by Mike Barthel
Celebrities may cut a vanity single, and some take the time to put together an entire album. But rarely do they get 5-album deals on the strength of their performance in an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie and have several go platinum, only to have those albums sink into obscurity. But that’s what happened to Alyssa Milano in the midst of her run as Tony Danza’s daughter on “Who’s the Boss?” Starting with 1989’s Look in my Heart, she recorded four albums in four years for the Japanese market, and despite their commercial success, she rarely speaks of them today. Is her debut worthy of reconsideration?
THE SONGS: Look in my Heart came out in the waning years of Japan’s “idol” system, in which young singers were paired with professional songwriters and musicians to put out a series of well-crafted singles while the idol’s personality and kawaii-ness were promoted in magazines and television appearances. At the time, the country’s music industry was transitioning to the model of J-Pop, with bands replacing singers as the center of attention (Ian Martin calls 1989 “the death of the idol era”). Milano’s albums though, were produced squarely within the idol system: she was signed on the basis of her looks and personality, and had no role in the creation of the songs. Instead, she flew in and recorded her parts in five days. As a result, the songs sound like what they are, which is Alyssa Milano singing over Japanese pop songs from 1989, though that’s not that different from American pop songs from 1989 — Debbie Gibson’s “Shake Your Love” had come out only two years before, and many songs on Milano’s albums could pass for one of Gibson’s with little modification. There’s even a Tiffany-esque remake of “Da Doo Ron Ron.” None of Gibson’s songs originated as an ad for spaghetti, of course.
THE PACKAGING: Oh, the packaging! The CD comes lovingly accompanied by a booklet full of Milano’s cast-off press photos, the most memorable of which shows her wearing a hockey jersey and severely acid-washed jeans with ripped knees, holding a hockey stick, and sitting next to a very goobery-looking small boy with the same spike haircut my friend Dave had in 1989. The boy is also wearing a hockey jersey but is carrying a soccer ball for some reason. The only contextual explanation for this photo is that it appears next to the lyrics for “Kimi Wa Sunshine Boy,” which translates to “You are my Sunshine Boy,” so maybe the boy is her sunshine boy, since it is sunny out? But it seems weird to think of li’l goober-spikey over there “hold[ing] me tight,” as the lyrics would have it. In another photo, she appears in a straw boater hat, because again, 1989.
In the back of the booklet is an “Alyssa Dictionary” with entries such as “Hobby: Shopping” and “Gooey Chocolate” and “Teen Steam.” The text, which is in Japanese, talks about how Milano is quirky and likeable, saying she tried out for “Annie” as a lark just because she saw a billboard for the auditions, but then she was one of 4 people picked out of 1,500 who tried out. The two entries under “F” are “Fashion” and “Friends.”
DID IT SELL? For pop albums, this one didn’t do so well, only getting up to #68 on the (Japanese) charts. But since we normally ask this question of vanity projects to assess their commercial viability, the follow-up success of Milano’s next album, which went platinum and hit #15, indicates that this was a solid debut.
CURRENT AVAILABILITY: Out of print. (If you’re reading this outside of Japan, it was technically never in print.)
SKETCHINESS OF LABEL: Nil. Pony Canyon (created by merging two labels and their respective names) is one of Japan’s biggest. They also published the “Ultima” games in Japan, if that’s the kind of thing you find interesting.
WHO HELPED HER MAKE IT: The album is produced and almost entirely written by Joey Carbone, a Brooklyn native who worked his way around the American music business before making a career for himself writing songs for Japanese artists. He was enormously successful at it commercially, and no slouch artistically either — “Tokyo Girl,” above, is some prime-grade bubblegum pop. He also composed the (convincingly Randy Newman-esque) theme song for “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show,” which is entitled “This is the Theme to Garry’s Show.”
WHEN SHE MADE IT: Milano’s had an odd career since the album came out (“Charmed,” starting a website to stamp out fake celebrity nudes, a very successful line of gendered sports apparel, playing Amy Fischer in the third made-for-TV movie about Amy Fisher, “Casualties of Love: The ‘Long Island Lolita’ Story,” maintaining an awesome and eclectic Twitter account), but Look in my Heart came out during the height of her fame as a teen idol. After a role in Old Enough, a 1984 indie film that won a Grand Jury prize at Sundance, she got her big break on “Who’s the Boss.” The show did that 70s/80s sitcom thing of taking a social issue — women’s power in the workplace, in this case — and undermining it completely. Danza, a widower, came to work as a housekeeper for a high-powered female executive played by Judith Light, but doing women’s work makes Danza more feminized, while Light becomes a ball-busting broad. By the final season, when Milano’s character Samantha brings home an aspiring puppeteer with whom she will shortly elope, Light is barking at a Knicks game while Danza admires tiaras. (The show was originally titled “She’s the Boss.”) The show’s success in the teen market led to a series of spinoff opportunities for Milano, most notably the “Teen Steam” VHS, a questionably-titled (and occasionally questionably-contented) workout video for adolescents; it begins with Milano suggesting her two teen friends suffering from imminent teen crises come over and work it out, teen-style. At one point, there is a rap. Her career in Japan, Milano says, was largely the result of her role as Jenny Matrix, daughter of rogue special forces operative Johnny Matrix in Commando, which is remembered today primarily for its GIFs. Despite the fact that Milano spent most of the movie in captivity, the movie sparked enough interest when released in Japan for her to be offered a record contract.
THE MUSIC: Is it time for a Look in my Heart revival? Its sound is not so far off from an electro-pop sound that’s widespread today, from Robyn to the (excellent!) new Tegan and Sara album. Unfortunately, the songs and production are both a bit too generic to sound immediately exciting to modern ears, and too disreputable to sound important to musical antiquarians who don’t already have an interest in Japanese pop. But Milano’s voice is surprisingly fine, a textured alto that occasionally warbles but mostly holds up in a pre-Autotune era. If you’re familiar with any of Milano’s musical output, it’s probably the “Teen Steam” song, but that was arranged to nudge us in the ribs pretty hard about her being a teenager and pitched her voice too high. These songs are more universal (if also generic) and make far better use of her natural vocal qualities. The standout is “You Lied to Me,” whose production tries for Latin pop and ends up sounding a little like an early Knife song. Milano gets to flash a bit of anger, with a spoken-word breakdown where she declares, “You said you needed me, you played me for a fool,” before a rad guitar solo shoves its way in like Steve Vai interrupting a beach party. It’s certainly never going to become a touchstone, but as an unexpected pleasure it fits the bill comfortably.
Previously: Eddie Murphy’s 1980s ‘Party’ Album
Mike Barthel has a Tumblr.