Despite what Lil’ Bow Wow and Britney have shown us, stardom doesn’t always come before you can vote or get behind the wheel of a car.
The past few years have been a boon for the high school (Aaron Carter, B2K, Lil’ Romeo) and graduation set (Michelle Branch, Vanessa Carlton). Even though it may have felt like it, it hasn’t been all teens all the time, though. Veteran acts such as U2, Nickelback, Creed, No Doubt, Train, Sugar Ray and R. Kelly have been banging the charts all along.
And lately, singers like Tweet and rockers Unwritten Law and Jimmy Eat World – who’ve collectively been struggling longer than Ashanti’s been alive – are savoring the sweet taste of success well beyond their teens, despite years, even decades, of knocking at the door.
“For so many years I was stuck. I couldn’t breathe, I was depressed and miserable,” explained Missy Elliott protÃ©gÃ© Tweet, 30, of the autobiographical song “Heaven” on her top 10 album, Southern Hummingbird. The track might as well be called “Charlene Keys,” since it tells the real story behind the singer’s struggle to make it.
The Rochester, New York, native had been working it for nearly a decade, including six dead-end years in the all-girl trio Sugah, which dissolved two years ago without a record deal or much of anything else to show for their efforts. Rejection from a stalled music career had driven Tweet so far down that the “Oops (Oh My)” singer hit the bottle and contemplated suicide before Elliott stepped in and helped her fly to the top of the charts.
Now, able to deal with her newfound success at a mature age, Tweet can handle the pressure and enjoy the ride.
At least it came faster for her than for “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” bluegrass superstar Ralph Stanley. He had to wait until he was 75 to make headlines across the nation thanks to that soundtrack’s unexpected 2002 Grammy wins.
While it’s understandable that acts like 10-years-in-the-making English flash in the pan David Gray – who finally broke through with the 2000 hit “Babylon” at age 30 after four albums – have a hard time cracking the States, don’t think it’s all instant limos and Cristal for homegrown bands, either.
Pop rockers Unwritten Law slogged away for nearly a dozen years before breaking through with this year’s Elva and the #3 Billboard Modern Rock hit “Seein’ Red.” Formed in 1990, they were signed to Epic for their second album, 1996’s Oz Factor, only to be dropped and later picked up by Interscope, which issued their third and fourth albums – the latter of which recently cracked the Billboard 200 albums chart.
That’s to say nothing of Jimmy Eat World, who formed in 1994 and released two major-label albums before most of their members turned 21. After going through a similar situation as Unwritten Law (dropped by Capitol, picked up by DreamWorks), the group is finally seeing their hard work pay off with the #1 Billboard Modern Rock single “The Middle.” Both are a testament to the old-fashioned rock and roll method of working your way to the top during an era where a drive for instant, massive pop success has often been the rule.
Geoff Mayfield, director of charts for Billboard, said these mature acts are poised to last because they’ve gotten over those awkward “sophomore slump” years.
“All these bands are examples of people who’ve honed their craft by working at it and playing in clubs for 20 people until they made it,” Mayfield said. “When you break through on that first album, you’ve probably been working on those songs for your whole life. Then, if you’re a songwriter, it’s time to see what you have next.
“When you’ve been at it a long time, you have that poise and professionalism when it happens and you can appreciate it because you’ve seen the other side. And, if you’re a songwriter, you have a bigger bank of songs [to choose from] and you’re better prepared to deal with the next album after the breakthrough than those who succeed on their first try.”
The kind of slow buzz Mayfield is talking about can take a while to grow, though. And, unlike buzz band the Strokes, who seemingly struggled for several weeks, perhaps months, before being signed and tagged as the next big thing, the White Stripes have been at it for only five years. But at ages 27 (drummer Meg White) and 26 (guitarist/singer Jack White), the pair are practically middle-aged compared to recent chart freshman like the Calling and the 2-year-old Default.
And they definitely never would’ve guessed that their half-decade of club dates and underground stardom would translate into a major-label push and a charting single. In fact, Jack White has no idea why so many people have connected with songs like “Fell in Love With a Girl” from their third LP, White Blood Cells.
“Maybe it’s just the right time,” he said. “I hate to even speculate what it is. When we started playing, we were just playing Toledo, Ohio, for 22 people, and now we go halfway around the world and the place is sold out in 10 minutes.”
However they got there, and whatever obstacles they leaped to do it, one thing is for sure, these artists are proving that perseverance does pay off and that age ain’t nothing but a number.