The 1970s was an odd decade in a lot of ways: Watergate was a mess, Lucas and Spielberg changed the face of media, and actress Cybill Shepherd – at the behest of Peter Bogdanovich’s egomaniacal whim – released an album called Cybill Does It … To Cole Porter. (And boy, did she ever.) Things haven’t changed much. Incompetent Republicans still lord over the White House, doing as they please; James Cameron and Peter Jackson are changing the face of media; and an actress, Scarlett Johansson, has released an album.
Anywhere I Lay My Head was manufactured at the behest of Miss Johansson’s own egomaniacal whim, after years of being referred to as “gravelly-voiced” and buying into it deeply. The 10 tepid Tom Waits cover songs (and one original) offered here are so overproduced, and performed with such weak vocals, that it inspires nothing more than a drawn-out “huh?”
The album fails for a simple reason: At no point on this record does anything resembling Scarlett Johansson’s voice make an appearance. Her singing voice – half of her appeal to begin with – just never sounds like the beloved Johansson speaking voice. Her apparent trepidation pushes the debut of her audible self into the middle of the second track. When it finally comes, it’s overprocessed and anonymous.
Some of the criticism facing Johansson’s voice is not unlike the criticism that could be applied to Waits himself. They both feature a scratchy, scrawny voice with limited range. But Waits gets away with it for the same reason Dylan does: They’re artists, visionaries. Waits is an astute storyteller, and he always taps directly into the ever-shifting zeitgeist. He’s a scruffy, rasped Leonard Cohen with razor-sharp lyrics in one beat, and in the next he’s a vocal Everyman, skills honed by years of struggle. Thanks to her name and the power behind it, Johansson lacks those skills because she never had to sing these wobbly covers in sweaty dive bars.
Then there’s producer Dave Sitek, of TV on the Radio, whose work behind the boards is suspect and misguided. That’s a large portion of the problem with this record: The production strays so far from the spirit of the original material, adding odd little references to “Rainbow Connection” and weighing it down with synth layer after synth layer. It caters to a sacred demographic (in this case, women aged 12 to 30), rather than caring about the work at hand. The charm of Tom Waits is that you love him as is, without the bells and whistles. The bells and whistles would not, and do not, make it better.
There is one speck of brightness, though, and it’s “Fannin Street,” off Waits’ latest album, Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards. Johansson’s voice (with guest David Bowie providing backup) is at its most unrestrained and bare, and manages to capture the spirit of the original while being its own thing at the same time. Bingo.
But it hardly makes up for “I Don’t Want to Grow Up” from Bone Machine, a musical crime if ever there was one, replete with handclaps and a cacophony of cricket chirps on the back end. Covers of this song should have stopped with the Ramones.
Johansson’s not the first to harbor delusions of Renaissance-(wo)man grandeur. In the ’60s, it was a young Ann-Margret covering Elvis songs; the ’70s saw the aforementioned Cybill Shepherd apply lube and gently spread the cheeks of Cole Porter’s catalog wide open. We’ve lived through Don Johnson, William Shatner, Eddie Murphy and Bruce Willis’ Bruno phase. We’ve snickered as Keanu Reeves got involved with Dogstar and Russell Crowe toured with 30 Odd Foot of Grunts. Waits himself is an actor as well as a singer, popping up randomly in bit roles in movies like Mystery Men and Wristcutters: A Love Story.
But we Americans have it relatively easy. In Asia, being a multi-hyphenate is the expectation rather than a phenomenon. The “[crossover] expectation is there, especially on the part of the industry,” according to Aaron Gerow, assistant professor of Japanese film studies at Yale University.
“I think Americans, especially young ones, still have ideals about culture being separate from, or even opposed to, crass commercialism and so look down [upon] or laugh [at] someone who seems to be ‘selling out’ by aiming for a crossover market,” says Gerow.
“The notion of the star – who in Asia is … available to fans in many different forms – also creates a different reaction.” Multi-media-tasking tends to be a simultaneous occurrence in the East, less a case of the established actor who decides to sing, or vice versa.
Asian superstars always have to be working at something, and singing can be a good use of downtime for an actor. Chinese director Wong Kar Wai once joked with actor-singer Tony Leung, “You have starred in over 60 films. For a Hong Kong actor, you have been rather unproductive and lazy!” Leung and Infernal Affairs co-star Andy Lau, the biggest of the big in Canto-pop, won an award for their duet on the Infernal Affairs theme song.
Martial arts legend Jackie Chan is nearly as big a pop star as he is an actor, having released 20 albums since 1984. (He even has a clothing line.) Mission: America is the current plan for Rain, the South Korean pop, soap and film star who has a part in Speed Racer and a recurring role on The Colbert Report as Stephen Colbert’s arch-nemesis. Likewise for Isabella Leong, Canto-pop star and actress, who will be in The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor later this year.
It’s hard to blame Miss Johansson for this career misstep, though. Tinseltown is full of sycophants and yes-men who can and will talk you into anything for a little more scratch. Rather than paying mind to harsh admonitions from message boards that she’s “just a pair of tits that can’t act and can’t sing,” she listened to the flattering flow of sweet honey dripping into her ear, until she felt bulletproof. Which of those extremes would anyone in her place prefer to trust?
Since the 2003 one-two breakthroughs of Lost in Translation and Girl With a Pearl Earring, only one film (Woody Allen’s Match Point) out of 11 starring roles has been a critical or financial success. Some (The Nanny Diaries, The Island) have been famously disastrous.
Scarlett Johansson wasn’t already riding high, and she certainly wasn’t bulletproof. This album could end up as a snickering nail in her rapidly assembling career firstname.lastname@example.org
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