American Idol judge Randy Jackson reflects on what it takes to become a pop star in his new book, What's Up Dawg? How to Become a Superstar in the Music Business
Do You Have "It"?
In 1989, I was working in San Francisco with Narada Michael Walden, one of the hottest producers in the country at the time. We were making some of the dopest hits of the day, including Whitney Houston's "How Will I Know" and "I Wanna Dance with Somebody," Aretha Franklin's "Freeway of Love" and George Michael and Aretha's duet, "I Knew You Were Waiting."
Demos from unknown artists poured nonstop into the office. WE would sit and listen to everything. We heard lots of good songs and hot voices — and dude, some that were beyond terrible. It wasn't often that a Whitney or an Aretha would come calling.
I'll never forget the day when an unforgettable demo from a young, unknown singer came into the office. A big-name record exec had just signed her and was looking for producers to work on her first album. We played the cassette and couldn't believe what we were hearing.
The singer had written the lyrics and melodies herself. The music had a jazzy, Anita Baker-meets-pop/R&B sound to it. Beautiful. But it was the singer's voice that took my breath away. Her unbelievably sweet, buttery tones. Her incredible seven-octave range. Her amazing phrasing. And she sang with such conviction and passion.
She had the complete package. I just could not believe how talented this singer was. She had the kind of voice that commands you to listen to the end of a song because you just can't turn it off. The kind of voice you hear on the radio that makes you pull the car over and call the radio station, yo, who the hell is this? You want to rush out and buy that song. That music touched you. Affected you. Gave you the chills.
There was no doubt in my mind. She was going to be a star. I knew the public would not deny that voice. This is what we in the business, look for. She had "it."
The singer? Mariah Carey.
What is "it"? So yo, you want to know what "it" is and, more important, if you've got it. The "it" I'm talking about is that rare combination of personality, charisma and talent that can catapult you to stardom.
Michael Jackson, Elvis, Madonna, Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, Celine Dion, the Beatles, Justin Timberlake, Alicia Keys, Norah Jones, 50 Cent, Britney Spears, Janet Jackson, Snoop Dogg, Gwen Stefani, Jay-Z, Beoncé Knowles and Elton John, among others, all have "it."
The people who have "it" also have that je ne sais quoi — that special something that attracts people to them and makes fans want to walk, talk, act and be like them. Look at Michael Jackson. He was a star as a child but exploded on the scene with Thriller in the eighties. How do we know that he had "it"? Everyone was dancing like him. Everyone was dressing like him. Everyone was infatuated with him. He influenced millions of people. Michael Jackson owned the eighties.
Same thing with Madonna. She came out in her bra and panties, shocked everyone and dominated the scene. At the height of her popularity, young girls everywhere were trying to emulate her because she was so bold, so uninhibited — and so unique, like nothing you'd ever seen or heard before. She made you ask, "Whoa, who the hell was that?"
The Beatles definitely had "it." They pulverized the industry. They rocked the entire world. And today, there are bands still out there trying to emulate what the did. Bands like Coldplay and the Goo Goo Dolls.
Elvis is the king of "it." People did their hair like him. Dressed like him. Talked like him. Even though he's been gone for more than 25 years, they still adore him.
These people ruled the planet. They were bigger than the presidents of countries. They represent the pinnacle of "itness." We ended up producing "I Don't Wanna Cry" on Mariah's first album, Mariah Carey, which has hits that are now world famous, including "Vision of Love." The album went multi-platinum. "I Don't Wanna Cry" became a hit song. Mariah shot to stardom, as we knew she would. When we heard her demo that day, we knew that everyone would want to be a part of what she was doing musically.
Her talent has taken her to the top. To me, Mariah, Whitney and Celine are the big three. The best. I refer to them so much on American Idol and elsewhere because I've had the pleasure of working with these superstars, who are among the biggest selling artists of all time.
They have each sold more than 100 million albums, an achievement that tops other huge stars who have "it," including Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, All-American Rejects, Limp Bizkit, 50 Cent and Eminem, to name a few.
The "it" comes naturally
But yo, you have to remember this. Most people who have "it" are born with it. Michael Jackson was born with a God-given gift. When he made his debut in the Jackson Five, he commanded attention. There's no way that an eight-year-old kid from Gary, Indiana, was going to become that famous, that fast, without innate talent.
Prince has a God-given gift. The same with Celine and Elton John. And Elvis-oh my God, what a gift. A true, unbelievable entertainer. He mesmerized a nation with his style, dancing and sound. Fans loved Elvis because they'd never heard anything like him. He was dope. He had his own form of dance-his own hip-shaking, hip swiveling movements that people just could not believe. He had a persona. A distinct look, like the old soul singers. I'm sure Chuck Berry had a huge influence on him. And he was dangerous. He sang rock and roll, which at the time people called the devil's music. It was forbidden, which drew people to him all the more. Like the Beatles, the Grateful Dead, Motown, Michael Jackson and Jimi Hendrix, to name a few, Elvis was able to start a movement. If you want to be a star, you need millions of people following you, like they did. Dude, that's hard to do.
You know the saying "The apple doesn't fall far from the tree." Well, it's true in my family. Zoe, my youngest daughter, loves music with her heart and soul. She's a natural performer and is always putting on shows for the family. I guess she's kind of a ham, like her dad. My son, Jordon, loves playing the drums. But I think he loves skateboarding and break dancing more right now. He is the kid with the 'fro riding a skateboard like Tony Hawk. My oldest daughter, Taylor, also loves music. I remember standing in the kitchen about eleven years ago making hot chocolate for Taylor, who was three at the time. She was sitting in her high chair waiting for me when a Brandy song came on MTV.
When the song ended, she started humming it in the song's exact rhythm and key with an almost perfect pitch.
"Whoa," I thought.
I whipped my head around to look at her.
"Hey, do that again, sweetie," I told her.
She did. I thought to myself, "She's got it. This kid has something." I'm not just saying this because I'm her dad. I listen to everything with the same critical ear that I use when I listen to demos, songs and Idol contestants. Just being able to mimic a song that easily, that exact and correct, is rare at the age of three. That means she has talent.
If you've truly got the gift, singing or playing will come naturally. Your talent will present itself in perfect form and you'll go, "That was kind of easy." It's like shooting baskets. You may shoot four out of five baskets, no problem. Then five out of five. Easy. But if you stand there and miss five out of five over and over, then it's not natural to you … yet.
Being a red carpet regular doesn't guarantee that you have "it"
Celebrities have fans. They have managers, agents and publicists. They've recorded albums. They've made it into People, Rolling Stone or Vibe. But just because they've become celebrities doesn't mean they have "it." Keep in mind that a celebrity is a star by association but isn't someone who necessarily has "it." A lot of the kids who made it into the Top Ten on Idol became celebrities — but they didn't go home with the prize. So if you want to be a celebrity, cool. But it means you still don't have "it."
Most of the one-hit wonders out there probably don't have "it." If you're a one-hit wonder, then a hit song created your success — not you. The song was the "it." And if you look on the list of "it" requirements, a great song is conspicuously absent. So yo, you're asking me: Why wouldn't the song be on the list? A successful song is something that's very nebulous — something you can't always put your finger on. Sometimes a song can rattle the charts, like Justin Timberlake's "Rock Your Body." Beyoncé's "Crazy in Love" featuring Jay-Z. Christina Aguilera's "Beautiful." 50 Cent's "In Da Club." Or classics like Michael Jackson's "Beat It." Elvis' "Love Me Tender." The Beatles' "Ticket to Ride."
A great song is a great song is a great song. You can have a hit, but that's no guarantee that you'll have a long career. You can get maybe two or three of your 15 minutes of fame from it. And remember this. It's very hard to have a hit song. If it were that easy, the music industry wouldn't be in trouble right now.
When I was working as a record exec, I can't tell you how many times I heard another exec say, "Randy. Let's go get some hits." Like you could just go to McDonald's and order some hits. You just can't order up hits to go. All the top songwriters try for that unforgettable song. Sometimes they hit and sometimes they miss. So Dawg, if you think you're going to ride your way into fame on a great song, you have to know, that's no easy road, either.
You want to give 'em chills
Knowing who has "it" is exactly what I do in the music business and as a judge on American Idol. We say to everyone who comes into the Idol auditions — "What's going to make us like you over someone else? What's so special about you that we're going to go, 'Wow. We really like that'?" I can tell if a person's got "it" as soon as I meet them. I can tell if they have that special charisma. That infectiousness. When I hear singers auditioning for Idol, I can tell if they have it vocally as soon as they open their mouths. I can tell by the tone of their voice, their range, their control. You can see how much work they've done or if they are the rarest of the rare and have a God-given gift. And you can see how much work they need to do.
I knew that Idol's first winner, Kelly Clarkson, had it as soon as I heard her sing. Paula, Simon and I often argue about this, but I remember it like it was yesterday. We were in Dallas during the show's first season. It was the end of the afternoon, about 5 or 5:30. We were all tired. We'd heard about 85 kids at that point. We had seen some goofballs and crazy, wild kids, singing all kinds of songs you don't often hear at auditions, like "Silent Night." Just some weirdo people. We had heard some people who were good. But we also heard some people who were terrible.
Then Kelly walked in. Didn't have a particular look. Seemed to me the girl-next-door type. Then whoa! She started her audition and woke us up. I remember thinking, "Oh my God. This girl can really sing." The sound of her voice gave me the chills. Kelly was born with a natural gift. I think you can make a lot of headway if you have some talent, but remember those who make it big are usually born with it.
I thought, "If her talent could be shaped and could grow, she could go all the way." I loved her voice. Being a musician, what's always going to excite me first is the voice. I'm looking to get the chills or to be moved in some way. It's not about all the riffs and the runs that people associate with gospel music and try to mimic. It's not about the mechanics. It's about the sound of the voice. If I get the chills from the sound of the voice, that's what does it for me. And I know other people will probably get the chills from it, too. I look for that every time.
Excerpted from What's Up, Dawg? How to Become a Superstar in the Music Business By Randy Jackson © 2004 by Randy Jackson. Published by Hyperion.