Just Spell My Name Right! (Is All Press Really Good Press?)

I remember the late great James Brown proclaiming back in the 1970’s, “Just make sure to spell my name right!”  What the Godfather of soul was asking for was that his name would be spelled correctly in the media in reference to an utterly idiotic rumor that was being spread at the time that he had a sex change.  I know it’s hard to believe now, as he was not even questionably bi chic a la Mick Jagger or David Bowie, but nonetheless, this rumor was quite big for a while.  His comment about spelling his name right was based on the age old belief that all press – even that a heterosexual male having his penis inverted and manipulated to be a vagina and had all of his body hair removed…was still good press. 

In the early to mid 1970’s, bisexuality in rock music was quite the rage, and two artists, both admitting their bisexuality, saw very different results from such admissions in their immediate careers at that time.   In 1972, in an interview with Britain’s Melody Maker, David Bowie announced that he was bisexual, and is considered to be the first musical artist to ever do so, while in 1976, Elton John nervously admitted his bisexuality in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine.

At that time, Bowie’s admission helped to catapult him to stardom.  Why?  Because he was selling himself as a new, innovative artist though his Ziggy Stardust otherworldly persona, space age music, shocking appearance, and being bisexual.  This was his brand – a brand which he created:  fresh, daring, and innovative.  And David’s core audience celebrated all of these things, and for a time, wore their allegiance to him like a badge of honor.

Elton, on the other hand, had a very mainstream pop audience.  He may have dressed a little flashy and weird, but hey, it was thought of as just a rock stage act.  Elton appealed to jocks, ordinary folks, and a huge section of people who were homo phobic.  When Elton announced that he was bi, it sent shock waves throughout the world.  I remember hearing kids around me referring to him as a fag, and not wanting to buy his records anymore.  His audience, who saw him as kin to regular beer drinking guys (remember the song “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting”), felt betrayed – like, “I liked this guy who might be…. a homo?!?!?” Since a large part of his core audience did not embrace bisexuality, Elton’s career, especially in America (which is generally more homophobic that England and Europe), took a hit for a while.  Of course Elton’s career revived, where now he’s perceived as the acceptable gay guy.  David’s bisexuality has become yesterday’s news as he doesn’t dress weird anymore and is married to a woman.  Both artists are now musical and cultural legends.

The concept of “Is all press good press” was tested once again during the Michael Jackson child molestation trial in 2005.  At that time, he probably got more press than even the late Princess Diana did.  I thought to myself back then, that all of this media attention wasn’t going to help him at all on a business level as an artist – and it didn’t.  His record sales tanked, as he became embroiled in a media circus and perceived as a surreal sideshow. 

Here’s in part why it hurt him so much.  There are simply things that society as a whole just won’t accept, and those things will always get you in trouble on a business level as an artist.  The kind of press that associates you with being a child molester (especially of the same gender), is not something that any segment of society accepts, yet alone, considers cool.  And at that point, it’s not about whether his music is good or not; it’s about the association with the personality of the artist.  Meaning, the brand name has become contaminated.  This whole debacle showcased just how bad press can really bury an entertainer.  Since then, his career has not recovered at all.

But often, on the other hand, bad press does work.  However, the “cool” factor is essential for it to work if you’re a pop culture musician.  Bad press that’s cool can actually bolster sales: Violence, arrests, prison time, and drugs (an old mainstay).  However, even felony convicts in prison aren’t down with child molesters, yet alone “normal” society.  So the bad press has to conform to what society accepts, or what your core audience considers cool, or at least can deal with.  And as society changes, those parameters also alter and modify.  For example:  Jazz drum great Gene Krupa’s career took a heavy hit when in 1943, he was arrested for possession of marijuana and was given a 3 month jail sentence.  Now, that allegation would hardly harm him; in fact, it might actually be beneficial, or at the very least, irrelevant.

The cool factor in bad press being necessary for a positive impact on a celebrity is easily verifiable.  Consider that as a rapper, being arrested and shot earns you stripes, enhances your popularity, mystique, and record sales, while adding to your street credibility (pardon me – it’s street cred, lol).  With certain segments of the hip hop audience, you must be arrested to even be considered credible as a rapper.

How press (good or bad) affects your career is a complicated formula, but there are certain criteria that makes perfect sense:  Look at the core audience of the celebrity and define what their parameters of acceptance are.  If the bad press goes against the values (whether good or bad) of the celebrity’s main following, that person’s career will take a hit.  However, if the media exposure plays into what is acceptable to that core audience in question, it may help the artist.

Here’s a quick little for instance: R.Kelly was indicted on 21 felony counts on June 6, 2002 of child pornography stemming from a videotape that allegedly shows him having sex with an underage girl.  In the video, besides sexual activity, both parties urinate, while hip-hop music plays in the background.  The tape runs between 26-27 minutes. Let’s ask the question:  Is this press good or bad for R. Kelly?

Answer:  Good press.

Why?  Because with his core audience: hop-hop, urban, ghetto, and thug, this type of activity is culturally acceptable — perhaps celebrated.  It can even be considered the notch on the belt thing – you know, the older guy with the hot young girl.

Proof:  Since his sexual crimes indictment (of which he was acquitted on June 13, 2008 six years after he was indicted), his record sales have still been extremely strong, and multi platinum.  Many people believe his career has actually done better since he was indicted some 6 years ago.  This is an example of someone who benefits from this type of bad press, because the people (his audience), who are his bread and butter accept this type of sensibility.  It certain circles, it clearly adds to R. Kelly’s street cred.

Let’s compare how both R. Kelly’s and Michael Jackson’s careers were affected by their “negative” press.  First, they could both be labeled as accused child molesters, and both were criminally acquitted.  So why did Jackson take such a devastating hit, while Kelly’s career was bolstered.

1) – Jackson was accused of molesting a boy, while Kelly was accused of doing the same to a girl.  Immediately, the fact that Jackson was accused of a crime that implicated him as being gay, while Kelly’s indictment was heterosexual in nature is a huge difference.  Society will more severely condemn the person perceived as gay, versus the man looked at as being straight.

2) – Jackson’s alleged victim had cancer, and looked like a boy – not a fully developed young man.  Both factors make this alleged victim appear more innocent, vulnerable, and childlike, which makes the supposed crime appear far more egregious.  Kelly’s alleged victim appears to be a fully developed young woman, possibly older than the prosecution asserted.  On the videotape, she seemed completely “down” with the sexual acts and quite sexually experienced, according to those who commented on the tape.  This makes her look less like a victim, and more of a participant.  Also, this scenario plays into a stereotypic male fantasy; an older man being sexually active with a young girl, which much of society accepts.

3) – Jackson’s core audience is a mainstream pop audience, which is going to be more “G” rated in their values.  “Dirty” controversy is less likely to work with that type of audience.  On the other hand, Kelly’s audience is a more hard-edged, urban hip-hop group that would view such an act as passe or commonplace.  That audience is far more tolerant; perhaps even celebratory of the older macho guy having sex with the younger, yet sassy, tough and sexually experienced streetwise underage girl.

4) – This was not the first issue regarding Jackson appearing to be weird, creepy, or strange.  Besides multiple alleged plastic surgeries and skin lightening, Michael Jackson paid a boy who accused him of molestation in 1993 more than $15 million, according to documents discovered by Court TV. That case was settled out of court and charges were never brought against Jackson.  He has been receiving “bad” press since as early as 1983-84, so the “creepy” factor has been drummed into our collective consciousnesses regarding him, which hurts Michael.  With Kelly, he has been perceived one dimensionally as a successful urban hip hop artist.  He doesn’t have the stigmatization of the “creepy” factor, as does Jackson.

5) – As an artist, Kelly is current and relevant, where Michael Jackson is not.  Kelly’s audience had been buying his new records in large numbers consistently since his indictment six years ago, which keeps the energy of his success more likely to continue through the controversy.  Jackson would have to rebuild his commercial momentum, which is so hard to do, not only because of his tarnished image, but because trends change so quickly in pop music, which is Michael’s main market.

It is apparent that the way society and/or an artist’s audience reacts to the same potential legal crime varies in so many ways, with lots of subtleties and subtexts to the plot.  Jackson takes a huge potentially career-debilitating hit, while Kelly may now appear invincible and untouchable after his acquittal.

Now, what if it was Barry Manilow who was accused of the exact same crimes as R. Kelly?  His career would take an oh so fatal hit.  Why?  Because his core audience: middle and upper middle class males and females (most likely parents), would have a very difficult time with this type of allegation – maybe even burn his records (they might have demon semen in them, lol).

Here are some quick hypothetical examples of good and bad press: The headline reads: “Motley Crue drinks milk backstage.  It does a body good!”  That would be horrible press, because it portrays the band as wimps, which is the exact opposite of their brand.  Their audience would feel that they are not credible as out of control, indulgent, and dangerous rock stars, and in a sense, feel gypped.

How about this headline?  “Motley Crue does heroin and OD’s on a regular basis, and they’re shooting up right now!”  Now that is beneficial press.  Why?  Because their core audience embraces the wild, bad-assed rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle where strippers, parties, arrests, and ODs are as traditional as mom’s apple pie, and actually validate that the Crue rocks!

Remember this headline?  “Ozzy Osbourne bites off bat’s head.”  This was dangerous, yet good press for him and his relationship to his core following when it happened in January 1982.  Why?  Because for his hard-core metal audience, it added to his over the edge, out of control renegade image, which scores huge points for Ozzy. 

On the reality TV show, “The Osbournes,” the media attention had the exact opposite effect.  Ozzy was shown having difficulty operating the television remote control while tripping over his own words.  Rather than coming off as a rock music God, he came across a man who is barely able to function.  This greatly hurt him with his main audience – and that’s the audience that counts.  I remember a friend of mine saying, “We go from the prince of darkness biting off a bat’s head and rocking a stadium, to the prince of darkness confused at home, vacuuming.” 

During his reality TV days, he released the album, “Down To Earth,” on October 16, 2001.  Even with all of the unbelievable exposure he was getting — my God, President Bush mentioned his name at a dinner, this album barely went gold.  All of Ozzy’s prior albums had gone platinum and multi platinum.  Thus, as I have always believed, even as far back as the 1970’s, all press is not good press.

For me, it has cut both ways.  There has been press that has helped me, while at other times, has hurt.  What’s different for me, is that I haven’t cared either way, as my main priority has been to be true to myself.

Here’s an example of bad press that hurt me: I did it to myself — I knew it would hurt me, but did it anyway.  When Glinda Harrison was putting together skafish.com, I wanted her to mention when I started working full time as a psychic and spirit medium in the Timeline section of 1993.  I have been able to see things clairvoyantly from the time I was 14, and have since been able to talk with the dead most of my life (No, don’t think Satan or Marilyn Manson, lol!)  In fact, here’s another factoid that could hurt me: I am not Satanic at all, lol! 

People around me knew I would be laughed at…like, “Look what this nut case is doing now.  Now he’s having (ooooooooh…) visions?!”  And many people reacted exactly that way and made fun of me.  Of course punk and psychic haven’t traditionally ever gone together.  In fact, it’s obvious that the bulk of the punk, new wave, indie, and alternative audience would consider psychic ability somewhat of a joke, as it conjures up images of hokey gypsy fortunetellers in turbans.  I knew that, but did it anyway, as I have always been true to myself, and ahead of where society has been at.

In 1990, I was featured in a story in England’s New Musical Express.  It was about the most looney and insane rock stars of all time – sort of a where are the crazies now?  I was featured along with Keith Richards, Iggy Pop and other legendary rockers. 

Even though this could be considered negative press for some artists (where I’m portrayed as a fringe lunatic who is unable to function in proper society), it was good for me.  This is for the obvious reasons of being included with such great legendary icons, as well as the fact that it’s easy for people to digest and pigeonhole me as a lunatic.  So it makes sense to everyone’s limited perception of me, therefore, it’s OK:  “He’s the oddball nutcase with the nose bigger than Zappa’s and Townshend’s.  Is he really from another planet, and does he really have f****** tits?”  

Even though negative press sometimes doesn’t hurt an artist, again and again, bad press often does a lot of serious damage.  Often, these negative media debacles even come from the artist themselves.  The most recent example of this involved R&B singer Ashanti, in June of 2008.  To me, it’s hard to believe that her handlers and she actually came up with the strategy.  This “viral” marketing campaign was called a “Gotcha Gram,” designed to promote her new album, “The Declaration.”

There is a questionnaire on her website where one can fill in a person’s name to be sent an email with the following message: “Do you know the person pictured in the following video?  If so, please contact me immediately. Your life might be in danger.” The sender claimed to be a Detective James Nicholas, Director of Crime Prevention for the Universal Crime Network.   The email also indicated that you, (let’s say that your name is Cindy) could be the next victim, and that at the crime scene, the following message was scrolled in blood on a wall: “Cindy will die.”  

When you click on the link, what pops up is a false video news report about a series of supposed copycat murders that had been inspired by the R&B singer Ashanti’s music video “The Way That I Love You,” which is a song about a woman who discovers her boyfriend has been cheating.  In that video, Ashanti is clutching a butcher knife and dressed in a beaded gown.  She cries and sings about betrayal, with the boyfriend ending up dead in the bathtub.

Jealous lovers, according to the bogus report, were on a wild rampage — and the next victim, it implied, would be you (the recipient of the email). 

Predictably, there were protests regarding the “Gotcha Gram,” and it was taken down from Ashanti’s website not long after on June 12, 2008.  So how did this all shake out for Ashanti and her new album?  Sales for the first week for “the Declaration” were so-so for a major label artist: 80,000 units, but a far cry from the 400,000 units her debut album sold in its first week of sales six years ago.  Here, this press stunt may have brought attention to her, but certainly not the type of exposure that translates into success.  In fact, it may make her be perceived as desperate, disingenuous, and grasping for straws, which makes people shy away from her, as she is not perceived as “happening.”  It reminds me of that old 70’s song: “When you’re hot you’re hot, when you’re not you’re not.”

Most people somehow think that the more press you get, the more success you’ll get.  That simply is not true.  Where success is something we should all aspire to, however we individually define it, more and more press, especially negative press can create a dangerous, slippery slope that is largely uncontrollable. It can blow up right in one’s face!  We see, over and over, how press, especially sensationalistic and bad press, does an artist more harm than good in their careers; especially in the big picture and in the long run.  What does it matter if everybody knows your name and incessantly talks about you, but you’re not able to make a living from your work?

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