While trying to think of a topic for my final Feature Article piece, I came across this article from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:
November 18, 2001
BEING CALLED THE NEXT BIG THING CAN BE A DOUBLE-EDGED SWORD
The label has been an omen of success for some and a burden for others who couldn’t live up to the expectations that accompany it.
By Jeff Daniel
As a rock ‘n’ roll front man, Stuart Lupton had it all. A head full of jet black hair. A keen sense of mod style. Looks that fell firmly into an enviable territory that borders both handsome and cute.
All of that was on display on the small stage at Cicero’s in the fall of 1996, as Lupton and his band, the New York City fivesome Jonathan Fire Eater, roared through a quick, tight set of original songs that mixed the darkness of modern Goth with the bluesy energy of the early Stones. Lupton, a charismatic sort, even had his own restrained version of the Jagger-swagger. And why not? Jonathan Fire Eater, was the current big buzz of the rock music industry. Having just signed with the Dreamworks label after an intense bidding war, the band seemed destined for a Nirvana-like breakout. They were due. They had been crowned The Next Big Thing. Of course, it never happened.
After the release of one major label album (to mixed critical reviews and lagging sales), Jonathan Fire Eater spontaneously combusted. The band that the Post-Dispatch once proclaimed “the future of rock ‘n’ roll” couldn’t withstand the media hype, the lofty expectations — the pressure of bearing a title that it hadn’t lobbied for. The Next Big Thing now was last year’s news.
Five years removed, Jonathan Fire Eater finds itself garnering a bit of music press once again — as a historical footnote in recent stories about another New York City rock fivesome. This time even critics seemed aware of the perils inherent in the hype. “Remember Jonathan Fire Eater?” some are asking. “Could this band meet a similar fate?”
That band is the Strokes, and when it comes to Mississippi Nights on Wednesday night, the young musicians will hit the stage as the new Next Big Thing. So says the media, from the British music press to American magazines ranging from Penthouse to Newsweek. On a Lexus-Nexis search of major publications, the combination of the phrases “the Strokes” and “next big thing” brought more than 30 hits.
Rolling Stone magazine called their coming out disc titled “Is This It?” — released on RCA after the requisite major label feeding frenzy — “the stuff of which legends are made.” The band is selling out shows. “Is This It?” debuted at an impressive No. 76 on the Billboard charts. Most critics rave.
But the Strokes will soon learn that the very sword used to knight them has a double edge. With adoration comes skepticism. With reverential hype comes the inevitable backlash. With sky-high expectations comes the potential for a monumental free-fall. Just ask Jonathan Fire Eater, or the seemingly endless stream of rock and pop bands destined to blow up — an industry term for making it big — who instead found themselves acting out the more traditional definition of that phrase. Sigue Sigue Sputnik. London Suede. Veruca Salt. All were set to conquer. All disintegrated or quietly faded away after a brief splash.
But failures never seem to hinder the hunt for that Next Big Thing, a pursuit that goes well beyond music and the need for new rock stars. Hollywood has its own Jonathan Fire Eaters, as does literature, politics and television. The fashion industry is essentially nonexistent without its trend-setting and star-making bulwarks. Yet despite a poor batting average, the quest for hits continues undaunted.
Perhaps that is due to the fact that for every batch of Del Fuegos – remember that Boston roots-rock band who parlayed a Miller beer commercial into a fleeting Next Big Thing moment? – there is an enduring Sade. For every two or three Jan Michael Vincents, a substance-abusing wreck-of-a-man once touted as the young actor to watch, there is a Sean Penn. For every slew of Brett Easton Ellis types, a David Foster Wallace emerges and outlasts the hype machine.
Without a doubt, the greatest impetus for those continuing the Next Big Thing quest would have to be Bruce Springsteen. Now known as the Boss, Springsteen was far from that in 1974, although his first two albums had established his position as a Jersey-shore Dylan with a hard-core cult following.
In 1975, all of that would change as the music press began to buzz about “Born to Run,” the new Springsteen album that featured an expanded sound that had the potential for wider appeal. The music press hubbub quickly saturated the national media, with the end result being Springsteen’s face plastered on the covers of both Time and Newsweek. Here was the Next Big Thing, the forgers of national opinion declared. A quarter century and millions of records sold later, it’s hard to disagree with their proclamation. (And we can still thank our lucky stars that they didn’t choose Southside Johnny.)
The Springsteen example, of course, is now a case study in how a chosen one absorbs the spotlight’s glare, and, like a flower undergoing photosynthesis, uses the light as a means to blossom. Just as often the opposite is true – the heat causes those in the spotlight to wilt.
The list of wilters is long, ranging from such overhyped failures as film comedian Yahoo Serious to such overhyped forgettables as television talk show host Gordon Elliot (both Aussies, by the way). A kind of antithesis of the Springsteen success story involves the tale of Marisa Berenson, a former model tagged for a leading role in Stanley Kubrick’s 1974 film “Barry Lyndon.” Berenson got more ink than a tattooed Hell’s Angel, the hype machine working in overdrive. She was the new It girl, the new Next Big Thing. Needless to say, Berenson hardly met the expectations. Like Jonathan Fire Eater, she is now a footnote; in this case, as the star of the great Kubrick’s least-viewed major release.
Still, a full-fledged flame-out such as the one experienced by Berenson or Yahoo Serious isn’t exactly the norm. Instead, the more likely course for a failed Next Big Thing is a kind of slow, smoldering, fade away, akin to a once roaring campfire reduced to a pile of barely hot ashes. Or better yet, akin to the career of Matthew McConaughey, the young actor whose brief but memorable roles in “Lone Star” and “Dazed and Confused” left him with TNBT branded on his well-toned biceps. But the media buzz faded after a few years, years that included some bad film choices and some low box office totals. A dozen new Matthew McConaugheys have come and gone along the way. The original, no longer next and no longer big, now does his best to keep from being just another “thing.”
Which might be a little tough for McConaughey, for he surely remembers the heady days of his praises being sung in the loudest of voices (its a chorus that actress Julia Ormond, director Harmony Korine and singer Lisa Loeb, among others, must also miss). McConaughy, as his balloon was being inflated, had even appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine, a virtual clearinghouse of Next Big Things. It is the cover where you saw Matt Damon and Charlize Theron and Josh Hartnett during their ascendancy. Vanity Fair captures the Next Big Thing buzz, nurtures it, fattens it up – then releases it to stamp through America like a very chic and beautiful Godzilla. Sometimes the method works, sometimes not.
Ryan Adams hasn’t made that cover yet – but he has been close. In the magazine’s recent music issue, the young singer-writer appeared in a color spread with a few of his peers. Adams, who recently canceled two St. Louis concerts at Mississippi Nights (he has rescheduled at the Blue Note in Columbia), has the looks and the talent to get some buzz going. That’s certainly the case these days.
Like the Strokes, Adams is a Next Big Thing, a figure touted as a savior of rock ‘n’ roll. He is following the proper path, to be sure. A recent profile in The New York Times Magazine. An appearance as the musical guest on “Saturday Night Live.” An upcoming slot on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.” Add to this a slew of press clippings from newspapers and magazines from across the country.
But also like the Strokes, Adams seems fully aware of the double-edged sword that he has been forced to handle. In interviews, both the band and the singer have acknowledged the fact that buzz can lead to a fatal sting, that hype can lead to ground swell of bad will soon after it leads to a major recording contract. They seemed to have learned from the mistakes of those who’ve gone before them.
In fact, Adams seems to have learned quite a bit: His critically acclaimed new release, “Gold,” features the musician standing in front of an American flag on its cover, an admitted homage to Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” Not quite “Born to Run,” but close enough. One of the rock world’s Next Big Things taking a cue from perhaps the most successful one ever.
Unlike Jonathan Fire Eater, Adams appears to have discovered the Boss’ secret of basking in the spotlight without getting burned. For a Next Big Thing, where flame-out is a distinct possibility, such fireproofing may be as valuable as any combination of talent and looks.