While we have already addressed many fine full-length vanity albums, our album-oriented format has not allowed for the discussion of vanity singles: songs released by otherwise un-musical celebrities that are never followed by a full album. The most common contemporary source for these singles is undoubtedly reality TV stars. They are so common, in fact, that we can divide them into sub-genres, and this column will address the most visible one: singles by cast members of Bravo reality shows, which exist in their own little Bravo universe. The songs are often about their actions on the shows and often made with other cast members. They become the subject of plotlines on future seasons, and are then played semi-ironically by Andy Cohen on “Watch What Happens Live.” Though the defining feature of vanity singles is that they’re made by people putting as little effort as possible into being musicians, though, some of these have more than a little going for them.
Since there’s no album to speak of, I’ve made a YouTube playlist of all the tracks, and also listed them here, with links to each song’s audio.
Though many vanity projects lean heavily on covers (even as recently as then-reality star Kelly Osbourne’s 2002 debut single, a Madonna cover that went #3 in the UK), the Bravo folks have all musically introduced themselves to the world through original compositions. These either lean heavily on current dance-pop styles, or are weepy ballads (“Love Me First,” “How Many Times (Dear Joe),” the original of “Nothing Without You”).
DO THEY SELL?
There is not much evidence that they do, and presumably folks such as these would happily update their Wikipedia pages with any impressive sales information. “Money Can’t Buy You Class” does have over 900k YouTube views, though (and did well enough for a follow-up single on a major dance label), and Kandi is suing Kim for the profits from “Tardy for the Party,” which implies that there were some profits to speak of. It was top 3 on the iTunes dance charts, and apparently sold at least 29,000 copies.
Mostly all available on iTunes. You can buy a real actual CD of “Tardy for the Party” remixes, if you want to, though since it is “manufactured on demand using CD-R recordable media” you could also just make one at home. Probably there is vinyl of “Money Can’t Buy You Class” floating around out there somewhere, but they’re not on ebay.
SKETCHINESS OF LABELS
Countess Luann’s were released on Ultra Records, which has been around for almost 20 years and is one of the biggest dance music labels in the US of A. (deadmau5 is on their roster, for instance.) Everyone else: not so much. Gorga’s are on a LLC created in New Jersey 2 years ago that has no other artists, and is presumably run out of her house. Simon Van Kempen’s is on JSM, which makes music for commercials. Poor Michaele Salahi didn’t even bother to make up a label, or at least the iTunes store entry for her song didn’t list one.
WHO HELPED THEM MAKE IT
Melissa Gorga recorded “I Just Wanna” with a man who calls himself Santino Noir, whose own website mentions that his other musical credits include “King of the Night,” a Whitney Houston cover from the Six Flags FrightFest: Ghoulmaster original soundtrack. The Countess worked with Chris Young, another longtime producer who then appeared on her Real Housewives franchise, though it’s unclear exactly what he did before that track: ASCAP credits him with over 500 songs, but a random sampling doesn’t turn up any artists Google recognizes.
But the Quincy Jones of producing Bravo vanity singles is undoubtedly Kandi Burruss, who’s responsible for all the ones coming out of Atlanta. Burruss, as regular viewers know, is a legit pro, from her time in top-20 R&B group Xscape to her songwriting awards for “Bills, Bills, Bills” and “No Scrubs.” (Though she gave her second album the working title B.L.O.G.; nobody’s perfect.) She is, coincidentally, parlaying this into a spinoff called “The Kandi Factory,” premiering next week, on which she winnows down 16 aspiring artists to two lucky winners who will have the opportunity to score a “Tardy for the Party”-sized hit. 29,000 copies, here they come!
Burruss’ business practices as producer have led to some conflict. Miss Lawrence complained about never receiving any payment for “Closet Freak,” which Kandi defended by noting that the single didn’t sell enough to make up for the costs of recording. Of course, traditionally someone would at least get paid an advance for doing the recording in the first place, but who knows what goes on behind closed doors. And just last month, though, Kandi and her songwriting partner Don Vito sued Kim for releasing “Tardy for the Party” without the producers’ consent. Interestingly, though it’s rarely addressed on the shows, the ASCAP database shows that both Kim and the Countess received co-writer credits for their tracks. (Danielle, from New Jersey, did not.) For all that people want to see these as fitting a semi-famous person into an already-existing track, there’s good evidence that, for better or for worse, (some of) the singers came up with (part of) their own songs. (It also shows that there are 11 other songs titled “Google Me.”)
WHEN THEY MADE IT
Bravo’s reality shows have evolved into the televisual equivalent of the Marvel universe, with a few initial seed shows spinning off successively more tangential projects, all managing to circle back to other Bravo shows. From “The Real Housewives of Orange County,” a blatant cash-in on the then-popular “Desperate Housewives,” came all the other “Housewives” shows, and the Bravo universe has expanded to include decorators, PR agents, Persians, designers, hair stylists, and people who seem to do not much at all. And they all know each other, somehow.
Where the acknowledged illusion of other reality shows is that they show lives and situations that would exist regardless of the show, the illusion of Bravo shows is that nothing — absolutely nothing — happens outside of Bravo shows. Relevant parts of a person’s background, which might otherwise come out only in the gossip press, on Bravo get brought up by their enemies on-camera. Books get published or lawsuits filed between seasons, but are then introduced, like clockword, as plotlines on the next season. There to collect and canonize any stray bits of information are the reunion shows and “Watch What Happens Live.” Andy Cohen plays the corporate yenta, putting the latest tidbits to the afflicted parties for reaction and comment, thus sparking a whole new incident. The whole system is like some Disney theme park of minor squabbles, cosmetology, and cartoon characters whose common characteristic is that they cannot feel shame.
It is, as you might expect (or already know), a mixed bag. The most individually loathesome one is Melissa Gorga’s first song, “On Display,” which gratingly laments the travails of being in the public eye — an already questionable stance for people who became famous through pursuing some creative endeavor like acting or music, but entirely untenable for someone who signed up for a long-running reality show. But her oeuvre improves markedly from there, and by her 2012 has reached the level of competence. The Countess’s tracks, given their visibility, are less forgivable. First, the misuse of AutoTune on “Money Can’t Buy You Class” makes the vocals sound like they were delivered during a water tank challenge on “Top Model.” Second, the second single, “Chic, C’est La Vie,” is utterly indistinguishable from “Class.” And third, she doesn’t do enough with the persona of bored condescension she’s so carefully cultivated. There are whole swaths of pop music that have spun gold out of that, especially in the 80s (or even in the 00s, with Miss Kitten and the Hacker’s “Frank Sinatra“), but the Countess gives us a half-hearted performance.
The best (Kim’s are OK) are the total one-offs. Simon van Kempen, husband of Alex on the New York branch, has the same regretful subject matter as “On Display” or “Class” (“they trash me on the Twitter,” yeeesh), but he at least has an interesting mid-range voice, and the track built around it is consequently pitched lower than most dance tracks (and with more guitars), making for something a little more interesting than just EDM-by-the-numbers. The only really actually truly good song in the bunch, though, is Miss Lawrence’s “Closet Freak.” Give it a listen.
Though the sounds are a little boilerplate (certainly it’s got nothing on Cee-Lo’s song of the same name), the vocals work surprisingly well, with a message that goes beyond self-pity and, by leaps and bounds, the best voice of anyone here. It’s not really considered part of the main body of Housewives work, though, which is too bad. But it makes sense: these aren’t supposed to be consumed as music. They’re little bits of plot, like songs in a musical disconnected from the stage.
Mike Barthel has a Tumblr.