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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

A cry for help

By Norman Lebrecht / October 12, 2005

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It seems a bit harsh to tell a girl of nineteen that she has no future, but this may be Charlotte Church's last chance to save what remains of her gift and her life. A new single, Call My Name, entered the charts last week and Charlotte has been doing her bit to promote it ö a fashion shoot on magazine fronts, a gig in Selfridges, a splatter of interviews revealing that she had gone on television 'pissed' and would like to marry her current hunk, the Welsh rugby player, Gavin Henson. So far, so Charlotte Church.

But listen closely to the singing and to her guileless comments and what you hear is a soul adrift, a craft without oars of growth or self-defence heading into an abyss. It is a familiar phenomenon: the sweet child torn from schoolbooks to stardom, doomed to a lifetime of letdowns. It is the story of Judy Garland and Michael Jackson, of Yehudi Menuhin and Evgeny Kissin, of Mozart, Nadia Comaneci and any chess master you care to name. Ignore the achievements, mighty as they might be. Rare is the child who overcomes a great gift to enjoy its fulfilment in maturity.

Charlotte was spotted on television at the age of nine, stealing a talent show from her aspirant aunt. She had a five-record deal with Sony before puberty, pitched as the Voice of an Angel, a girl who sang with fetching innocence and an elongated vibrato, her stolid phrasing redeemed by a smile that could light up a valley. She performed for the Pope and the US President, appeared in a Ford commercial and sold ten million records before reaching the age of majority, at which point she came into a pent-up fortune that had been held in trust.

As much as the voice, Charlotte's attraction was her naturalness, her determination to stay close to roots and friends in Cardiff, her sense of mischief. The grim-faced gutter press made a fetish of her frolics, anointing her Rear of the Year at 16, and dogging her dalliances with boys and drink. Charlotte played along with the pack, relishing the sales potential of celebrity, disporting herself on a beach lounger for the benefit of long lenses. She went on-line at the tabloid Sun to discuss ex-boyfriends with its prurient readers. She had the illusion of being in control and, at 19, the world at her feet. Who could begrudge that?

But listen to the single and the smile fades. Taken from her first pop album, Tissues and Issues - her previous CDs were, by some stretch of corporate imagination, designated Classical ö Call My Name is an unremarkable heavy pounder and the delivery is commendably energetic. The voice, however, has deepened and coarsened, gritting around in a low-alto register and lacking stamina for the longer phrase. Too many fags, too much booze, perhaps. At this rate, there won't be enough left in the box to sing Goodnight Irene when she's thirty. As for that tremulous vibrato, it has turned into a nasty old wobble much in need of remedial tuition.

The unforgiving mirror of pop music does her no favours. Where the child Charlotte amused us by simulating an opera diva, adult Charlotte is stuck in imitative mode, trying to sound like Madonna and inspire adolescent girls. 'I'm just finding my own way,' she pleads in the most affecting song of the album, as if in mitigation. Charlotte co-wrote that song and its refrain is the cry of every child prodigy that was ever put prematurely in the public eye. 'Will some-one tell me,' implores Charlotte Church, 'how life should be·'

Reality is a stranger to these victims of child sacrifice. Yehudi Menuhin, who made his concerto debut at seven and his first recording in short pants, spent his adult life trying to atone for the sins of humanity, subscribing to every good cause on earth as if he could personally stop the misery. He called me a few times, asking me round to discuss something I had written, but his approach was always otherworldly, in denial of the grasping facts of human nature. He set up a school to protect young musicians from premature pressure and died on the road at the age of 82, never having enjoyed a moment's leisure without feeling a burden of responsibility ö the terrible baggage of the child star.

Menuhin was one of the lucky ones. Two genius violinists of the next generation suffered tragic early deaths, Joseph Hasid at 26 while undergoing a lobotomy and Michael Rabin at 36 after a prolonged barbiturate addiction. Mozart was an emotional retard, Mendelssohn and his sister died in their thirties and Erich Wolfgang Korngold who, at 11, wrote a ballet in Vienna died in Hollywood at 60 filled with remorse for having somehow failed to achieve his potential.

The movies were dens of child exploitation. Jodie Foster made her debut at two, Judy Garland at ten. Hundreds of others, discarded at puberty, wound up on the skids. The so-called civilised world may consider itself superior to West Africa where children tote guns, or to South-East Asia where they service male tourists, but it continues to tolerate child stardom, regardless of the ensuing dysfunction.

Will someone please tell Charlotte Church 'how life should be'. A normal life, that is, without hordes of paparazzi, shag-and-tell boyfriends, twice a week drink binges and TV specials in which she hurls foul abuse at her mother, whom she first sacked, then readmitted to her entourage. A life that is measured on some scale higher than a fame-junkie's daily Google-count.

There are singers who survived an early start ö Julie Andrews and Petula Clark spring to mind ö but they tend to stem from strong families who rationed their appearances and kept their feet on the ground. Charlotte has been carrion to the music business and she is beginning to pay the price, her voice untended and fraying, her celebrity tilting into remorseless notoriety.

This may be her last chance to get a life. If there is anyone around who cares for Charlotte's best interests, they should advise her to take a break. Two years to work on the voice with a good teacher, get off the carousel, get to know herself. Call My Name is a cry for help, the last exit before the abyss. The final line of her album hints at desperation. 'Everybody,' sings Charlotte plaintively, 'needs a little help.'

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



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