The following article by Gary Graff appeared in a July 2000 issue of The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
O Sting, where is thy sting? - Renaissance man of pop likes the Backstreet Boys, deplores hip-hop lyrics, plays down the tantric sex.
Sting is on the phone from Barcelona, another stop on his lengthy tour to promote his 1999 album, 'Brand New Day'.
"When was the last time we talked?" he asks. Told it was last fall, just before the album's release, he notes, "Right. So it's the same bull."
Well, not exactly.
Another ambitious and exquisitely crafted set of songs, the former Police frontman's eighth solo album also has been a substantial and somewhat surprising success - especially when it won two Grammy Awards last February, besting upstarts such as Ricky Martin, Marc Anthony and Backstreet Boys in the Best Pop Album and Best Male Pop Vocal Performance categories.
"I was thrilled," Sting says. "It's a nice thing to happen. They've got 20 years to get their Grammys; they don't need to get it the first time out."
Moreover, 'Brand New Day' has sold more than 3 million copies around the world and nearly 2 million in the United States.
The title track, which features vocals and harmonica from guest Stevie Wonder, was a hit. And 'Desert Rose', benefiting from its inclusion in a recent Jaguar automobile ad, is climbing the Billboard charts with every indication of being Sting's biggest single in years.
But, Sting contends, the awards and chart figures are all gravy for a project he was already well pleased with.
"Really, I make music to please myself," says the 48-year-old singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who was born Gordon Sumner and worked as a middle-school English teacher before forming the Police during the late '70s. "Whether it has legs or not doesn't detract from that. At the end of the day, I can see what its worth is by how I felt about it at the time we made it.
"Having said that, I think we always felt we had a good chance for this. There are a couple of things that sound like singles, and if I were 18 and in a boy band and I put those singles out, I'd feel very confident about it. The only thing that holds it back is the fact the charts are dominated by teenage music - which isn't wrong. So for me to be in the Top 30 or Top 40 today is an achievement, I think."
Don't look for Sting, who performs next Sunday at the Post-Gazette Pavilion, to start bashing the boy bands, though. In fact, he gave the new pop heroes a tacit endorsement during the spring when he took part in VH1's 'Men Strike Back' concert and performed with a well-prepared Backstreet Boys. Sting says they are "very nice boys, very respectful."
"I kind of enjoyed the screaming, too, even though it wasn't for me," he says with a chuckle. "It was funny. It was like the Backstreet Boys and their dad.
"But really, hasn't that always been pop, sort of teen-oriented music? I'm not going to sit here and go, 'They should all be more serious.' That's what pop music is. There's room for everything. The interesting thing is how those artists and how that music will develop over the years, and what it develops into.
"It's difficult to survive being a teen. The Police were a teen band to a certain extent; we had a teen following, and we managed to outgrow that and have people buy our albums and actually listen to them as opposed to a kind of Pavlovian reaction to a band. The thing is to have the ability to kind of sidestep that and say, 'Look, I can exist without that kind of hysteria.' That takes a bit of work and a bit of talent - certainly Ricky Martin has that.
"And the Backstreet Boys can sing; they're very good singers, so God bless 'em. I wish them the best of luck."
The new teen pop movement hasn't made many inroads into the household of the twice-married father of six, however. One daughter, he reports, listens to classical music. His 15-year-old son favours hip-hop, much to dad's displeasure.
"Some of the lyrics I really object to," Sting says. "I don't want to hear stuff that's clearly right-wing and misogynist and women-hating and racist. I really don't want to hear that coming out of the stereo."
Then there's his 9-year-old daughter who is less absorbed with Christina Aguilera than she is with another kind of pop icon. "She's completely into Jimi Hendrix, with no prompting from me at all," Sting says with perceptible pride. "She sits listening to 'Electric Ladyland' and all this stuff. She can play it, too; she plays with us at rehearsals and sound checks.
"She said to me the other day, 'Do you want to see my tattoo?' I said, 'You're 9! You can't have a tattoo.' She said, 'It's only a henna tattoo,' and she takes her shirt off and on the back she's got Jimi Hendrix written out. Amazing."
Despite all that, Sting knows that after more than two decades of putting out albums, with the Police and on his own, he continues to stand a bit apart from the pop mainstream. Although his songs are inherently melodic, they also draw from a wide range of sources - not only rock but also jazz and a variety of world musics. For every easy, singalong tune he comes up with - a 'Brand New Day' or a 'Fields of Gold' or an 'All This Time' - there's a wealth of others with odd-time signatures and moody, linear arrangements that are far from typical pop fodder.
'Desert Rose' is a case in point. Recorded with Algerian singer Cheb Mami, its winding musical quality and exotic Middle Eastern flavour make it far more subtle than much of what's played before and after it on the radio.
"That's a compliment, isn't it?" Sting notes. "I don't see any reason why pop music shouldn't be challenging, subtle, maybe even a little difficult to get into if there is a reward to it. Why should it be just simple nursery rhymes and stuff that you forget instantly? So that's always been my mission - to make pop music that people like but also make some demands on their listening ability."
That doesn't mean Sting doesn't have an appreciation for the winsome, too. Sure, he's a kind of pop culture Renaissance man who acts in films and on Broadway, sings with Pavarotti, makes reference to Vladimir Nabokov in his lyrics and works for numerous good causes - including his own ecologically minded Rainforest Foundation, which holds a star-studded concert each spring in New York City, one of several cities around the world where Sting and his wife, Trudie Styler, maintain residences. ('Brand New Day' was recorded mostly at their hillside villa in Tuscany, Italy.)
That he plays chess is no surprise, either. But he turned that thinking man's pursuit into good sport on June 29, when he and his bandmates took on grand master Gary Kasparov - who, it turns out, is one of Sting's regular opponents. "His lawyer lives near me, and he knew I played chess," Sting says, adding that Kasparov "is in no danger, believe me. He's not losing any sleep over me. It's kind of intimidating... but I'm sure he'd have a tough time on stage with me if he was playing guitar.
"But it's great fun. It's fantastic. It's a great challenge to be able to do it, I'm sure. Some great chess players would love to play Gary Kasparov, so I feel very privileged."
Sting is still living down his reputation for marathon sessions of tantric sex, too. Stemming from an offhand remark he made during an interview a few years ago, he finds it regularly crops up in conversation - in the form of both jokes and serious inquiries from those who want to know his secrets.
"I thought it was a lot of fun," he says. "It is a lot of fun. ... [Bob] Geldof, a very old friend of mine, and I were in our cups one day - BS-ing, as you'd say - and forgot about the journalist sitting in the corner. And that story flew around the world faster than anything I ever said. It was hilarious."
Still, Sting - who 'Saturday Night Live' once dubbed "the Stingatollah" and "Sting-a-ding-ding" - doesn't apologize for the sophisticated endeavours that have given him his reputation as a serious pop auteur.
"I do like intellectualism," he says. "I do find it stimulating. I like reading involved books. I like complex music even though I'm a pop musician. I'm not just happy making simple music; I need some kind of acerbic, difficult quality to it somewhere.
"But it's still fun for me. My idea was to ally my interests, my esoteric interests, with a pop sensibility, with a common touch, and that's always been fun for me. It's never been po'faced; it might have been painted that way, but I have a ball. I always have."
© The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette