Here’s the thing about Kelly Clarkson’s already much-maligned “Never Again”: It wasn’t such a bad idea in theory. Over the past 2-1/2 years, the staccato bounce of “Since U Been Gone” had been copied by scores of different acts–even Paris Hilton. So why not come back and fill that long-vacant “woman who rocks, but melodically” slot? Why not be this generation’s Pat Benatar or Alanis Morissette?
Sometimes a mediocre “Moment of Truth” single will become a hit anyway because of an act’s previously established momentum, but it wasn’t hard to tell in retrospect that they weren’t real hits.
If “Never Again” had only delivered on any of that, it would have done exactly what a first single from a follow-up project is supposed to do: move the artist forward and prove that the last hit album wasn’t a fluke. An act’s “Moment of Truth” single can be the lead-off single from their sophomore album, or just the opener from the next album after an act gains superstar status. Guess right and it cements the legend. Guess wrong and it’s not inconceivable that you might get another chance–Nelly Furtado’s “Promiscuous” made everybody forget about “Powerless (Say What You Want)”–but it’s a lot harder to recover your momentum.
For some artists, the “Moment of Truth” single is seemingly effortless: Billy Joel’s “My Life,” the Bee Gees’ “You Should Be Dancing,” Bryan Adams’ “Run to You,” Chic’s “Le Freak,” Van Halen’s “Dance the Night Away,” Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long (All Night),” Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot.” All served notice that their artists weren’t going anywhere and, in fact, were even more confident than they had been on their breakthrough project.
Just as often, however, the “Moment of Truth” record becomes one in a litany of songs remembered only by chart junkies. Remember Cameo’s “You Make Me Work” (a “Word Up” soundalike)? REO Speedwagon’s “Keep The Fire Burning”? Gerry Rafferty’s “The Royal Mile”? Live’s “Lakini’s Juice”? The Spin Doctors’ “Cleopatra’s Cat”? Boz Scaggs’ “Hard Times” (a low point after “Lowdown”)?
Sometimes a mediocre “Moment of Truth” single will become a hit anyway because of an act’s previously established momentum, but it wasn’t hard to tell in retrospect that “Praying For Time” by George Michael, “Rush Rush” by Paula Abdul, or “Step By Step” by New Kids On The Block weren’t real hits.
Sometimes a wimpy “Moment of Truth” single will become a hit, but will destroy an act’s cool credentials and ultimately its chart momentum in the process. Think of Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors,” Huey Lewis & the News’ “Stuck With You,” Debbie Gibson’s “Lost in Your Eyes,” or Peter Frampton’s “I’m In You.” They were all big radio records at the time, but they somehow tarnished their acts’ luster to the point where they were no longer superstars by the time the first single from the next album dropped.
Sometimes the “Moment of Truth” single becomes a long-forgotten footnote to the rest of the project. Def Leppard’s “Women” was forgiven quickly because the next three singles from “Hysteria” were “Animal,” “Hysteria,” and then “Pour Some Sugar On Me.” (Then again, they never quite recovered from the next album’s kickoff single, “Let’s Get Rocked.”) Most folks saw something wrong with R. Kelly’s “Sex Me” but not with a little “Bump N’ Grind” immediately afterwards. Beyonce’s “Deja vu” and “Ring The Alarm” didn’t kill the karma for “Irreplaceable.” Usher dealt with the disappointing reaction to “Pop Ya’ Collar” by just pushing the album back and coming back with “You Remind Me” as the “real” first single later. And even though it was a hit, many of us wish that Michael Jackson’s “The Girl Is Mine” would have given way to “Billie Jean” a little more quickly.
Sometimes the “Moment of Truth” single was a decent enough record that met all the qualifications for a follow-up kick-off and still never gelled. Think of the B-52’s “Good Stuff,” Coldplay’s “Speed of Sound,” or Pink’s “Trouble.” All uptempo. All in character, yet not exactly like what had preceded them. Ultimately, however, not hits. And in the late ’80s, when pop music was becoming more rhythmic, a number of Rock acts released really good follow-ups that just didn’t sound right on the radio at that moment. U2’s “Desire” has endured for me as a record, but it wasn’t the follow-up to “The Joshua Tree” that radio was hoping for.
The concept of a kickoff single for a sophomore project didn’t really exist in the ’60s and even early ’70s when albums routinely came out only after a hit single or two (or more) from an act. The Supremes’ “Stop! In The Name Of Love” was a good example of an act delivering on its previous promise, but it came out four months or so ahead of “More Hits by the Supremes.” And it would be hard to say even what the sophomore project for the Beatles was–the group had multiple hits on multiple labels in the early wave of Beatlemania; the next single, “Can’t Buy Me Love,” came out without an album attached, “The Beatles’ Second Album” was made up of leftover tracks and didn’t really have a single, and the next album was the “A Hard Day’s Night” soundtrack.
The “Moment Of Truth” single is always toughest to negotiate for an act that the industry is cynical about in the first place. Sometimes the single becomes fatally self-conscious as a result (see Hammer’s “2 Legit 2 Quit”). Tiffany and Hanson both tried to come back with first singles that would prove they were serious artists (“All This Time” and “This Time Around” respectively) and failed to win over either previous fans or detractors. So it’s pretty significant that Backstreet Boys (“I Want It That Way”), ‘N-Sync (“Bye Bye Bye”) and Britney Spears (“Oops…I Did It Again”) all came through their “Moment of Truth” so strongly. But it’s different when you’re Kelly Clarkson and the industry wants you to come out with another great radio record.
Usually, there’s no reason not let an audience at least hear the “Moment of Truth” single and make up their mind. “Never Again” was still an event record–if not a hit–and ultimately did well enough on WHTZ (Z100) New York to hang around a few weeks after it had run out of steam nationally. It’s rare that the first single from a sophomore project turns out to be, say, “Spice Up Your Life” by Spice Girls, which many Top 40 PDs couldn’t bring themselves to put on the radio for even a few weeks.
Some great, and not so great, “Moment of Truth” singles through pop music history:
- 1977 – Fleetwood Mac, “Go Your Own Way”–“Rumors'” first single was such a departure from the previous “Fleetwood Mac” album that not everybody liked it at first. I remember being in the office of one well-known programmer right after it came out. “How is it?” I asked. “It’s just okay,” he said. “They’re going to be a one-album act.” Of course, they were no such thing and “Go Your Own Way” endures to this day.
- 1979 – Fleetwood Mac, “Tusk”–This one, on the other hand, was a stretch too far, between its marching band interlude and its seeming formlessness. I came to really love it. Most didn’t. And it was no accident that the next kickoff single, “Hold Me,” was much more of a crowd pleaser.
- 1980 – Journey, “Any Way You Want It”–After “Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin'” it wasn’t hard to predict that they would have another hit. It was more the decision to drop the prog rock thing and come back as Cheap Trick that was remarkable. Then again, new wave made for a lot of surprising change-ups in 1980 (e.g., Billy Joel, Pat Benatar, and even Jackson Browne).
- 1984 – Prince, “When Doves Cry”–Okay, it was actually his fifth album, so you knew he could deliver by this point, but it was the first album after he’d attained pop stardom with “Little Red Corvette.” “When Doves Cry” could have scared listeners–a longish single on a downer subject. Instead, it left the audience stunned in the right way and propelled him to “Purple Rain” superstardom.
- 1984 – Madonna, “Like a Virgin”–The beginning of Madonna-mania. Not only proved that she could do it again, but helped create her persona.
- 1987 – Bruce Springsteen, “Brilliant Disguise”–Still a daring and really good record to me, but not a “Born in the U.S.A.”-type crowd-pleaser and, as such, the end of his status as a Top 40 automatic. And, as with U2, the scene was changing anyway, so even another “Dancing In The Dark” might not have done it.
- 1988 – Janet Jackson, “Miss You Much” – Like Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” the year before, a good example of a solid hit that kept the momentum going, paved the way for other hits on the same project, but seems like a throwaway now.
- 1990 – Garth Brooks, “Friends In Low Places”–Particularly notable because everybody thought “The Dance,” the previous single from his first album, was going to be his “career record.”
- 1991 – Guns ‘N’ Roses, “You Could Be Mine”–Technically, they’d already had a follow-up hit to “Appetite For Destruction” with “Patience” from the bridge project, “G’N’R Lies.” And if there had been another “Sweet Child Of Mine” on either of the “Use Your Illusion” albums, they could have passed this off as just an interim soundtrack single, not the first taste of either album. Came to sound OK to me eventually, but no “Paradise City.”
- 1991 – Bonnie Raitt, “Something To Talk About”–The previous album, “Nick Of Time,” put her on the map, but not on the radio. This was exactly what she should have done next–the most commercial possible distillation of her talents, but a quality song and absolutely in character.
- 1991 – Mariah Carey, “Emotions”–Now it just feels like one of her many hits from that era, but it was the first of many times she would “interpolate” a previous R&B hit (uncredited, in this case) as her kickoff single. This tribute to the Emotions’ “Best Of My Love” felt very fresh and surprising at the time.
- 1995 – Green Day, “Geek Stink Breath”–We saw a lot of this in the ’90s: the “Moment of Truth” single as an act of self-sabotage by Alternative acts who wanted to make sure they stayed Alternative. Top 40 radio had already gamely played the punky “She” and “J.A.R.,” just to have some kind of follow-up to “When I Come Around.” This was when the goodwill ran out. Ironically, it was the even less compromising “Brain Stew/Jaded” that became the enduring song from “Insomniac” (and still gets some Top 40 airplay today).
- 1996 – Alanis Morissette, “Thank U”–It wasn’t “You Oughta Know” but it would have been acceptable if there PDs hadn’t come to the immediate realization that it was the best thing on the album.
- 2002 – Christina Aguilera, “Dirrty”–Remember what was happening at the time: pop music was getting more extreme and PDs were really depending on Christina to come up with something they could play in between Hip-hop and Linkin Park. Instead, they got rapper Redman and a video that might as well have been 2 Live Crew from the way most people talked about it. The irony is that after “Beautiful” became an undeniable hit, many of the same stations that were disappointed with “Dirrty” brought it back and got a year’s use out of it as a quasi-current.
- 2004 – Gwen Stefani, “What You Waiting For”–I didn’t like No Doubt’s “Hey Baby” on first listen, either. So it was hard to declare this or even last year’s “Wind It Up” a miscalculation right away. When “Waiting” midcharted, it wasn’t immediately clear afterward that “Rich Girl” would be the hit it was. But once that single and “Hollaback Girl” cemented her pop stardom, it was easier for her to follow-up “Wind It Up” with “The Sweet Escape” with minimal PD blowback.
- 2006 – Justin Timberlake, “SexyBack”–Okay, think back to what you really thought about it on the first listen. It sounded wrong, somehow. And a year later, I’ve still met only one person who admits to actually liking it. Ultimately, though, it was the perfect “Moment of Truth” single–a record that moved both its artist and the sonics of pop music forward, not unlike “When Doves Cry.”
- 2007 – Maroon 5, “Makes Me Wonder”–Exactly the energy and confidence that you want to hear in a first single from a sophomore project. Hard to tell at this writing whether it’s a No. 1 single at Top 40 or only a Top 5 record, but given their one-time potential to be the next Spin Doctors (a few great rock hits at a time when Top 40 really needed them, then nothing), it has helped them past the sophomore jinx.
Now let’s hear about the first singles from follow-up projects that you thought either made or unmade an act.