Wednesday 12 December 2018

Don't burst our Bublé - ‘Bublé has savvily built a brand – he’s a top rank raconteur’

The old school singer is hugely popular - and incredibly divisive. As he headlines Croke Park, Ed Power says it's time the haters backed off

Christmas cracker: Michael Bublé has managed to shift 30 million albums at a time when record and CD sales have plummeted
Christmas cracker: Michael Bublé has managed to shift 30 million albums at a time when record and CD sales have plummeted

Ed Power

Michael Bublé will be welcomed with open arms when he performs at Croke Park this Saturday. But early in his career, the Canadian crooner had the door shut in his face over and over.

A 20-year-old lounge singer who wanted to be the new Sinatra - only without the boozing, the Mafia connections and the patchy acting career. It was a difficult sell, as Bublé discovered when he collared big-wig record producer David Foster in Los Angeles.

Foster had worked with A-listers such as Whitney Houston and Celine Dion so he knew a star when he saw one. Unfortunately he didn't see much of anything in the irascible but wide-eyed Bublé.

The kid could sing - of that there was no question. But was there a market for old-fashioned torch songs? Obviously not. "You will never be signed to my label, I will never produce you," Foster told the impish Bublé. "You are talented but I see no record sales for this genre of music."

Not wishing to completely shatter Bublé's dreams, he made an offer - he'd produce the young man's debut album at a cost of $100,000 per song. Instead of slinking away, Bublé looked Foster in the eye and told him that they would speak again.

And they did, a few weeks later, when Bublé returned with a suitcase full of cash. "What he didn't know was that I would go back to Vancouver and go bank to bank with a manager I had at the time and find an investor," Bublé said.

Michael Buble and son Noah in Madrid, Spain in 2016
Michael Buble and son Noah in Madrid, Spain in 2016

"I flew back to Los Angeles and went to David's house, and he said 'What do you want?'. And I said 'Mr Foster, I have the money'. He couldn't believe I had come back. But he said 'All right', and we started making the record."

The anecdote is Bublé's career in a nutshell. Everything he does is, at first glance, totally naff. He's cheesy, feelgood, with a wholesome grin always pasted on. Yet he's come up smelling of roses again and again. He has, in particular, pulled off the old school smoothie routine - harder than it looks, as demonstrated by the fading fortunes of Jamie Callum and Josh Groban (better respected for his shtick than his music).

Let's not forget that crooning gone wrong can be completely terrifying. The most chilling example is, of course, Westlife's …Allow Us To Be Frank - a disastrous attempt to reboot the boy band's image in 2004. "Westlife aren't a match for the original Rat Pack. Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jnr et al were charismatic playboys and serial philanderers who would raise hell in Hollywood and Vegas alike," went one of the kinder reviewers.

"They courted tabloid controversy, but then this was always part of their appeal. Conversely, Westlife are a marketing man's dream and owe their success more to their clean cut image."

Perfect match: Michael and wife Luisana. Photo: Getty Images
Perfect match: Michael and wife Luisana. Photo: Getty Images

Bublé has done well avoiding those sort of write-ups. He's also managed to shift records at a time when selling music is just about impossible.

His 2012 Christmas album has joined the pantheon of seasonal classics, pushing his tally of LPs sold past 30 million - a mind-boggling figure in this age of digital downloads and streaming.

Still, for all his success, he's never stopped having to prove himself. Bublé was a rising star when he appeared on The X Factor in 2011. Yet when he looked at the crowd, the first thing he saw was the Darth Vader of reality TV - aka Simon Cowell - pulling a face.

"I sang about four lines and he looked at me and did this [he rolls his eyes] and that was it, I was done. It killed me," he recalled.

"My confidence dropped… I'm so sensitive I took it as a rejection."

He's even managed to attract the ire of Morrissey, the 80s icon who usually reserves his criticisms for meat-eaters and the British royals.

"Fire in the belly is essential," Morrissey once quipped. "Otherwise you become like Michael Bublé - famous and meaningless."

One reason Bublé has been able to ignore the haters and the eye-rollers is that he understands career isn't everything. He and his wife, Argentine model Luisana Lopilato, put their professional lives on hold when their eldest son Noah was diagnosed with cancer in 2016 (Bublé has returned to music after announcing that the boy is doing well).

Crooners will never be cutting edge. They dress nicely, pay attention to their hair and typically sing other people's songs. Bublé has penned a few of his own hits, including 'Everything' (a tribute to his then-girlfriend, the actress Emily Blunt), 'Haven't Met You Yet' (inspired by their break-up after three years) and 'Home' (which he revealed people frequently mistake as a Westlife cover), but it's the classics that fans adore.

They thus reek of premature fogey-dom and are widely perceived as a (non-ironic) Christmas jumper in human form. The contradiction here is that, though Bublé is squeaky clean, the time to which he harks back was anything but. Fifties Vegas - the spiritual home of every crooner that has since stepped behind a mic - was the anti-Me Too era. Men were men and women were molls or dolls. Evoking glamorous, decadent Vegas without embodying its more unsavoury aspects is quite the balancing act.

"The way a men's magazine portrays the 1950s is appealing: hard drinking, loads of women, the mob," Q magazine's then editor Paul Rees observed in 2003, when Bublé and Cullum were storming the charts.

"But then these artists don't seem to embody that, do they? You can't really imagine little Jamie Cullum consorting with the Mafia."

Along with creating an audience for his interpretations of songs made famous by Sinatra and company, Bublé has very savvily built a brand too. As anyone who has seen him on stage will testify, he's a top rank raconteur - naturally funny, self-deprecating and always in on the joke.

Indeed, his instinctive defence is to poke fun of himself before anyone else can. At Croke Park on Saturday, expect more than one shout out to all the husbands and boyfriends dragged along against their will (a tactic that Ed Sheeran has smartly adopted too).

What we should perhaps pause to consider is whether crooners deserve all the disdain in the first place. They're not pretending to be authentic. That a rock star's job. These old school entertainers, by contrast, have no ambition beyond showing you a good time. You go to a Bublé concert safe in the knowledge you won't be preached or talked down to.

It's nice, for a change, not to be slammed over the head with politics by a person allegedly there to entertain us. Bublé - and Sheeran for that matter - are often dismissed as guilty pleasures.

But what's wrong with wanting to make people smile? Michael Bublé hasn't set out to change the world and for that reason, expect his Croker gig to be nothing but fun. Heavens knows we could do with some of that these days.

Irish Independent

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