Norah Jones' sophomore tepidity.

Pop, jazz, and classical.
Feb. 10 2004 6:46 PM

The Faux Life With Norah Jones

Debunking the pop star's "word-of-mouth success."

The carefully crafted down-home Jones
The carefully crafted down-home Jones

Unless you're housebound, you've heard Come Away With Me, Norah Jones' first album—for the last two years, it's served as an unofficial boho soundtrack for coffee houses and bookstores around the country. But unlike other semiesoteric java joint mainstays, Come Away With Me is a record-selling tsunami: It's moved 18 million copies and won eight Grammys last year. (By comparison, Britney Spears' most recent album has sold about 2 million copies.) The release on Feb. 10 of Jones' sophomore effort, Feels Like Home—a slightly more upbeat album than her first one—presents a complicated challenge for Jones' savvy handlers.

The conventional take on Jones is that she's a homegrown success who prevailed in an era of pre-manufactured and overmarketed pop stars. The truth is a little more complicated. Beginning about six months before Come Away With Me was released in February 2002, Blue Note Records sent out advance copies bearing breathless testimonials. The label also set up a series of press-only showcases at places like New York's now-defunct Bottom Line, a club notable for having showcased "legit" artists like Bruce Springsteen and Miles Davis. These efforts resulted in so much attention that Jones was featured in Rolling Stone as an "Artist To Watch" weeks before her album even hit the streets. (I reviewed the album for the New York Observer almost two months before it came out; my editor and I agreed that Jones was being pushed so hard it was silly to wait until the actual release date.) But as soon as Blue Note's PR campaign started to pay off, an interesting thing occurred: There was a paradoxical effort to promote Jones as an artist whose success wasn't the result of promotion. She was, we were told, a word-of-mouth phenomenon, someone you could feel good about listening to while you wrote in your journal.

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This type of promotion worked well among a crucial part of her fan base: college students, aging baby boomers, and sensitive writer types—people who think of themselves as independent and open-minded. Jones' continuing success will depend at least in part on getting these fans to be as evangelical about Feels Like Home as they were about Come Away With Me. So how do you market one of the best-selling artists of the past decade without making her willful fans feel as if they're being spoon-fed a star? By continuing to pretend you're not marketing her at all.

This time around Jones and her handlers don't need to ask for coverage; instead, she's being carefully parceled out. Advance copies for Feels Like Home weren't sent to reviewers until a couple of weeks before the album's release date, and only one reporter, Rob Hoerburger, was allowed access to Jones and her new album as it was being made. The result was a perfectly positioned—and highly uncritical—feature called "The Anti-Diva," which ran in the Jan. 25 issue of the New York Times Magazine

In addition to amply praising the product, Hoerburger bought into the now overdetermined story line about Jones' career trajectory:

The success [of Come Away With Me] happened without the usual promotional tools, a Top 10 pop radio hit or a high-concept video, on a boutique jazz label, Blue Note, whose executives usually listen for talent first and chart positions later, if at all. Julian Fleisher, a New York nightclub singer who released his own album of smart, genre-busting pop in 2002, said: "It was like Howard Dean. It was a grass-roots success that people heard about in their living rooms. That's where I heard it first—in someone's living room."

It's a nice story, but it's not exactly true. Jones didn't have a high-concept video because watching Jones strut around on a strobe-lit set would have turned off her fans. But she did have a pair of low-concept videos, one of which featured Jones wandering barefoot on a beach, flip-flops in hand. Jones didn't have a pop radio hit, but that was just because her fans don't listen to pop radio—they read the New York Times, and they buy CDs instead of downloading songs off the Internet. And while it used to be true that Blue Note was a boutique jazz label, it's now owned by Capitol Records (home to Radiohead and Snoop Dogg). These days, Blue Note focuses on both jazz and boomer artists like Van Morrison and Al Green.

Jones conveyed to Hoerburger that she wants to be seen as part of a tradition that views art as antithetical to commercial success, and on Feels Like Home, she has tried to cement her status as a legitimate artiste. One persistent criticism of Come Away With Me is that Jones didn't write enough of the songs herself—which is seemingly fine for old-school singers like Billie Holiday, but apparently a no-no for an "authentic" singer-songwriter. She's more active on that count here, but the results are less than stellar. "What Am I to You?," the only song Jones wrote by herself, is a train wreck of clichés and platitudes, with line after line of deep blue seas, falling skies, and butterflies. "Toes," which Jones co-wrote, features an odd kind of attenuated solipsism—the entire song is an internal debate as to whether the singer should go swimming. (She doesn't.) There are also requisite homages to her brethren in all those coffee shop CD players: Feels Like Home includes covers of both Tom Waits and Townes Van Zandt compositions, as well as a nod to the night watchman of Bob Dylan's "Visions of Johanna." It's also a more countrified album than Come Away With Me, with two pinches more twang and slightly less torch. Everything from the album's title to its trajectory (it starts with Jones in bed on "Sunrise" and ends with her watching the snow out her window on "Don't Miss You at All," a Jones composition set to Duke Ellington's "Melancholia") is designed to make the listener feel comfortable.

If one of the strengths of Come Away With Me was the unexpected and unobtrusive beauty of Jones' voice, Feels Like Home is actually too unobtrusive—about right for background music while you're trying to decide whether to order that second cup of cappuccino, but not the type of thing you'd force a bunch of friends to listen to all the way through. The surprising sexuality of her first album, where the 22-year-old Jones didn't know why she didn't come and was waiting for her lover to turn her on, has been replaced by rusty nails and long ways home and handfuls of rain. At its best, Come Away With Me was like a revelation—there are young, sexy singers that sound this intelligent and artful? It was distinctive and fresh. Feels Like Home is too tepid and bland to serve as a fully deserving follow-up.

But when you've sold 18 million records with your first release, you can afford to not do quite as well the second time around. Plus, it sets up a nice story line for next time: scrappy Norah Jones, fighting to prove she still has the right stuff.

Seth Mnookin is the associate director of MIT's Graduate Program in Science Writing. His most recent book is The Panic Virus: The True Story Behind the Vaccine-Autism Controversy. Follow him on Twitter.

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