Rockford, Illinois; Merrillville, Indiana; Robinsonville, Mississippi; and Verona, New York.
Could it be that Jewel is embarking on such a backwater tour just to show some love to her fans in remote locales? Perhaps, says Pollstar's Bongiovanni. "They're smaller markets that are starved for entertainment," he says. "And they pay well." (Jewel, through a publicist, declined comment.)
Of course, the motive for kicking off your tour in a Bozeman, Montana, ice arena and hitting the Grand Casino Biloxi and the Grand Casino Tunica on back-to-back dates might be as simple as a sorry case study of supply and demand.
"At this point, she's doing anywhere from 1,500 to 5,000 people," says Bongiovanni, who notes that Jewel's 1999 tour with Rusted Root drew crowds as robust as 16,000 in large amphitheatres.
Perhaps the most telling sign of Jewel's free fall is the roster of acts appearing at the venues on Jewel's itty-bitty-city tour. Only at Spokane, Washington's Big Easy, where Jewel will perform on March 12, do there appear to be traces of respectability, personified by Ani DiFranco, Liz Phair, Damien Rice and the Pixies. But the other towns? Titans, we tell you: Kansas, Blue Oyster Cult, Ronnie Milsap, Skid Row, the Doobie Brothers, George Thorogood, Manhattan Transfer, Cledus T. Judd, Tim Conway, Carrot Top, Larry the Cable Guy, Jimmy Walker and -- try and keep your belts fastened, ladies -- Howie Mandel.
The only gig missing, it appears, is a half-hour, lip-synched set from Jewel during "At Ease Friday" at an army base in Maine, with Rick Astley and the Thompson Twins sharing the bill.
So what went wrong? It's as simple as Britney to Beyoncé. Back in Spears' jailbait years, she could have been reciting lyrics from a trigonometry textbook and her horny, obsessive fan base would have lapped it up. Christ, come to think of it, she could have been Marlee Matlin-mute: The American people were so hungry for eye candy at that point in history (and Spears is history, as the disappointing sales numbers of her latest album attest) that vocal cords mattered not.
But what the smolderingly talented Beyoncé has proven is you can have your sexy cake and eat it, too. In a post-Britney age, one must have chops to back up the bootylicious posterior. Hence, the bar is higher for she-who-will-be-diva -- and Jewel doesn't have the talent to do even one chin-up.
But hey, she's hella easy on the eyes. And rumor has it Chris Gaines is looking to get back in the studio with a duet partner in tow.