Interesting how Anywhere I Lay My Head
, the recent album by Scarlett Johansson, aroused the wrath of many more people than it should have. It's surprisingly good--the sort of disc that would usually garner critical raves, especially coming from a new artist--but there was one problem.
Scarlett Johansson made it.
Unfortunately, Johansson's reputation as an actress--and a very attractive one at that--has proven a stumbling block to critics who can't perceive her as much more than a slumming, singing dilettante aiming to increase her glamour factor via the exciting world of pop music. And ultimately it's their loss.
What's interesting is that while Johansson is not the first actress to attempt to cross over into the pop world, she's one of the few who've gone about it without crassly attempting to make a hit record. An album of Tom Waits cover songs? Produced by the guy from TV On The Radio? Er, this is not the road to platinum, people.
Likely as not, the precedent set by other singing actresses that have come before her--the name Lindsay Lohan oddly comes to mind--may be the major issue here. Mainly because most of them have been dreadful.
But really--how dreadful have they been?
Let's take a look.
Scarlett Johansson: If this album came packaged with an abstract picture on its cover and was credited to "cult Swedish indie band the Lipliners," it would probably get a 9 out of 10 rating from most dorky critics. Throw in a fake picture of a 250-lb. tattooed lead singer named Inga and the extra point would be no problem. The fact is, this is moody, sophisticated material facing that most horrible of artistic handicaps: It's being performed by a beautiful woman who made this album for no other reason than to express herself artistically. Imagine that!
CAN SHE SING?: Yes
IS THE MUSIC GOOD?: Yes
GRADE: 9 out of 10
Zooey Deschanel (She & Him): A partnership that began in 2006 brought actress Deschanel together with Portland-based indie star M. Ward, and the results--most recently on display on their Merge Records album debut She & Him--are eminently listenable, entirely credible, and enough to make me want to go back and watch her in that weird Tin Man mini-series again. Like Johannson, this pair is aiming to make music that sounds good to them and isn't exactly aiming for the top of the charts. It's actually quite good. Way to go, Zo!
CAN SHE SING?: Yes
IS THE MUSIC GOOD?: Yes
GRADE: 8 out of 10
Gina Gershon: Yikes! With her recent album In Search Of Cleo, here's yet another arty actress affair--and while it may not resonate on the same aesthetic level as Johansson's, it's still surprisingly good. Check out the album cover for a hint of where this woman's head is apparently at--and the video's even better. If anyone ever made a movie about the Pretenders, guess who'd play Chrissie Hynde's evil sister?
CAN SHE SING?: Well, yeah
IS THE MUSIC GOOD?: Yeah, pretty much
GRADE: 7 out of 10
Minnie Driver: Minnie started releasing albums in 2004 and--stunningly--has been receiving good reviews for each of them. This is not what's supposed to happen. Her most recent, Seastories, features hi-cred appearances by both Ryan Adams and Liz Phair and is a good listen through and through. Check them out and you'll be surprised, no lie.
CAN SHE SING?: Sure
IS THE MUSIC GOOD?: Not my personal cup of tea, but yeah, absolutely
GRADE: 7 out of 10
Juliette Lewis (Juliette & The Licks): Well, here's the first flat-out rocker of the bunch, and it's not like Juliette had no experience: She sang a PJ Harvey cover in the film Strange Days, appeared in Melissa Etheridge's video "Come To My Window," and put her band together a few years ago in L.A's Viper Room. Additionally, her 2006 album Four On The Floor features no less than Foo Fighter Dave Grohl providing the drumwork. Hard-rocking in the same manner as, say, early Etheridge and even Janis Joplin at times, Lewis is having fun and is charmingly unpretentious in this rock 'n' roll context. Good for her.
CAN SHE SING?: She can "belt"
IS THE MUSIC GOOD?: It rocks, it rolls
GRADE: 6 out of 10
Traci Lords: A pioneer in so many ways, Traci made the leap to pop music in the mid-'90s, and due to the marvels of dance music production, her skills as a singer weren't absolutely paramount to the success of her records. Do you know what I mean? One suspects that she made this record merely because she could--as opposed to having a burning urge to express herself artistically--but as the James Bondesque antics displayed in the video below make clear, it wasn't a bad casting call at all.
CAN SHE SING?: In a manner of speaking
IS THE MUSIC GOOD?: It's better than no music
GRADE: 5 out of 10
Jennifer Lopez: Hmm. We are now veering into territories where ego plays a role in record-making. Jenny From The Block--which she was when she made this video back in 2002--has been making records for nine years now, so it would be inaccurate to call her a fledgling singer, an amateur, or, shall we say, a Sunday painter. That said, there would appear to be so much processing involved in the making of her records--and so many other musicians--calling her a full-fledged A-1 singer might be something of a stretch as well. How about we just call her the singing star from Gigli?
CAN SHE SING?: Someone can!
IS THE MUSIC GOOD?: It's exceptionally well-produced
GRADE: 4 out of 10
Lindsay Lohan: This may be the standard by which some people are measuring Scarlett Johansson's record-making aspirations, and that's not really fair, is it? Of all the artists here, Linday's career as a music maker seems the most lark-like, and even her video performances seem more like an acting rather than singing gig. Further, her records sound like they were fully recorded and she was then invited into the studio as an afterthought to sing on them, if you get my drift. All things considered, though, after seeing her performance in the wonderful I Know Who Killed Me, I think I now like her more than ever.
CAN SHE SING?: Can you?
IS THE MUSIC GOOD?: What earthly relevance does that have?
GRADE: 3 out of 10
Paris Hilton: Is it really fair to call Ms. Hilton truly famous as an actress first and foremost? Sure! Didn't you see her in that House Of Wax remake? Her infamous album is in many ways a masterpiece, I feel--largely because with all the money likely poured into it, and with today's studio technology that can make virtually anybody sing in tune, Paris boldly decided to go in there and sing the notes as she heard them, and the result is unlike any other album I've heard in my life. I'm hoping she'll make another album as soon as possible!
CAN SHE SING?: Could Maria Callas?
IS THE MUSIC GOOD?: It's hot!
GRADE: 2 out of 10
Brigitte Bardot: Speaking of Paris, here's one actress who made music from her very earliest days. Involved in some very historic records with the legendary Serge Gainsbourg, Bardot has been a class act all her life, and her records--of which there are many--are all worth a listen. Were she to serve as the role model for the nine women listed above, we'd all be the better for it. Especially if we spoke French.
CAN SHE SING?: Oui!
IS THE MUSIC GOOD?: Oui!
GRADE: 10 out of 10
- Arts & Entertainment
- Scarlett Johansson