Why Scarlett Johansson’s music career flopped
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Scarlett Johansson’s successes speak for themselves. Having started her acting career at a young age, Johansson quickly became an acclaimed and prolific actress. She secured two nominations in the Leading Actress category at the 2004 BAFTAs, competing against herself with performances in Lost in Translation and Girl with a Pearl Earring. It was her performance opposite Bill Murray in Sofia Coppola’s Oscar-winning romantic comedy-drama that won her the BAFTA and captured the world’s attention. And her recurring role as Black Widow in the Marvel Cinematic Universe only continues to solidify her star status. But one element of Johansson’s career that hasn’t been quite so successful is her music.
Speaking to Interview in 2008, Johansson revealed how her first album came about saying, “I had originally recorded a song, a version of ‘Summertime’ [by George Gershwin], for a benefit album. The album was distributed by Rhino, and the people at the label felt really pleased with the song, so they said, ‘Have you ever thought about recording a whole album?'” Since her 2008 debut album, Anywhere I Lay My Head, and through her vocal performance in the animated movie Sing (2016), the actress continues to develop musical projects, but none of them have garnered as much positive attention as you might expect. From poor chart sales, to unexpected collaborations, the star’s music has always been surprising, but never really hit the right notes. Here we take a look at why Johansson’s music career flopped.
She released an entire album of Tom Waits covers
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Scarlett Johansson released her debut album, Anywhere I Lay My Head, in 2008, having released the record’s lead single, “Falling Down,” earlier that year. The album features ten cover versions of songs by Tom Waits, and one original track called “Song for Jo,” which Johansson wrote in collaboration with David Sitek, who also produced the record. As a renowned musician, Waits likely needs no introduction, and rather impressively, David Bowie features on two tracks. Billboard reported in January 2008, “Johansson recorded the album over five weeks last spring at Dockside Studios in Maurice, La. Her prior music dalliances include singing the track ‘Summertime’ for Unexpected Dreams, a 2006 charity album featuring film stars, and a surprise appearance with the Jesus & Mary Chain at last year’s Coachella festival.”
Despite her success as an actress, Johansson’s debut album received mixed reviews. The Observer called it “a bravely eccentric selection and a captivating homage to a singular writer.” Meanwhile, Entertainment Weekly said, “In burying Johansson’s vocals so deeply in the druggy ambiance, producer David Andrew Sitek (of TV on the Radio) means well but ends up obscuring Waits’ great tunes.” And Spin lamented, “As one scene in Lost in Translation confirmed, she’s about as capable as a karaoke enthusiast needs to be.” Years on from her surprising, Tom Waits-penned album, Johansson appears, as of this writing, to have tens of thousands of monthly listeners on Spotify, which certainly isn’t the worst.
She worked on her second album for… two whole days
Scarlett Johansson actually recorded her second album, Break Up, a collaboration with American singer-songwriter Pete Yorn, prior to recording Anywhere I Lay My Head. In a 2009 press release (per Billboard), Yorn confirmed the dizzying speed with which the collaboration came together: “I was having a strange week of insomnia and when I finally passed out, it came to me in a dream. I woke up and the whole thing was in my head, fully formed.” The release continued (via Digital Spy), “Within ten minutes, I was texting Scarlett, ‘We have to make a record!'”
The album featured eight tracks written by Yorn, and a cover of Big Star’s “I Am The Cosmos.” AMC reported, “In January 2007 he called Johansson in to lay down her tracks. … Arriving at the studio, [Johansson] learned the arrangements and lyrics, inhabited the character created in the songs, recorded her tracks in two afternoons and then she was done.” SPIN confirmed the super fast schedule, explaining that Johansson “only showed up for two days of the session, but Yorn said she nailed her parts right away.”
Much like her debut, Break Up sadly received mixed reviews. BBC Music brutally called the record, “Too slight to encourage repeat plays, but occasionally charming enough.” Meanwhile, Pitchfork said the album “rarely has the tunes or emotional impact to make it one of those rare impossible situations you’ll actually want to remember.” Ouch.
Most reviews of her voice have been brutal
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While Scarlett Johansson seemed to receive a plethora of criticisms regarding her first two albums, it was her voice that got the most flack. Speaking of her vocal performance on 2008’s Anywhere I Lay My Head, Pitchfork wrote, “her voice is limited and her pitch occasionally shaky.” But the publication noted, in their praise sandwich, that the actress has “a wide textural range, spanning from low, smooth, and melancholy.” BBC Music discussed the fact that “Much has already been made about the double-tracked, bathed in reverb vocals of SJ. Aha, say detractors, she obviously can’t sing! Well, yes, it’s hard to tell here, but frankly it matters not.”
Salon similarly mused in 2008, “The critical consensus on Johansson’s voice is that it’s flimsy and expressionless, and that it’s buried deep beneath the record’s cottony, somewhat synth-heavy production.” But the site wasn’t completely unfair and noted some of the actress’s strong points as a singer: “her throaty whisper is velvety, soothing and vaguely sinister.” But it’s impossible to deny that negative reviews have always outweighed positive ones when it comes to Johansson’s vocals. As Highsnobiety wrote in 2018, “Regardless of how people feel about ScarJo, there’s no denying that she possess many talents — singing just might not be one of them.” Pass the Burn Book.
She abandoned music to join a band of superheroes
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Following the lukewarm response to her first two albums, Scarlett Johansson took her career in a totally different direction when she joined the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Her first appearance as Black Widow in 2010’s Iron Man 2 put Johansson in front of a brand new audience, and has kept her working ever since. 2019’s Avengers: Endgame has already made more than $2 billion dollars at the box office in just its second week of release, per Variety. And as Entertainment Weekly notes, there’s currently a standalone Black Widow movie in development, which would be a huge boon for Johansson if it gets made.
Whether or not Johansson purposefully decided to move away from her music career following her first two albums is a little unclear. Speaking to Interview in 2008, the Lost in Translation star revealed that music had always been a passion for her, ever since she was a child, saying, “I have always loved to sing. When I was a little girl, I wanted to be in musicals and all that kind of stuff. So it seemed like a really exciting adventure.” But it’s undeniable that the Marvel Cinematic Universe took over everyone’s lives for the past decade, and that includes Johansson. Perhaps it was a strategic move for the actress.
You won’t catch her with a selfie stick
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Highsnobiety notes that Scarlett Johansson apparently “refuses to have a presence on social media — so there’s been little to no promotion for all of her musical endeavors.” The actress discussed her low-fi existence with Lufthansa Magazin, revealing, “Technology is simply not my thing. It has never interested me. In fact, moving over to the iPhone from the Blackberry was a five-year process for me.” She continued, “I don’t have a social media presence, for example.” And Johansson told Interview in 2011, “I don’t have a Facebook or a Twitter account … I can’t think of anything I’d rather do less than have to continuously share details of my everyday life.”
As an actress, Johansson’s absence from Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter isn’t necessarily a big deal, with fellow Hollywood stars like Jennifer Aniston and Rachel McAdams avoiding the platforms too. But as a fledgling musician, social media can be crucial for generating interest. In fact, an article on Columbia Business School’s Ideas at Work blog revealed in July 2018, “According to recent research from William T. Dillard Professor of Marketing Asim Ansari, there is a direct relationship between an artist’s social media commentary and increased song plays from the artist’s social network site over the short and long term. Having a popular song is about more than just the song, Ansari found — it is also about actively engaging with fans.” Maybe it’s time for ScarJo to log on?
Her girl group lasted about a week
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Pitchfork reported on February 20, 2015 that Scarlett Johansson formed a group with Este Haim from Haim, Holly Miranda, Kendra Morris, and Julia Haltigan, and called it the Singles. In a press release, Johansson explained, “The idea was to write super-pop dance music written and performed by girls.” She continued, “I love Grimes. And I love the Bangles. And I love the Go-Go’s. I wanted it to be like those bands: ultra pop but also a little ironic, a little in on the joke.” Rolling Stone previewed the band’s first single, “Candy,” which had an electro-pop, synth feel, with Johansson leading the vocals.
However, the girl group was short-lived as “Johansson’s representatives” were served with papers by a band from Los Angeles with the same name just five days after they announced their existence. Pitchfork reported that the other band called the Singles had “been around since 1999,” and “issued a cease-and-desist to Johansson’s representatives, alleging trademark infringement.” The lead singer of the rival band, Vincent Frederick, said in a press release, “It’s hard to believe that any musician would do something like that to another band. The Singles has been my life for the past 16 years. We have worked so incredibly hard to make it a success.”
Despite The Times reporting in June 2018 that the band had been renamed Sugar for Sugar at some point, it sadly appears that Johansson’s poppy girl group had an incredibly short shelf life.
Musical success as an … animated character?
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In recent years, Johansson found herself singing more and more on the soundtracks of her movies. One of her most successful musical roles was in the animated movie Sing, which came out in 2016, and saw her portraying a porcupine called Ash who was destined for stardom. In an interview with E! News, Johansson said of her character, “Once Ash understands that all of the attention, effort and energy she’s been giving her worthless boyfriend has been standing in the way of her own musical gifts, she transforms into a badass.” She continued, “Ash eschews outdated expectations that she should deliver a pop-princess act on the stage and just rocks it out with original music. I adore her.” The actress’s commitment to both her character and the vocal performance was admirable, and showed that Johansson was finally finding her musical footing.
Johansson also provided the voice of Kaa in The Jungle Book, and sang the classic Disney song “Trust In Me” on the movie’s soundtrack. The actress has also spoken passionately about developing her character in the CGI-animated movie, which was directed by Jon Favreau, making it clear that she’s found her forte with movie soundtracks. But for now, at least, the same popularity hasn’t translated to her music career when she’s not portraying a CGI animal.
She got back together with Pete Yorn
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Scarlett Johansson decided to get back together with Pete Yorn, having recorded 2009’s album Break Up with him. The pair released an EP in 2018 called Apart, which features six songs. With so much time having passed since their previous record, both musicians spoke philosophically about their reasons for reuniting, at a time in their lives when they’d both welcomed children (Johansson has one daughter, Rose Dorothy Dauriac, from her marriage to Romain Dauriac). Johansson told Entertainment Weekly, “I really just love to sing with Pete. I’m a huge fan of his music.”
The Marvel superhero told Forbes in June 2018, “I find responsibility of having a child and balancing life as a working mother a welcome challenge. I think it somehow pares away a lot of the noise and it’s sharpened my artistic focus. So I work on projects that are meaningful to me and I feel very dedicated to having a satisfying experience and seeking out the interesting, often times ugly, unturned stones.” Johansson also spoke fondly of Yorn telling the outlet, “Also having a partner you’ve known for almost 15 years, it’s a rare thing.” Clearly, there’s still a lot of affection between the duo, and Johansson even teased a third Yorn collaboration to Forbes saying, “Give us a decade, will you? We’ll revisit it in a decade.”
But will anyone be listening?