- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 21, 2006

At 48, Madonna still rocks a leotard like nobody’s business. Although she looks spectacular (check out her “Hung Up” and “Sorry” videos from the last year), she’s not wearing spandex because she’s vain.

She’s doing it because she’s smart.

Madonna has built a lengthy and immensely successful career on being not just a pop singer, but a consummate pop performer who can do jazz splits and the hustle just as well as, if not better than, she can belt.

A trained dancer, she knew that movement could inject extra adrenaline into her songs. Plus, she was entering the marketplace in the early 1980s, a decade that ushered in the era of the music video, MTV (which went on-air in 1981), and hip-hop culture with its synthesis of dance, music and visual elements.

She and fellow megastar movers-and-singers such as Michael and Janet Jackson took advantage of cultural shifts in order to “Thrill” audiences and sell records and concert tickets.

Because of the aesthetic and technological changes and how these stars exploited them, dance has become an integral part of the increasingly visually oriented pop game. But in this new must-do-it-all, spectacle-focused environment, are audiences being forced to settle for the second-rate: “singer-dancers” with — eh — passable pipes and “dancer-singers” with merely middling moves?

Today’s current charts teem with singer/dancer/performers like Justin Timberlake, Usher, Ciara and the Pussycat Dolls, who all follow in the music-video footsteps of earlier “double-threats” such as Paula Abdul and MC Hammer. Even Miss “Bootylicious” herself, Beyonce Knowles, has utilized screens and stages to show that music is more than just a melody; it’s an incitement to move — and an invitation to buy her products.

At a time when Celine Dion, reputed to have one of the world’s finest voices, has a glitzy, high-budget Vegas spectacular (“A New Day”), one has to wonder: Does an artist have to be coordinated and choreographed to survive in the pop world nowadays?

The founder of Trans Continental Records, Lou Pearlman, has launched the careers of world-famous boy bands such as ‘NSync and Backstreet Boys. Together, these two groups alone have sold more than 120 million records worldwide, so you could say Mr. Pearlman is something of an expert on star-making.

“I think you can make it big [without dancing],” he says, “but I think you can make it a lot bigger and quicker if you have the ability to perform.”

For him, it’s about vocals first, but showmanship is critical to an artist’s success. Dance, he explains, allows the singers to connect with the audience in a way that notes alone cannot do … and makes performers sexier in audiences’ eyes.

“Dance is very, very important, especially in a boy band,” he says. “It makes the excitement happen.”

Mr. Pearlman knows he didn’t invent the wheel — er, boy band. He was initially inspired by the popular late-‘80s group New Kids on the Block, as well as Motown’s assembly line of acts. In fact, early in his endeavors, Mr. Pearlman had a fact-finding session with Smokey Robinson, from which he gleaned insider tips about the Hitsville, U.S.A. training camp and staff choreographer Cholly Atkins’ “vocal choreography.”

New York City-based choreographer Jay T. Jenkins explains that Mr. Atkins’ dance steps achieved what every choreographer should strive for. Any movement set to dance, he says, “should be completely complementary, and it should make statements to help people remember the story line being told in the song.”

Motown fans remember how to “Stop! In the Name of Love,” thanks to Mr. Atkins’ simple yet effective movements. Similarly, today’s boy band fans know how to wave “Bye Bye Bye,” thanks to Darrin Henson’s physical rendering of the ‘NSync tune.

The formula works, and that’s why it’s taken off.

The problem is not everyone can dance as well as Justin Timberlake or the Temptations — no matter how hard they work at it. Turn on MTV right now, and you’re likely to see a whole mess of pop wannabes struggling through sidesteps and shimmies while other artists coast through their catch-steps.

Jessica Simpson, for example, should just sit down, sing and look gorgeous; she’s good at it. Dance? Not so much.

And model-turned-singer Cassie, who pretends to be a poor dancer at the outset of her “Me & U” video, does a little too convincing a job.

Conversely, there are dancers who take advantage of the revised pop star equation, such as Jennifer Lopez, whose fantastic Fly Girls skills don’t compensate for the fact that she’s just not that great a vocalist.

And thanks to production tricks and in-concert dubbing, some of the artists we’re paying top dollar to see aren’t all they profess to be.

Meanwhile, the real talent — the girl with perfect pitch, the guy who can turn 10 consecutive pirouettes, the person who works as hard as the Motown artists did to get the whole package right — is getting obscured.

Mr. Jenkins is concerned. He’s seen it all first-hand as a musician, dance instructor at the illustrious Steps on Broadway, and early music video choreographer (Kool Moe Dee’s “Wild Wild West,” for example). “We’re not developing or grooming the next potential star; we’re marketing stars, so we’re packaging stars,” he says.

If you happen to catch “Dreamgirls,” the cinematic reprise of the 1981 musical loosely based on Diana Ross and the Supremes, it may remind you that, to some extent, the making of pop stars has always involved carefully selecting the right combination of talent and appearance. But the film also shows that performers are captivating because they make difficult things — like singing and dancing — look effortless and graceful. The moment artists make these feats seem arduous or sloppy is the moment they’ve let us down.

It’s OK to let dancers dance and singers sing. And let the truly multitalented few — Diana Ross and Beyonce included — do their thing, too.

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