Make 'Em Eat Crow 

How Sheryl Crow overcame critics and bitter collaborators to become a real live rock star.

Thanks to the huge popularity of 1993's Tuesday Night Music Club, Sheryl Crow ensured her obit wasn't just going to run in her hometown Kennett, Missouri, newspaper and wasn't going to have as the lone highlight that she was a backup singer on Michael Jackson's Bad and Don Henley's End of the Innocence tours.

But Music Club's "All I Wanna Do" ruled the airwaves in the summer of 1994, Crow cleaned up in the Grammys in 1995, and her career was launched. Over the years Crow has maintained a steady presence on the charts and solidified her status as that increasingly rare thing: a genuine rock star. Her recent split with cyclist Lance Armstrong added a new wrinkle to her loaded fame profile: celebrity breakup. And her battle with breast cancer that cut short her '06 tour (and which pushed back her Memphis date by several months) was covered by most major media outlets. Since her debut, Crow has sold something in the neighborhood of 25 million albums. And, oh yeah, she's in her mid-40s and still beautiful.

Most music critics are all too happy to piss in this punchbowl. Crow, who admittedly does herself no favors by being so eager to appear wherever there's a camera or microphone, is tagged as dull, vacant, unoriginal, and not much of a rocker. TrouserPress.com is especially blunt: "Sheryl Crow is not all that. She's ... the recipient of far more adult-rock acclaim and success than her music deserves and, worst of all, not much of a singer. The actual content of her debut is among the least [of Crow's] cultural offenses."

I disagree. First of all -- and really this should go without saying -- Crow's music deserves exactly the kind of wild success it has achieved. Nobody is forcing consumers to the stores. Crow is a throwback: an old-fashioned lover of the hook, lessons she no doubt learned while playing those arenas with Henley and Jackson. "My Favorite Mistake," "If It Makes You Happy," and "Soak Up the Sun" are just three examples of songs with no express purpose but to bore their way into your skull and stay there.

Think this hitmaking is easy? Ask Liz Phair. The feisty alt rocker who, as it so happens, made a guest appearance on Crow's C'mon, C'mon, has recently gambled her well-earned indie reputation on a blatant shot at scaling Billboard's singles chart. Phair's last two slickly produced, hook-heavy albums haven't yielded one half of a Crow-sized hit but have unleashed a tidal wave of critical venom (though not from this critic, who sees Phair's pop move as a savvy and successful artistic decision).

The other thing that Trouser Press gets wrong and that has become fairly clear by 2006: Tuesday Night Music Club is a mess. Generated by a collection of session musicians and songwriters -- the most prominent being David Baerwald of David and David (a duo that scored a hit in the '80s with "Welcome to the Boomtown") -- Music Club is a curious showcase for a new artist. Though she has co-writing credits on the 11 songs and she would reap the rewards, it only takes one listen to understand that Crow is clearly just along for the bumpy ride.

With its mention of Aldous Huxley in the second verse of the first song, Music Club betrays itself as a dumb album written by people hoping to sound smart. At every opportunity, it tosses out quirky musical curves and tries to stuff 1,000 words in a 100-word jar. The "apropos of nothing" phrase crammed in "All I Wanna Do" is as subtle as Las Vegas neon in a one-room apartment.

There's no doubt that on her 1996 sophomore release Crow aimed to distance herself from the Music Club gang as much as possible. That she titled the album Sheryl Crow and wrote most of the songs by herself only underlined that point. She's proven since that she can write mega-hits and, on occasion, plumb emotional depths that Music Club couldn't touch.

Just listen to "The Book" on Sheryl Crow. The lyrics, about a writer betraying a love through a novel (maybe Crow was striking back at Baerwald?) are clear, concise, and right on target. Even better, on that same album, is the devastating breakup song "Home." Here Crow triumphs as singer -- take that, Trouser Press! -- by coming across as bruised, fearful, weary, and resigned all at once.

And she's not done. Her latest, Wildflower, fades off toward the end but not without delivering some thrilling pop moments. "Perfect Lie" is wrapped in soaring strings and delivered with a go-for-broke aplomb, and "Chances Are" goes one better with its trippy swirl of Indian-flavored postmodern paranoia.

But it's nothing new for Crow, and that the majority of card-carrying music critics are wrong about her is nothing new for them either.

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