Just over a month ago, I temporarily moved to a remote region of Utah to work in quiet and isolation on a book. My plan was simple - I would minimize technological distractions in my life, using the Internet and phone only as necessary. There was a television in my little cabin, but I hadn't even bothered to look for the remote control - I wouldn't need that, I thought to myself, as I unpacked my bags. But then the unexpected happened: I saw an online advertisement for Make or Break: The Linda Perry Project on VH1, and I went in desperate search for that remote control. Soon, I awaited Wednesday nights with great anticipation, simply so that I could pick up on where the previous week's Make or Break left off.
By now, it's fairly common knowledge that Linda Perry is the super-producer who reshaped dozens of careers from Pink to Christina Aguilera and Gwen Stefani to James Blunt. But like so many of my friends and peers who were teenagers in the 1990s, I was first introduced to Linda Perry as the lead singer and primary songwriter for 4 Non Blondes. I was twelve years old when Bigger, Better, Faster, More! was released and when "What's Up?" hit the radio; it flooded through our school like a sudden shift in the cultural and generational tides - becoming an explosive musical and lyrical summation of our early teen years. I knew very few classmates at the time who didn't step outside, take a deep breath and scream from the top of their lungs, "what's going on?" at some point during those years.
But it wasn't just the music or the lyrics stayed with me - it was the universalism of "What's Up?" that always intrigued me. During a time in life when kids hold onto individual musical expressions as delicate extensions of their developing sense of selves, that song resonated with the masses. But how could it not? Listening to it was like hearing someone's soul bleed through the microphone and there was no way not to be affected by the raw emotion that hemorrhaged through Linda Perry's vocals. No one was spared.
After 4 Non Blondes disbanded, I loosely followed Linda Perry's career - there were a few collaborations, a couple of solo albums (including 1996's excellent, though often overlooked, In Flight), and then she disappeared. I had assumed that she had bowed out of show business gracefully, until the early 2000s, when I began hearing songs by pop artists that didn't sound like their usual material. These songs were deeper - tougher - they were painfully honest and, I found myself in that rare position of not necessarily liking a song, but always connecting with it because there was something so authentically primal about it. When news spread that Linda Perry was producing these albums, it made perfect sense: that same rawness and emotion that she had pulled out of herself ten years earlier, she was now pulling out of others - and this time on massive and diverse scales.
Naturally, then, when I saw the advertisement for Make or Break, I determined to make it my midweek television indulgence. I wanted to see how Linda Perry stirred the emotional magic for her artists - and I yearned for a realistic portal into the challenging process of writing and recording music that comes from the deepest vaults of musicians' souls. I was searching for an alternative to the diluted approach of singing competitions on television. Shows like The Voice and American Idol may be fun entertainment; however, in looking at the ratio of winners on the shows with those who go on to build lasting careers as musicians, it is disproportionately low. And that is because it's nearly impossible to predict how someone who can sing others' songs on key - an impressive talent for sure - is going to write songs or create an album that embodies a uniqueness and newness that reaches beyond the musical status quo.
I shudder to think about what television judges today would say to Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix or Janis Joplin if they showed up to sing for 90 seconds on a stage. And then I shudder even more when I think about what our culture would have lost, had those musicians never had a chance to develop at their own rate, experiment with their sounds and find their voices. But, here we are, not yet halfway through Make or Break, and it's already shattered the mold of music shows - because success on Make or Break is not defined by perfection. Success on this show is about capturing everything else - all of the intangibles of music: honesty, pain, joy, fear, authenticity and soul.
So, what do we have right now on Make or Break? We've got a diverse group of six, already quasi-established, artists or bands that are competing for a record deal on Perry's label. There is: Hunter Valentine, a hard-rock band with occasional folk tendencies; Anjuli Stars, a solo rap and hip hop artist from Miami; Gabriel Meyers, a Brooklyn-based "busker" who plays in the New York City subways; Mackenzie Johnson, a young singer-songwriter from Pennsylvania; Omar, a duo indie-rock band that's beginning to explore its introspective side; and Vanjess, a sisters' R&B duo. The show's competition, however, seems secondary; after all, the musicians are recording with Perry in her studio, benefitting from her guidance, and their original songs are garnering national exposure each week.
A sense of mystery lingers with each episode - and unlike a traditional music competition, it's not about the anticipation of who will "win." Instead, it's a curiosity of which band or artist will create a different sound - who will peel off layers of familiarity and comfort in order to unleash a song that is at once highly accessible and deeply intimate? I do not know who will ultimately be rewarded with a record contract, but watching these artists each week, as they make uncomfortable shifts in their songwriting or change their band members' roles or reexamine how they perform for audiences, suggests tremendous hope for new music today.
There's an old saying that goes, "writing is easy, you just open a vein and bleed." I imagine the same could be said for recording an album. But, to bleed you must feel safe and that is precisely what Linda Perry has created through Make or Break - a trusted space for artists to struggle, even to fail at times, but eventually to break away from everything they have known in order to discover that glimmer of something new; and something that, one day, just may have new generations of teenagers stepping outside and screaming from the tops of their lungs for years to come.
Make or Break: The Linda Perry Project airs on VH1 on Wednesdays at 10pm/9pm CST.
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