Hootie To Test Double-Charted Waters
Hootie & the Blowfish, pop music's unstoppable sales giant, may soon be facing stiff competition. From itself.
Debut album Cracked Rear View is No. 7 in Billboard, 19 months after its release. The South Carolina band just finished recording its second album, due April 23. It's expected to enter the chart's uppermost reaches.
Hootie's performance on the Feb. 28 Grammy Awards and its likely triumph in the best new artist category could sustain sales of Rear View as well as heighten interest in the next batch of songs.
Can the two releases survive simultaneously in the top 10? Or is the overlap a self-defeating strategy?
"We're entering uncharted ground," admits Atlantic Group "co-chairman Val Azzoli. The release date is firm and plans are under way for a two-month European tour and other promotional activities.
"The band wants to concentrate on its fan base," says Azzoli, who was instrumental in signing and nurturing the mellow rock quartet.
"I have to believe the core audience is the first 3 million people who bought the album a year and a half ago. To them, it's an old record. People buying it now waited till they heard three or four hits. They don't buy a lot of records and they probably won't be around for the next record anyway."
Though too much success is a problem most pop artists welcome, Hootie's overexposure and unrelenting reign have already triggered a critical backlash and could subject the band to some listener rejection.
In Rolling Stone's 1995 readers' poll, Cracked Rear View, which spawned the hits Only Wanna Be With You, Let Her Cry and Hold My Hand, was named worst album of the year. It also landed third in the best album category and ping-ponged between other incongruous slots: artist of the year, worst single, best new male singer (Darius Rucker), worst album cover and worst video.
Initially merciful, critics have grown increasingly harsh, lambasting the band's spectacular rise as proof that mediocrity rules. Los Angeles Times writer Steve Hochman's summation in Rolling Stone: "Ah, 1995 - the year of the Hootie. The world is safe for Dockers again."
After compiling the annual Village Voice critics' poll, which tends to laud experimental music and ignore formulaic pop, music critic Robert Christgau complained that "we're in an extremely fallow period as far as popular taste is concerned. The phenomenon of the year was Hootie, and that's a bland, worthless record," he says. "It's baby food. Critics look for some sort of energy and acuteness."
Azzoli isn't sweating the critics, nor is he concerned about fallout from Hootie's refusal to temporarily retreat from the airwaves.
"We'd have the same problem if we released the new record a year from now," he says. "In know we'll get plenty of criticism. Welcome to the real world. Cracked Rear View is a magical record that probably can't be repeated. So whatever the new one sells, people will say, 'You must be disappointed.' No matter what the record does, some people will call the band a one-hit wonder."
Post-Thriller Michael Jackson has suffered from the same syndrome. Azzoli explains, "If you sell 1 million albums, you're a platinum artist. If you sell 2 million, you're established. If you sell 3 million, you're a huge act. We sold 12 million, and if the next record sells 4 million, everyone will say it's a stiff."
The still-untitled album will sell on its merits, says Azzoli, who describes the new effort, produced by Rear View's Don Gehman, as "consistent with the first. It's not a drastic change, but the songs are more complex, the lyrics more mature and the playing is better."
A single, Old Man and Me (the current choice but subject to change), will precede the album by two or three weeks. The industry anticipates instant radio and VH1 saturation. Even without immediate support, Hootie will flourish on its talent and drive, Azzoli says.
"These guys will have a slew of platinum records in their career," he says. "Maybe none of them will do as well as Cracked Rear View, but I can guarantee that Hootie & the Blowfish will be around for a long, long time."
Regardless of the band's future, its triumphs to date ensure one lasting victory. Nobody even vaguely familiar with pop history will be asking, "Hootie who?"