Pop-Up Pop Stars

Are you a Houston-area female singer-dancer between the ages of 16 and 21? Do you want to be a mega-star like Beyoncé? If so, Music World/Sanctuary Urban Music Group -- the international record label-management company run by Beyoncé's father Matthew Knowles -- wants you.

"There's a lot of talent in this city, and we're looking for the best of the best to be in Houston's next all-girl group singing sensation," said a statement from Matthew Knowles, Music World/ Sanctuary's president. "Auditions will be tough. Unlike most local talent contests we are bringing in reputable judges that have made a name for themselves in the global music industry. I'm confident we'll end up with a ton of great talent." (American Idol's Simon Cowell would disagree, but never mind. Most of those lousy contestants at Minute Maid were Okies, Cajuns and Arkies, anyway.)

If you're just reading this now, you're a little late for this go-round. Project Popstar, the contest that the conglomerate has put together to assemble a new girl group along the lines of Destiny's Child, officially got underway at 7 a.m. last Saturday at the George R. Brown Convention Center.

There, the first 500 contestants in line auditioned by singing a cappella 30 seconds of one of these songs: Beyoncé's "Dangerously in Love," the Whitney Houston version of "I Will Always Love You," Jessica Simpson's cover of "Take My Breath Away," Evanescence's "My Immortal," or "Amazing Grace."

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But in addition to having perfect pitch, poise and powerful pipes, these contestants had better be either shameless or spotless. Racket downloaded a copy of the contest's rules and clauses, one of which hinted that a reality show might be in the offing, though nothing has been announced yet. Here it is, in part. Call it the Omarosa clause: "You understand that you may reveal and other parties may reveal information about you that is of a personal, private, embarrassing or unfavorable nature..." the portrayal of which in the contest may be "disparaging, defamatory, embarrassing, or of an otherwise unfavorable nature which may expose you to public ridicule, humiliation or condemnation." And the producer has the right to broadcast that juicy stuff "in any and all media known or hereafter devised...throughout the universe in perpetuity."

Don't you just love lawyers? I can just imagine the Starbucks-addled briefcase-toting bottom-feeder who thought that clause up. "Let's see -- what if some Zyklotrops on Betelguese-16 is practicing Murgletronic Mind-Melding in the year 106,959 AD, and he receives a transmission of one of the Project Popstar's contestants saying that another one's 'extensions are so ghetto?' And what if he travels back through time and space to Houston today, assumes that aggrieved contestant's shape, kills her off and sues for slander? What then? We'd be fucked, gentlemen, that's what. Better put in a line about it applying to 'every medium that has or will be invented in the whole goddamn universe for-fucking-ever.' "

Anyway, back to the contest. Out of the 500 contestants, 20 winners will be selected to attend Matthew Knowles's physically and mentally rigorous Music World Bootylicious, er, Boot Camp, where according to the official contest rules, they will receive "intense vocal training, detailed lessons on wardrobe provided by industry stylists, choreography training and in-depth lessons on public relations and speaking." Four or five of the survivors will make the band and might be the proud recipients of a Music World/Sanctuary record deal-management contract. Wisely, Knowles and the rest of the Music World/Sanctuary brain trust only are going to go whole hog behind the winners if they think they are up to snuff.

In addition to standard sponsors such as Pepsi, KRBE and Tommy Hilfiger, Knowles has one unconventional partner in the City of Houston. At the sweltering press conference in the Music World parking lot last Monday afternoon that launched the campaign, amid posters of a lolling, barely clothed Beyoncé seductively advertising Tommy Hilfiger's True Star fragrance, City Councilwoman Ada Edwards and Mayor Bill White's Deputy Chief of Staff Richard Lapin were on the podium with Music World's Heather Wagner and Marcus Harris. (Knowles was away on family business; White sent word he had a last-minute engagement.) Among the items in Lapin's job description includes one about overseeing the review of the "city's convention, entertainment and tourism functions," so he is the local analogue to what the British call their culture minister -- "The Minister for Fun."

But it was Edwards that was having fun at the press conference. "We can't be stopped!" she enthused. "New York, L.A. -- y'all better get in line! It's our turn!" Clearly the city sees helping out Music World/Sanctuary as a way to escape the still-lingering national and international impression of Houston as Hicksville. "We're being selfish with this resource," Edwards continued, speaking of the "Houstonians only" stipulation in the Project Popstar rules, before adding, "We will no longer be looked at as a cowboy town."  

To those who would question the city government's involvement in the music business, Edwards counters that it is already involved in other aspects of the entertainment business. Speaking after the press conference, in a Music World rehearsal hall-dance studio over a soul food spread provided by the Breakfast Klub, she cited all the deals cut with local sports franchises, all of which have seasons that last only part of the year. "This is year-round," she says. "Music World gives us great exposure on BET and MTV, and it's always ongoing."

Furthermore, she points out, there are too many in Houston who still think of Music World and Destiny's Child as a local family business, albeit a big one. In reality Music World/Sanctuary is a global enterprise. Today, Knowles's company manages not only Beyoncé and Destiny's Child, but also Eve, Floetry, Angie Stone and Mary J. Blige.

As of the filing of this column, it was unclear if the city's sponsorship included cash, in-kind donations of the George R. Brown's space, or if it was simply an act of goodwill, but even if we handed Music World a truckload of taxpayer money and signed over the use of George R. Brown all over the universe in perpetuity, I still favor it. Sure, it would be nice if the city's first foray into the music business was to donate money to your favorite band who just needs that one tiny break to be so popular that you can start calling them a sellout, but I believe the city is wise to start at the top with one of Houston's greatest-ever success stories. Any success Project Popstar has can be only good news for the city's music scene.

And it's true that one of the easiest ways to change a city's image is to export your music. Right now Houston's identity is schizoid -- are we the city of Urban Cowboy or the Geto Boys, ZZ Top or Destiny's Child, Lyle Lovett or DJ Screw, Lil' Flip or Clint Black? Of course we know we are all of those things, but most people outside of Texas think of Black, ZZ Top and Lyle Lovett as Texans, not Houstonians. Urban Cowboy was a long-ass time ago, and it was a better movie than a musical movement, but that's like saying lung cancer's not as bad as pancreatic cancer. And I dig the Geto Boys and Flip personally, but I realize they are not everybody's snifter of Hennessy, especially not chamber of commerce types. And not everyone has as much easy access to all the Mexican codeine we've got here that's necessary to be a DJ Screw fan.

So if we are to become the city of girl groups, so be it. That's how Motown got started, and before it was over, it had produced not just the Supremes, the Shirelles and the Vandellas, but also Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and even Rick James. And bad as that city's image is, think of Detroit's image without Motown. You've got Eminem, the MC5, Kid Rock, Bob Seger -- in other words, Cleveland, which despite having the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and having churned out some extremely influential punk bands (Devo, Dead Boys, Cramps and Pere Ubu, to name a few) is a city that hardly anybody outside of rock geek circles talks about as a music town. Which is about where we are now.

Americana's Downtown Debut

"Due to the frustrating fact that Houston lacks a good acoustic venue for 200 to 500 capacity, I decided to take matters into my own hands and start promoting shows." So says Compadre Records head honcho Brad Turcotte of a new concert series he's got in the pipeline at the Hobby Center's Zilkha Hall. The lineup is excellent: Leo Kottke on September 16, Jimmie Dale Gilmore on October 16, a tentative Charlie Robison-Billy Joe Shaver show on November 3 and the traditional Yuletide Kelly Willis/Bruce Robison Christmas show (with the Greencards this time around) on December 16. Next year Todd Snider, Rodney Crowell, Gillian Welch and Guy Clark are all on the slate. Speaking of Turcotte, Shaver and Compadre, Billy Joe Shaver's completion of late son Eddy's unfinished recordings will be released Tuesday. It's called Billy and the Kid, and as you might expect from the fact that Eddy's on the album, it rocks pretty hard.

Scuttlebutt Caboose

Apologies to Elvia's Cantina. We neglected to include them among the winners of music awards this year. For about the 50th year running, they won the Best Latin Venue award...  

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