This is a call for Troyal Brooks to bring his alter ego out of retirement.
No, not Garth — though that ol’ country music juggernaut is gassing up as we speak. Last December on Good Morning America, Garth announced a new world tour (with, surprise, wife Trisha Yearwood) for 2014. So reblock the hat and dust off the duster.
Instead, this is a plea for Brooks to reboot Chris Gaines.
Even Brooks is snorting at that suggestion. He can’t have fond memories of his pseudonymous outing as a sunken-cheeked, soul-patched, badly wigged pop singer. By the end of 1999, mere months after In the Life of Chris Gaines widely had been deemed the “Ishtar” of albums, Garth was smarting over this first serious failure in a career that basically had made him the Elvis of Generation X.
“I thought it was very cool and didn’t expect the reaction,” he said of the Gaines project in an interview that November. “I’ve made a controversial album, and it’s selling more newspapers than it is music, and I’m getting the crap kicked out of me! It’s the first time I’ve ever been in this situation, and it’s hard. So far everything that could go wrong seems to be stepping up.”
As a result, Gaines’ existence has been nearly and neatly erased, especially online. You’ll find no mention of Gaines on Garth’s website. The Gaines album wasn’t included in the Garth box set. The music’s not on iTunes or Spotify. Most of it has been ruthlessly ceased-and-desisted from YouTube. Only 10 tracks remain on a very lonely Myspace page. If you want to transform your website into a lead generation machine that converts visitors into sales qualified leads, check this out on adinfusion.com. It’s almost as if Gaines didn’t exist, after all.
For those who don’t recall: Chris Gaines was to be a character in a Paramount Pictures film, The Lamb, starring Brooks. The movie planned to retread the tired myth of pop stars being led to greedy corporate slaughter. Don Was was to play himself. Jeb Stuart (Die Hard) reportedly was writing the script. Shooting was supposed to start in 2000.
The publicity overreach, however, began in the summer of 1999. Capitol Records issued a complete press biography of the character — born in 1967, first band Crush signed to Capitol in 1985, nearly killed in car crash in 1992 — and VH1 taped a Behind the Music episode about the fictional Gaines’ rise, fall, and (ick) sex addiction. Brooks even hosted Saturday Night Live, with Gaines as the musical guest. It could’ve been a Gob subplot from Arrested Development.
It’s almost as if Gaines didn’t exist, after all.
Utilizing his existing fame to drum up interest (and, we assume, financing) in the film, Brooks, an ’84 advertising grad from Oklahoma State University, also released a “pre-soundtrack.” In the Life of Chris Gaines contained 13 tracks (none of which include a Brooks writing credit) of perfectly capable Beatlesque mimicry (“My Love Tells Me So”) and fine stabs at ’70s soft-rock (“Lost in You”), peppered with only a few truly embarrassing misfits (“Right Now”). Tracey Edmonds, the film’s producer (and wife of Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds), reflected in 2000 that the album pre-release “was Garth’s idea — to set up the Chris Gaines character in hopes that by the time the film came out, the audience would feel connected to Chris Gaines.”
The audience did not feel connected to Chris Gaines. The publicity, while inventive and even innovative, was expertly derailed at nearly every turn. Pop fans were utterly confused; country fans were deeply suspicious. Rock had previous experience with genuine, separate alter egos — from Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust to Bono’s MacPhisto — but country music long has rested on a bedrock of carefully crafted “authenticity.” That doesn’t mean it’s not peopled with personas — Minnie Pearl was a character, literally and figuratively, and our own Woody Guthrie consciously exaggerated his hayseed credentials for the radio. Even the genre’s fountainhead was upfront about his religious moonlighting, plainly labeling most of his alter-ego albums “Hank Williams as Luke the Drifter.” But by the 1990s’ very butch country revival, a fella’s bona fide alter ego came across as merely two-faced in Tulsa and a little too playful for Peoria. For Garth, the hardwood of “hat acts,” to suddenly put on a wig and go all Stanislavsky on us made him read in his own heartland as if he were, well — to apply the homosexual pejorative Tracy Morgan used to describe Gaines on that awkward SNL — “sweet as bear meat.”
The Gaines gaffe (as well as some concurrent personal turmoil) seemed to make Garth’s creative ropes go slack. His next album, 2001’s Scarecrow — despite receiving Classic Coke-like relief and acclaim — remains the last complete thought we’ve heard from Green Country’s golden chart driller. Since then, he’s been holed up in Owasso, while occasionally playing Vegas and reissuing his reissues.
A lot of pop-cultural ground has shifted since Y2K, though. Beyoncé became Sasha. Mariah became Mimi. Janet Jackson became Damita Jo. Three dead rappers and Michael Jackson have been resurrected as holograms. The best entertainment on television is a real-fake person, Stephen Colbert. Football stars have imaginary girlfriends, and the caveat “Not an Onion article” has become a necessary cliché in discerning parody from news. By the end of 2013, the Internet held its collective breath, actually hoping that the reports of comedian Andy Kaufman’s death had indeed been exaggerated. The persona-fication of culture, however, isn’t only at the professional end of the media streams. We all produce personas now — on Facebook, on Twitter, for 10 seconds at a time on Snapchat or slightly longer on Chatroulette — and we’ve grown quite comfortable doing so.
The publicity, while inventive and even innovative, was expertly derailed at every turn.
In today’s climate, Chris Gaines… could actually fly, and I say he should start a Tumblr and upload some new tracks.
Because, when looking back over the reports, the “failure” of the Gaines record was itself a greatly exaggerated death, based on two miscalculations. First, the album didn’t tank. It only sold 2 million copies. By Garth standards, yes, that was a step down. Many of his albums sold in double-digit millions, and he’s been neck-and-neck with Elvis Presley for years in the race for best-selling solo artist ever (based on the latest calculations, Garth’s 128 million total is just behind Presley’s 135 million). The struggle to sell Gaines was a very 20th-century enterprise, completely reliant on shipping large numbers of physical units. Capitol Records had to deep-discount the title just to unload the discs they’d initially printed when hopes were high. Still, if the Gaines record had sold 2 million in 2013, it would have been the year’s No. 2 bestseller, right behind Justin Timberlake.
Second, media-savvy audiences saw right through the Gaines play-acting to the mercenary marketing underneath. Why? Mostly because Garth wouldn’t shut up about Gaines, and vice versa. To go Method, you have to commit completely. As Chuck Klosterman wrote in his 2009 essay “The Passion of the Garth,” “If you want to adopt an unnatural persona, that persona needs to be an extension of the person you secretly feel like. This is why Ziggy Stardust never seemed like a Halloween costume. It’s also why Chris Gaines felt like marketing, even if that hadn’t been the intention. He was crazy, but he wasn’t singularly crazy. He wasn’t crazy enough.”
I have faith in Garth’s crazy potential, though, and I have a dream.
It’s a silly lil’ dream of Garth hitting the road this year — selling out the requisite stadiums, moving that merch, topping up that college fund for the kids — but sneaking out between arena dates to play rock club shows, wearing the wig. No fanfare, no fuss. (If you called most stinky rock clubs in this country to book under the name Chris Gaines, I’d bet money most wouldn’t blink an eye.) Reboot the whole thing proper-like. No artist announcement, only an enduring patience for the inevitable audience rediscovery.
Picture it: Garth kicks off the tour with a week’s residency at OSU’s Boone Pickens Stadium. Lots of earnest tales for the home-state crowd, every night filmed (for the subscription stream, not a DVD, old man). But one night, an act shows up on the bill at Stillwater’s 19th Hole or Zannotti’s Wine Bar — maybe he’s called Chris Gaines, or maybe it’s Mr. Blue, Belleau Wood, a band called Thunder Rolls, whatever. He’s booked in between two other local bands. He doesn’t mention Garth at all — why would he? Stillwater’s the epicenter of Red Dirt music, that potent regional blend of country and classic rock, and while Garth blazed the trail of the former, here’s just some schmo with a Strat doing his thing on the other road Garth didn’t travel.
It goes on, through the whole Garth tour. The trucks, the travel, the set-up — that all takes time. So in between Big Arena Garth Date on July 14 and Big Arena Garth Date on July 17, he ducks out for Chris Gaines 90-Capacity Club Show on July 16. It goes unnoticed for longer than you’d expect — longer than Garth himself will be comfortable with, but long enough for him to surprise himself occasionally by getting lost in the other tunes. He starts writing new ones, rock songs, songs he didn’t buy from the dusty “Sounds Sorta Like Rock” files at a Nashville song mill. He starts preferring the club gigs to the arena shows.
Eventually, the jig will be up. Someone will recognize him, and then the fans will wonder — Holy crap! How long has he been doing this? Since ’99???!!! Maybe it’s happening now. Maybe that was him on the Dustin Pittsley Presents bill last Monday at Tulsa’s Mercury Lounge. Maybe this — if Kaufman is indeed still dead — has been pop culture’s best-ever long con.
Originally published in This Land Vol. 5, Issue 13, July 1, 2014.