We're still a month away from the release of Anywhere I Lay My Head, the debut album from Scarlett Johansson, and even though all we have to go on so far is the album cover, I'm willing to bet that everyone reading this has already decided that it sucks. On the surface, it would seem to have everything going for it: The busty, bruised-voiced starlet has ace material to work with (wall-to-wall Tom Waits covers), guitar contributions from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Nick Zinner, production assists from TV On The Radio's Dave Sitek, and even a couple of guest vocal spots from some dude named David Bowie. Of course, there are just as many reasons to doubt Johansson, considering the only recorded evidence we have of Johansson's singing are her hesitant karaoke warbling of "Brass In Pocket" in Lost In Translation and this instantly regrettable performance with The Jesus And Mary Chain at last year's Coachella.
But even those undeniably unconvincing showings don't fully explain the premature vitriol that's dogged this release from Day One. The real explanation for all the snap judgments is even more universal: Serious music fans hate it whenever movie stars try to be rock stars, and for good reason. Achieving some measure of celebrity is hard enough in one field; trading on that celebrity in another field is seen as greed, pure and simple. When a movie star decides they want to widen their spotlight by "trying their hand" at something else–whether it be directing, writing a book, playing an exhibition game with the New York Yankees, or forming a band–it's a slap in the face of ordinary people, who can't achieve even one dream of stardom, let alone two. Furthermore, movie star bands are the ultimate in vanity projects because they skip all of the required steps to "making it" that nearly all other bands have to suffer through. Unlike every other singer on the planet, Johansson didn't have to bother slogging through small gigs in empty nightclubs, printing up press kits and cold-calling labels to get them to listen to her demo, or any of the other various trials that kill most musicians' careers before they even get started. All she had to do was casually mention to her agent that she might like to do an album, and the next thing you know she's swapping vocal lines with David Fucking Bowie. No wonder everybody's aching to piss on this thing.
Of course, Johansson's story isn't new: There are hundreds of celebrity bands out there who have exploited that kind of prefabricated fame. On the one hand, it would be easy to place the blame on the music industry itself, which treats even legitimate singers as "packages" to be appropriately shaped and marketed. For them, putting out an album by a celebrity is a no-brainer, because it eliminates all the hard work of creating an image to sell, and they can get right to the cashing in. But the labels aren't the ones putting the rock star bug in celebrity's ears; for that you have to blame both the movie star's insatiable appetite for public adoration and the craven, insecure need for reassurance that they're more than just a pretty face. Because, honestly, being a movie star isn't really all that hard. Sure, there are actors like Daniel Day-Lewis and Philip Seymour Hoffman who really work at their craft and can make any role interesting by sheer force of will, but for the most part, "great actors" rely on the combined efforts of so many people–the screenwriter, the director, the editor, even the costumer–to do 90% of the work for them. Hitting the stage, where it's just them and a microphone, actors-turned-singers are able to pretend that they're finally making it on their own, while still basking in the glow of predetermined adulation that guarantees no one's going to boo them off.
There are exceptions that prove the rule, of course: No one's going to fault Elvis Presley–arguably the man who launched this whole ugly trend–for having it both ways, despite the fact that his movies almost universally suck. Similarly, Frank Sinatra managed to be both one of the greatest singers the world has ever known and acquit himself admirably in films like The Manchurian Candidate and The Man With The Golden Arm, Kris Kristofferson earned himself a Golden Globe for A Star is Born, and Willie Nelson manages not to embarrass himself even when rolling in pig shit like The Dukes Of Hazzard. But these are all musicians-turned-actors, and that may be why we're more forgiving. If we're looking to someone to blame for giving actors hope that they could make it on the Billboard charts, I nominate David Soul, who returned to an aborted singing career after becoming a national heartthrob on Starsky And Hutch and landed a number-one hit with "Don't Give Up On Us Baby."
Of course, there were certainly actors trying their hands at making albums before David Soul came along–Goldie Hawn's Goldie (1972), for example, which featured the Laugh-In star chirping through saccharine covers of Bob Dylan and Van Morrison; Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner's legendary Star Trek cash-ins, which later inspired both Nichelle "Uhura" Nichols and Brent "Data" Spiner to follow in their footsteps–but Soul proved it was viable to be a leading man and a rock star without overtly trying to link the two. His surprise success in 1977 was reinforced in 1981 by Rick Springfield, who, like Soul, had put his music career on hold until breaking through on General Hospital. Although Working Class Dog was already in the can when Springfield became the hunky "Dr. Noah Drake," no one at RCA expected the album to do very well. Then America got a taste of this.
The catchiness of "Jessie's Girl," combined with Springfield's impenetrable feathered locks and pectorals, vaunted him straight to the top—and opened a huge fucking can of worms. Suddenly every leading man in 1980s Hollywood wanted to be a rock star. Coincidentally, this was when I came of age and thus first started listening to music, and to my pink, naïve brain the lines between "rock star" and "movie star" never really existed. It made perfect sense to me, for example, that my mom would own an album by "the cute guy from Moonlighting;" to me every cool guy action hero had a rock star alter-ego like "Bruno" ready to pull out of their back pocket.
And indeed, among the first three cassettes I ever owned (in addition to Huey Lewis' Sports and Genesis' Invisible Touch, if you must know) was Don Johnson's Heartbeat. Like most eight-year-old boys at the time, I worshipped at the altar of Sonny Crockett; wasn't it a given that his effortless Miami Vice cool would translate equally well to rock 'n' roll?
Looking back with the clarity of hindsight, of course, Heartbeat probably represented the nadir of the '80s celebrity rocker trend–something illustrated by Philip Michael Thomas' efforts to follow his crime-fighting partner into the MTV spotlight.
Really, it was either that or the lingering stink of Eddie Murphy's 1985 album How Could It Be, which–along with The Golden Child–pretty much marked the beginning of the end of America's love affair not only with Eddie Murphy's rapacious ego, but also their tolerance for singing movie stars. Once hair metal groups, college radio upstarts, and other bands who plied "real" rock 'n' roll started to replace solo artists and their studio session sounds, it became much harder for actors to get away with playing pretend. Beginning in the cred-obsessed '90s, celebrities who wanted to be musicians had to downplay their ambition entirely: River Phoenix's Aleka's Attic, for example, blew its two-year deal with Island Records by failing to turn in a "marketable" album. Milla Jovovich took the same tack with her The Divine Comedy, refusing to trade on her burgeoning celebrity by playing Saturday Night Live and doing only small acoustic gigs–and this despite the fact that her album (and accompanying video) wasn't half-bad, at least in a crazy-hot-chick-in-art-class kind of way.
While it's admirable, refusing to use your celebrity to sell records doesn't mean dick when your music sucks and nobody cares (see: Dogstar). Anytime we've tried to interview Juliette Lewis while on tour with her mediocre band The Licks, for example, we've been told that we can only talk about her songs. (Guess what our response has been.) The same goes for Billy Bob Thornton who, while definitely a cut above some other guitar-slinging celebs, is still making fairly generic blues-rock that couldn't fill your average dive on a Wednesday night were it not for the chance to see Bad Santa front-and-center. But while Lewis and Thornton are adamant about compartmentalizing their separate lives, there's no denying what they're counting on to fill seats, which makes their refusal to acknowledge it seem both childish and disingenuous. The same can be said for two of the most critically drubbed celebrity acts of the past decade–Russell Crowe's 30 Odd Foot Of Grunts and Jared Leto's 30 Seconds To Mars–and each of those group's insistence on maintaining a veneer of integrity certainly didn't help them curry any favor among people who weren't the sexually frustrated secretaries or boring Midwestern emo girls that were already predisposed to worshipping at their respective altars. If anything it only inspires further enmity: Better to come right out and admit it, like The Bacon Brothers or Dennis Quaid And The Sharks, who harbor no illusions about why people come to see them–hell, The Bacon Brothers even cover "Footloose."
Not taking yourself so fucking seriously has helped other wannabes like Jeff Bridges, Jeff Daniels, and Peter Gallagher escape excoriation, despite all releasing albums that could be described as "lackluster" at best. That's the laidback tack Kevin Costner appears to be taking with Kevin Costner And Modern West, writing an album at his own sweet pace and popping up only occasionally at live gigs with low expectations.
Compare that to performances from bluesman Steven Seagal who works so hard to stress that "this is not a joke" that it's impossible not to laugh at him.
If there's any consolation for Scarlett Johansson, it's that in this decade female stars have had a much easier time making the transition successfully: While albums from Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan are no doubt filling cut-out bins across the land, we'd be lying if we ignored the fact that they were huge sellers at the time—or that sequels would spend equal time at the top of the charts. Ditto for Jennifer Lopez, who probably set off this second wave of singer-starlets with On The 6. (And even though we're all praying for it to tank, you just know Heidi Montag's record is going to move at least 400,000 units, because people are idiots.) Even lower-tiered stars like Minnie Driver and Gina Gershon have made a go of it, turning out albums that draw in big-name collaborators (Ryan Adams and Linda Perry, respectively) that–while not exactly setting the world on fire–aren't putting any chinks in the armor either.
Still, Scarlett Johansson's closest contemporary is probably She And Him, another band featuring an indie-crush actress (Zooey Deschanel) paired with established indie-rockers (M. Ward). Surprisingly, no one was there to prematurely bash She And Him, and the critical reception to the group's debut was fairly approving–despite, in my humble opinion, being totally middling and reliant on the collective boner most hipsters have for her.
So why the warm embrace for She And Him and the knee-jerk hatred for ScarJo? In my belabored opinion, it boils down to vanity: Like the debutante that she is, she gets only the finest things on her coming out day, and her name is writ large across the sky. Whether her album is any good is immaterial; she's bearing the burden of a million famewhores before her, so she'll never get a chance to convince us otherwise. Unfair? Maybe. But if and when she fails, she's got plenty of people to blame.