In pop, timing is more than everything. As any Behind the Music will demonstrate in grisly detail, aging teen idols once had as much chance of making a comeback as Ross Perot. But in an era in which celebrity makeovers are numbingly common and ”history” refers to Jesse Camp’s first appearance on MTV, there’s no better time than now to be an adolescent heartthrob pushing 30.
Take Ricky Martin and Robbie Williams, who first came to our attention as members of musically inconsequential proto boy bands (Menudo and Take That, respectively). Had either attempted a comeback a few years ago, they would have been laughed off the charts. Instead, they’ve returned as serious, retooled grown-ups, and no one’s chuckling. Further demonstrating their impeccable timing, both are making their bids for fame in America just as the pendulum has begun to swing back to male solo acts, after years in which women dominated the pop landscape.
Since being rotated out of Menudo, Martin has made a huge name for himself in the Latin-music world. Coming on the heels of his leather-pelvis-thumping performance at this year’s Grammys, Ricky Martin, the first of his four albums to be recorded in English, has been elaborately crafted to bust him out of that niche. There are formula-one ballads for adult contemporary radio (”She’s All I Ever Had”); cartoonish alt-Latin ditties aimed squarely at Top 40 (”Shake Your Bon-Bon”); bilingual versions of several tracks for the international market; even a brooding power ballad that could garner airplay on rock stations (”I Am Made of You,” one of the album’s best songs).
The danger of leaving behind one’s home turf, especially for world-music artists, lies in the loss of identity; the great Ruben Blades, for instance, came across as depressingly generic on his rock album. Martin suffers from the same problem. At the Grammys, he was a hunka-hunka burnin’ Latino. But with few exceptions, Ricky Martin tones down his sexuality in favor of forlorn balladry, with Martin cast as yearning romantic or victim mistreated by evil woman. (As he sings in ”She’s All I Ever Had”: ”So much time, so much pain.”) Martin sounds more comfortable with a foreign language than Julio Iglesias did, but his songs have the same assembly-line quality. On his techno-flamenco duet with Madonna, ”Be Careful (Cuidado Con Mi Corazon),” his cautious enunciation lowers the heat. The summer-breezy salsa of ”Spanish Eyes” and a growly Spanish version of his likable-trash hit ”Livin’ La Vida Loca” shake a few bonbons of their own, but Martin’s fire is too often doused by crossover dreams.
U.K. bad boy Robbie Williams also feels the pain, although he has a different solution: ”Life’s too short to be afraid/So take a pill to numb the pain.” Williams knows that great pop stars are made of strong personae as much as memorable music. So, on his U.S. debut, The Ego Has Landed, he presents himself as a lovable lout. He commits blasphemy (”I hope I live to see the day the Pope gets high” in ”Old Before I Die”), compares himself to Kiss ”without the makeup” when he arises (”Strong”), and babbles so freely about his self-indulgences that you’ll feel like you’re at a group-therapy session for Oasis.
Those attributes alone would make Williams stand out, but the anthemic splendor of The Ego Has Landed (culled from his two U.K. albums) is more shocking than any of his drug references. Like Ricky Martin, the album touches on everything from the grandest of sky-high ballads (”Angels,” ”Strong”) to alternative bubblegum (”Millennium”) to grotty corporate rock (”Win Some Lose Some”). But Williams’ feisty personality and the cranked-to-11 energy of his band hold everything together. And who would have thought that a highlight would be the sublime and sophisticated ”No Regrets,” which has the shimmer and wit of the Pet Shop Boys (and their Neil Tennant on harmonies to boot)? Williams and company stumble when they attempt overbaked glam. But for the most part, Williams is the drinking man’s George Michael, and, bless his crude heart, he’ll never let you forget it.
Ricky Martin: B-
The Ego Has Landed: A-