The Greatest Rock Star Who Never Was: Garth Brooks, Chris Gaines, and Modern America

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American Music


Garth Brooks is the most widely sold country music artist of all time,and one of the best-selling recording artists of popular music. As of July2007, 116 million copies of his albums have been sold. He is more commerciallysuccessful than any other musical artist except the Beatles andElvis Presley.1 In November 2005, Brooks released a new box set entitledThe Lost Sessions. The set covers the latter part of Brooks's recordingcareer; it includes the 1997 Sevens album, the 1998 Double Live album,and the 2001 Scarecrow album. Interestingly, the set does not includethe pop-rock album that Brooks released in September of 1999 underthe name "Chris Gaines." Furthermore, this album is not mentioned inthe extensive biography on his Web site, www.garthbrooks.com. Evidently,Brooks does not wish to revisit this moment in his career, whenhe changed his look, his sound, and his name in an attempt to recreatehimself as a rock star.

Brooks's refusal to rerelease the Chris Gaines album is understandable.In 1999 it was shunned by Brooks's large country fan base as wellas by the rock fans to whom it was marketed. In the years leading up tothe Chris Gaines album, Brooks had set industry records with two of hisalbums selling more than ten million copies each. In 1998 three of hisalbums were simultaneously at the top of the Billboard pop and countrycharts. That same year, he was named the Country Music Association'sEntertainer of the Year for the fourth time. In addition, he set recordsin concert-ticket sales; not only did he sell out virtually every venue heplayed on his 1996-98 tour, but those tickets were purchased by fans ata record-setting pace.2 In a number of cities across North America, everyticket to his live show was sold in less than one hour, making him thefastest-selling live performer in those cities.

So it was surprising when Brooks's rock album sold very few copies.Industry executives certainly had high hopes for the project. Shortlybefore the release of Garth Brooks in ... the Life of Chris Gaines, the CEOof Capitol Records, Ray Lott, said that the goal of the project was "tosell more than the recent Garth Brooks studio albums."3 Capitol did notachieve this goal. In fact, the album sold so poorly in its opening weeksthat by late November 1999, two months after it was released, EMI (theparent company of Capitol Records) requested that retailers price thealbum as low as possible and offered them a rebate of three dollars foreach copy they managed to sell. 4 The Chris Gaines album can fairly bedescribed as a colossal failure.

Not surprisingly, the press lambasted Brooks for the album. A plannedmovie (entitled The Lamb) about the character of the rock star Chris Gaineswas never made because of the obvious lack of critical and commercialsupport for the concept. Garth Brooks made two more albums in his ownname, the first a Christmas record that sold very poorly, and a second onefirmly in the country genre. This final album, Scarecrow, was also a commercialdisappointment and marked the end of Garth Brooks' s touringand recording career.5

Why did a new project by a tremendously popular singer flop so badly?More precisely, why didn't Brooks's large fan base follow him as he triedto cross the genre boundary dividing country from rock? By exploringwhat happened when Brooks released the Chris Gaines album and why ithappened, we can learn something about the meaning of musical stylesand the power of social class in contemporary America.

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University of Illinois Press





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