Monday, July 4, 2011

Babywoman: Naomi Campbell’s Recording Career

Album cover: "Babywoman"
Part of the fun in writing about pop art and high culture is acting as a cultural anthropologist. There are countless one-hit wonders in terms of music, books, films, and other media that at one point or another captured the public’s attention and may have been lost, forgotten, or just dimly remembered. What may have seemed like a gimmick or a high-concept lark may, in hindsight, prove to be highly-executed but misunderstood art, or just a bit of cheeky fun, as the Brits say.

Into the category of one-hit wonders falls supermodel Naomi Campbell’s 1994 album. Christened Babywoman, after one of her nicknames, Campbell’s album was an attempt to cash in on the British R&B-inflected dance music that was in vogue at the time. Artists popular at the time and to whom Campbell’s producers worked with and whose sound they emulated included M People, Eternal, Gabrielle and Soul II Soul.

The "Big Five", Vogue, January 1990
To understand the need of a supermodel to release an album, one had to recall the status in what became known as the era of the supermodel. From 1990 to about 1995, a small collection of the world’s top models gave rise to the term "supermodel". In particular, five were instantly immortalized in Herb Ritts’s iconic January 1990 cover of Vogue magazine. These women were the world’s top models, instantly recognizable and who were known by only their first names. They included Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington and Tatjana Patitz. Known as “the Big Five”, they were joined by Kate Moss and became collectively known as “the Big Six”. Their presence immediately elevated the tone and marketability of any product, and they were in-demand by every conceivable designer on the planet. Their status, visibility and near-ubiquity had the residual effect of helping to make fashion one of the most high-profile and serious global industries. Campbell, Evangelista and Turlington in particular were such close friends and so sought-after that they became another subset of the “Big Six”: they were known as “The Trinity”.

It was in this cultural environment that the idea of the multi-hyphenate entertainer first appeared. Although it was not uncommon for actors to also direct and write films, plays, and TV at the time, it was unusual for models to attempt a career in the arts and in business at the same time that they modeled. It was with much media attention, tempered with a good deal of curiosity, that Campbell released her debut single “Love and Tears”.

Single cover of "Love & Tears"
Critics were unkind. The ambient African-inflected dance track failed on the pop charts, spending a single week at a miserable No. 40 before fading into obscurity. Its parent album fared no better, stalling at No. 75 on the British album chart. Her primary audience consisted mainly of fashion-forward gay men, and the rest of the album is made up of dance floor fillers, but a lack of promotion and Campbell’s many other endeavours failed to give Babywoman much of a chance at success. Although her voice is serviceable, it is not exactly Maria Callas, or even Lady Gaga. Nevertheless, the ambient track is charming and is well-produced, and the album deserved much better than the baffling, continuing success of one Britney Spears.

Covering Japanese Vogue
This was symptomatic of the multi-hyphenated supermodel career. Babywoman was portended by Campbell’s unceremonious dismissal by the Elite Model Management due to her continual abuse of staff and difficult attitude. Campbell also had a book ghost-written during this time, the forgotten murder mystery Swan, and was in discussions with other models to launch the short-lived Fashion Café, a proposed chain of restaurants meant to rival Planet Hollywood and the Hard Rock Café. This last endeavour was rather misbegotten. The Blogger was in Manila in the late 90s visiting and suggested going to the then-new Fashion Café for lunch with friends, as Campbell and her business partners Elle McPherson and Claudia Schiffer were in town for the opening. To this suggestion, the Blogger’s friends sniffed, “who wants to go there for lunch? Models don’t eat solid food.” Therein lies the lack of appeal to the general public, not to mention a bit of Schadenfreude thanks to Campbell’s stormy relationship with colleagues and financiers. It was almost as if the public wanted her to fail.

"I never look back, darling. It distracts
from the now." - Edna Mode, The Incredibles
Campbell’s failed recording career was not for naught, however. By the late 90s, more and more celebrities attempted multi-hyphenate careers as models, actors, recording artists and business executives. It was with such failed endeavours as Babywoman and the Fashion Café that the likes of Jennifer Lopez would become a crossover success. There could be many theories as to why Campbell’s career as a multi-hyphenate failed. It could be that she spread herself too thin. It could be due to her reputation that made financiers and producers back away. Perhaps in hindsight, it was a lack of connection to her proposed audience. Lopez, in comparison was “Jenny from the block” before she was a major star and embraced that image to make herself more relatable to her target audience. That approachability (despite her own reputation, if you believe the gossip blogs) part of her appeal and endures.

Covering Russian Vogue
In the years since her short-lived career as a singer, Campbell has used her reputation to turn her attention to charity work, including Nelson Mandela’s Children’s Fund, Breakthrough Breast Cancer, and the White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood. Campbell now calls Moscow home, where she lives with her billionaire Russian boyfriend Vladimir Doronin, worlds away from her brief musical sojourn. Campbell has been a fixture on Moscow runways and parties, appears regularly at the high-end retailer TSUM, and occasionally edits Russian Vogue. She remains one of the quintessential stars and most groundbreaking of models, and the only supermodel of colour. 

And the Blogger hopes that one day, on a runway, the soundtrack blares Campbell’s “Love & Tears”, and see if she laughs, and remembers it fondly.