Top 40's favorite formula: superstar duets
Tried and true, big-name collaborations amp up music charts this summer.
In a summer season when no one can outrun Gwen Stefani's inescapable "Sweet Escape" with its irresistible assist from hip-hopper Akon, the forecast for the rest of the pop-music calendar calls for much more of the same.
Everywhere you listen, it seems, rappers, pop stars, rockers, and country crooners are turning to their famous friends for a bit of wattage – and a bit of a sales boost.
Guest appearances have long been a staple in various music scenes, but the latest round makes for a particularly pronounced example of the ploy. It's a well-established trend in R&B and hip-hop, but diminished sales in the rap world may have spurred a flood of partnerships ranging from Nelly (Snoop Dogg and R. Kelly) to 50 Cent (Mary J. Blige, Justin Timberlake and Eminem, among others).
Then, of course, there is the ubiquitous Timbaland, who appears on Nelly Furtado's recent hit "Promiscuous," and also has a slew of cameos in the works, including a future project with frequent collaborator Justin Timberlake – and Madonna. And don't forget Rihanna's turn with rap icon Jay-Z in the chart-topping "Umbrella."
It's no different in the pop and country genres, either. Brad Paisley turns to American Idol wunderkind Carrie Underwood for a bit of balladry on his new disc, while Queens of the Stone Age adds a bit of bark with a guest spot from Strokes singer Julian Casablancas.
And, in a deft combination of both genres, Bon Jovi's new country-accented rock disc, "Lost Highway," includes a stomper with rowdy country duo Big & Rich as well as a soccer-mom ballad with LeAnn Rimes.
"There are more now than there were four or five years ago – there is a ton of collaboration," says Scott Lindy, director of country programming at Sirius satellite radio. "It has been there in the past and I think it just ebbs and flows. Right now, it's happening a lot more."
Lindy credits frequent collaborations between the husband-wife hitmaking team of Tim McGraw and Faith Hill for driving a newfound interest in country duets. Beyond McGraw and Hill, observers say Bon Jovi's initial country-leaning foray, a 2005 Grammy-winning duet with Sugarland's Jennifer Nettles, also spurred imitators. Later this year, Led Zeppelin alumnus Robert Plant will release an album with bluegrass star Alison Krauss, an odd couple by any standard.
Rock and pop experts offer less enthusiasm for collaborations, ascribing them to an ailing industry with few creative notions for turning things around. Even so, it's hard to find a major act that hasn't dabbled in name-dropping partnerships, save the stripped-to-the-bone twosome known as the White Stripes. They don't even have a bass player, much less guest stars.
"For years now, the major labels have been desperately scrambling for sales, but, probably because they've replaced most of their staff with any musical sensibility with bean-counters, they've overlooked the fact that the way to sell records is to find good artists who can make good records," says Sylvie Simmons, a veteran rock journalist. "Much in the same way they've spent more time and energy selling repackaged back catalogues than finding and nurturing new talent, this two-for-one business is just value-added commerce in its simplest, most desperate form."
Some programmers dismiss the most frequent cameos as little more than an easy money grab.
Jermaine Dupri's signature "Y'all know what this is" on various songs has become a running joke to Kid Kelly, the director of pop programming at Sirius.
"Every time I hear that, I cringe," Kelly says. "He's on, like, 10 of those songs. It's a real pain to manage that."
Another example: Amy Winehouse's hit "Rehab" was remixed with guest vocals by Jay-Z.
Critics may cringe, but it could be worse: No one has decided to re-release the saccharine duet by Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder on 1982's chart-topping "Ebony and Ivory." Yet.