USA TODAYOctober 01, 2003
The following article by Elysa Gardner appeared in an October issue of USA Today ...
One is a household name with 16 Grammy Awards and a string of hit songs stretching back 25 years. The other is a rising star whose second CD has sold more copies than any album in the country over the past two weeks. You wouldn't guess that Sting and John Mayer belong to an endangered species: the male singer/songwriter as pop star.
That category has included some of music's most conspicuous giants, from Bob Dylan, James Taylor and Stevie Wonder to such mainstays of 1970s and '80s rock as David Bowie, Elton John, Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen. These artists remain baby boomer icons and, often, huge concert draws. But with exceptions such as Sting's hit 'Desert Rose', from his quadruple-platinum 1999 CD 'Brand New Day', their presence on top 40 radio recently has been close to non-existent.
More significantly, the past 15 years have seen few new, creatively autonomous male solo acts emerge as prospective heirs, at least commercially speaking. Mayer's triple-platinum 2001 debut, Room for Squares, seemed incongruous after several pop cycles had spawned a bevy of female minstrels while shunning their estrogen-challenged peers.
But as Mayer's sophomore CD, 'Heavier Things', and Sting's 12th studio outing, Sacred Love, released Tuesday, arrive, the industry is showing signs of renewed interest in their breed. The groundswell of critical acclaim and grass-roots enthusiasm for the likes of David Gray, Ryan Adams, Pete Yorn and Rufus Wainwright in recent years hasn't gone unnoticed. 2003's most aggressively touted arrivals included pensive Irishman Damien Rice and latter-day piano man Gavin DeGraw.
But today's male troubadours face a different and more complicated media landscape than the one that greeted Sting, who turns 52 Thursday, and his peers.
"There's fabulous talent out there," the pop veteran says in the den of his apartment overlooking Central Park. "But it's not nurtured the way it used to be. It's all about having a hit record, then another one and another one."
One theory about the disappearance of male singer/songwriters is that they have been subsumed into popular bands, with groups such as Matchbox Twenty and the Dave Matthews Band providing forums for their frontmen.
Sting first earned fame in the late '70s as a band member, and he says his experience as lead singer and principal songwriter for The Police continues to inform his solo career. "Our first hit, 'Roxanne', stuck out on radio like a sore thumb," he recalls. "That taught me a lesson: You have to be singular, instead of saying, 'These are the hit records of the moment; how do I make my music sound like that?' "
'Desert Rose' was certainly an anomaly among pop singles, incorporating Arabic vocals by French-Algerian singer Cheb Mami. Sting adopted a promotional strategy that might have been deemed suspect in an earlier era: He allowed the song to be used in a Jaguar commercial.
"Every expert said that this song couldn't be a hit in America, so Sting went around the gatekeepers," says Bill Flanagan, senior vice president of the MTV Music Group. "That made musicians re-evaluate how they felt about licensing songs. Artists with integrity realized we're in a different world now, and have to take the means we have to get the music out there."
The songs on 'Sacred Love', which address romantic and social issues in light of recent world events, are even more adventurous in their use of electronic and world-music textures and R&B nuances. Mary J. Blige joins Sting on the pining 'Whenever I Call Your Name'. "I'd love for it to be a single," Sting says of the duet.
But while the King of Pain and the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul may seem like a match made in crossover heaven, Sting realizes that the song might not readily adapt to today's narrowly drawn playlists. "When I was growing up, British pop music and soul music fed off each other, and it was a great symbiosis," he notes. "It's ludicrous that something like that would be considered unusual now."
Ironically, the impulses that have sometimes made Sting's music irksome for programmers may have enabled him to endure radio's shifting trends. "Sting has built a following that has come to expect some experimentation or unpredictability," says Alan Light, editor of the music magazine Tracks. "He'll work with jazz players or Cheb Mami or Mary. That flexibility is allowed as a solo artist. You don't have to negotiate with band members."
Chatting in the living room of his less spacious pad downtown, Mayer, who counts Sting among his musical idols, explains how he also confronted reluctance at radio, first while gaining attention on the Atlanta club circuit in the late '90s.
"A program director told me she really liked my record, which was a demo then, but 'it's Limp Bizkit and Incubus now,'" he says. "Then when I got signed, people talked about my record as if it were just a first shot. I thought, time out - this might be the only shot I have, and I think it's a good shot."
Mayer supported Squares by touring extensively, an approach considered vital for both budding singer/songwriters and survivors such as Sting, who quips that he still keeps a suitcase "permanently packed." Mayer left the road after winning a Grammy for pop male vocal performance in February to make 'Heavier Things', but returned in early July, winding up a week before 'Heavier's' Sept. 9 release.
The toil paid off when the album entered at No. 1, buoyed not only by the soaring single 'Bigger Than My Body' but also by MTV.com's The Leak, a new online feature that allowed fans to check out 'Heavier' a week before it arrived in stores. The CD was streamed 1.3 million times, beating out previous entries from Madonna and Ashanti.
But Mayer's own sense of accomplishment stems less from embracing new technology than avoiding old clichés. "I spent two or three years prior to 'Room for Squares' in this coffeehouse singer/songwriter atmosphere, where all you have is an acoustic guitar and you'd better be able to come up with something clever. It was about making people go, 'Wow, what an unforeseen word turn!'"
Before recording 'Heavier', Mayer "spent time listening to music that really made me hurt, made me feel like all I had was so much prose. I thought, I'm affecting my heart with my brain too much. I want people to actually hear how I feel. There are things on this new record that are so in sync with how I feel that I can't wait to sing them."
Sting agrees that to progress as a singer/songwriter, "I have to go deeper, to explore parts of me that I would have perhaps hidden before." That goal is especially clear on 'Sacred Love', which he worked on while writing a memoir, 'Broken Music'. Due Oct. 28, the book traces the first 25 years of his life, ending just before The Police's success, and he plans to promote it in conjunction with the album.
"I'm going to be signing books, kissing babies, everything," Sting says. "People used to say you have to be careful not to be overexposed. But I think that now you're either overexposed or not exposed at all. There's so much competition for people's attention that you have to say, 'I have something that I believe in, and I want you to enjoy it.' You can't assume people are going to find you."
In the end, though, both Mayer and Sting define success in more personal terms. "My main goal is trying to extend my capacity " says Mayer. "Different things have happened to me, musically and emotionally, that have allowed me to get the bubble around me bigger. I want to explore that space, and write from it."
Adds Sting, "The only thing I've gleaned from my years is this phrase: 'Music is its own reward.' Whether you sell three records or 3 million, music still nourishes you. It may be easy for me to say, living in this palatial apartment. But it's the fact that I can be creative that makes me happy. That's what you have to concentrate on."
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