So you wanna be a rock & roll star? Here's a tip: Screw somebody. Pop pariah Mariah would never have left the rabbit-fur racks of Lerner, N.Y., had she not lifted the belly of Sony magnate Tommy Mottola. And didn't Jewel do Flea while she was living in a van? Itchy! Talent be damned, there can be no better way to get your vocal cords out there than selling the skin that wraps them, right?
Regardless, there's apparently always room for another self-help pop-star seminar, especially here in the belly of Florida's fiberglass rock promise. Oh, the S.T.A.R.R.S. were out last week for the second annual Seeking Talented Artists and Recruiting Rising Stars confab at the Sheraton World Resort. Not the "stars," mind you, as they're too busy nursing luck and drinking fate down the highway to their own eventual futility.
Instead, for this conference it's Tony Robbins suited up as Ricky Skaggs droning in front of a scattering of spiky potential Backstreet heads, Britney necks and Nashville blowouts willing to fork over substantial dough to find out how it's done. The setting is the high-chandelier lights and utility carpet of the Great Lakes Ballroom -- y'know, just to the left of the pool. It feels like there should be something important, or at least ceremonious, going on here. But I'm surrounded by trust funds with hair irons, three women with red, blond and brown curl-and-sets toting publicity glossies, and two boy-band heads with cell-phone pockets who keep nodding in agreement at the marketing euphony being ladled out. Is this traffic school?
"Professionalism," dooms the lecturing necktie. "What is professionalism?"
"It's creating a persona to make people be a part of what you do," and so on.
Well, there are lots of personas here, only they're more like caricatures of the lowest-common-denominator images littering the refrigerator-magnet section of Spencer Gifts. Me, I'm sitting bad-boy back of the class, hoping nobody mistakes me for Dixie Chick Natalie Maines and jotting down pop lessons next to the frowny faces of doodled disbelief.
"You don't have to go to school for four years," offers Dr. Rock. "God bless those of you who did. But there are so many bookstores where you can learn this stuff for free."
Effectively, then, this a seminar in common-sense reflexology. Somebody tells you how to cheat your way through -- in the most obvious way -- and you kick yourself in the ass for the money you wasted to hear it. Kind of like a "how-to-shoplift" course. Duh. You steal.
Soon the mess descends to a discussion of demographics, targeting soccer moms as the bulk of the buying public.
"What are soccer moms?"
"Well, it's a term for mothers who take their kids to soccer games."
Seems boys are supposed to compose songs for the delight of menopausal misunderstoods, while girls are supposed to remind them of their Oprah inner spirits, all the while making sure to "market to the media." It's a lot to remember. Especially the last part, considering that much of the media -- like me -- will hate you for trying.
But try is what you must do, we find out, as the "7 Steps to a Successful Music Career" portion dips to its troubling nadir. Seems our industry insider has, scriptedly, grown tired of the morning agreement moans of students in a "Beowulf" dissertation. He persists in a discussion of credo No. 7, persistence.
"I want everybody to repeat after me: If it's to be, it's up to me!" -- sickly echoing Marlo Thomas' "Free to Be" manifesto of our hippy youths.
But only mumbles resound, so a Mach II follows. "You guys sound like a bunch of Presbyterians. Stand up! If it's to BE, it's up to ME!"
"If it's to be ... ," whispers That Girl and those guys.
"Well, you're at least Baptists now. Let's try it all Pentecostal," he sweats.
At this point I run for the door, realizing that this is why I've so far refused all of the AA nudges from concerned friends. Screaming self-help in unison scares me more than, um, drinking.
In the lobby, I corner the showcase organizer, Ted MacMurrow, and engage in an autopilot discussion about the event, at which industry heads will be given three chances to encounter each of the hopeful talents, because while "in their showcase performances, the recruiters may not see what they want, maybe they'll see a spark in the one-on-one interview" -- thus negating the need for actual talent and furthering the fact that we should all be shot.
"Any famous teen recruiters here: Johnny Wright? Lou?"
"No, not this year. Johnny's busy with the 'N Sync album, then next week Britney comes to town to work on hers."
Note to self: Britney's coming.
Oh, but she's already here in spirit. Outside, standing next to her stage mom and two extremely gay Latin boy dancers with hair-product issues, is "Michelle."
"Why are you here?" I stifle a laugh.
"Well, I was here last year," she follows, adding that it's been very important for her to come back because "last year, I was backed by a group."
"What have you learned since last year?" I noodle.
"Caution," she glares, as her mother senses my sarcasm.
"And who are these two young gentlemen?" I gay.
With a look away and an eye squinch, it comes: "The Caution Dancers."