Sunday, June 03, 2007

Video killed the radio star

About a week ago, I read an article whose truth still rankles: If you're a female singer, you'd better be sexy.

She was an "amazing talent," a young singer with a wonderful voice who wrote beautiful songs. But she was no beauty, plus flat-chested and overweight to boot.

Remembering the aspiring star, music executive Jody Gerson still feels terrible about thinking: "She's never going to get signed, even though she's fabulous."

The article ends with the caveat that talented but less attractive women can find success on smaller labels, but this "hopeful" remark is tempered by that music exec's final pointed question:

Where are the Patsy Clines of today? More often than not on smaller, underground labels, which put more of a premium on talent. And with the devolution of today's music industry, Gerson says, small labels may be the best path to success for a woman who doesn't look like a mold of a Barbie doll.

So how would Gerson advise the flat-chested, overweight, amazingly talented singer to chase her dream? Put out her own music and promote herself on the Web.

"As far as we've come as women," Gerson asked, "where are we really?"

The double standard goes far beyond music marketers, of course. Ruben Studdard wins American Idol and he's the "Velvet Teddy Bear." Jordin Sparks wins American Idol and the National Action Against Obesity calls her fat on television.

But male or female, musicians are often judged on looks and style as much as talent, and have been since before The Buggles launched MTV. Seeing the vamps on parade any time you flip past a video channel, it's easy to think that's all there is.

Salon's Audiofile recently launched a new feature that hopes to celebrate musical talent using a different yard stick. Alongside their free song download of the day, they're now profiling music videos, and they make the same point that music exec Gerson does, that the pure talent is often in the crannies of the industry:

But because so many of the best videos are being made outside the margins of the mainstream -- and certainly aren't getting shown on MTV -- it can be a little difficult to track down the good stuff.

Their first choice was "Ankle Injuries" from Fujiya & Miyagi. Animated using dice by director Wade Shotter, the video "features band members, gymnastics and exploding fireworks, trippily rendered in squares and dots," as Salon says.

How can I watch that without a smile on my face? So even though that article is festering, and music videos tend to be proof of its message, there's actually optimism here if you choose to look at it that way. And since I'm in a good mood today, I do. We might have to dig a little deeper, but there is room for talent to be celebrated over sex appeal, with indie musicians carving out their own niches and video directors who reach for interesting instead of titillating.