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ExperientialApril 17, 2015

The Client List: Week Four – A Brief History of Jennifer Love Hewitt’s Pop Career

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In the fourth of a five-part series – here are the first three parts – James Milne signs up to watch Jennifer Love Hewitt’s cancelled borderline softcore porn series The Client List in its entirety. This week Riley gets singing, and James rediscovers JLH’s musical career. 

There were some genuinely compelling moments of drama in episodes six to ten of The Client List’s second season. I’m not going to detail them here, as I think it is important to address something which I haven’t yet tackled – Jennifer Love Hewitt’s music career.

I was prompted by the introduction, in episode six, of a plot in which Lacey’s husband Dale has reformed his high school band, The Ring Pops. It turns out that Riley Parks was the original lead singer and she’s enraged (though playing for laughs) that they’ve found a new female singer. Riley, somewhat inevitably, makes a guest appearance at their first gig, performing Bonnie Raitt’s ‘Let’s Give Them Something To Talk About’ which, it turns out, has given me A LOT to talk about.

There’s an interesting parallel with JLH’s early life and that of our fictional heroine Riley Parks. She had been a child pageant star (à la JonBenet Ramsay) and is reluctant to let her daughter go through the same experience. Like Riley, Love Hewitt had been drawn (or pushed?) to the stage from a very early age – supposedly performing ‘The Greatest Love Of All’ at a livestock show, as a six year old.

At the age of eight she joined the Texas Show Team which, according to American Airlines’ inflight magazine American Way (the most authoritative source I could find on the topic of her early career), toured the world promoting L.A. Gear sportswear. The below footage was filmed at a show in Minsk in 1988, before the fall of the Iron Curtain. It might be just me, but I’m feeling a creepy redolence with the themes of The Client List in this performance.

Love Hewitt and her single mother Patricia (another model for the supermom Riley?) moved from Killeen, Texas to Los Angeles. There they stayed at Oakwood Toluca Hills, a temporary residential centre for aspiring actors to reside in during the pilot season of January to April. It’s also the home of the Oakwood Child Actor Program. The Child Actor Program boasts Jennifer Love Hewitt as its “first child actor,” and she lived there for several years, according to the New York Times.

Her first proper television role was on the Disney musical variety show Kids Incorporated, some sort of pre-pubescent proto-Glee. It was through that show that she found herself appearing on her first (and last) number one record, as part of the children’s chorus on Martika’s 1989 single ‘Toy Soldiers’. (Eminem’s ‘Like Toy Soldiers’, featuring a sample of the same children’s voices, also went to number one in the UK in 2005).

Martika had been one of the original child stars of Kids Incorporated, but inevitably successful children’s television franchises must dip further into the pool of youth. Their older cast members are left to face the cruel whims of an adulthood that may either transcend or, more likely, be overshadowed by their juvenile achievements. Hence, the casting of the extremely precocious and fresh-faced Love Hewitt, here in her first season performing a heart-rending cover of the Peter Gabriel/Kate Bush duet ‘Don’t Give Up’.

Her performances on the show led a Japanese music and video game company called Meldac to sign her and produce a single – a 1990 cover of Blondie’s ‘Heart Of Glass’, released under the artist name Love Hewitt. That and the later album, Love Songs, were only released in Japan. They seem to have been marketed as a strange blend of western pop culture exploitation, with allusions to anime and J-Pop in the ultra-cutesy, big-eyed performance of Love Hewitt. The ‘Heart Of Glass’ video is a fascinating cultural document from the era, dated both by its pastiche-y employment of new jack swing musical tropes and the of-the-time cartoon and computer graphics.

Although Love Hewitt’s success in Japan didn’t translate elsewhere, (Love Songs was finally released in the US in 1997) a single entitled ‘Please Save Us The World’ was the official music video for the United Nations in 1992, according to Entertainment Tonight. I can find no evidence online that the UN has such a thing, but if you believe this grainy footage, Jennifer Love Hewitt achieved the accolade at the age of 13.

Jennifer Love Hewitt’s second record Let’s Go Bang was released by Atlantic Records on September 12, 1995. This was the same week as Red Hot Chili Peppers’ One Hot Minute, Blur’s The Great Escape and Goldie’s Timeless (and two weeks before she would debut on Fox’s Party Of Five.) Unlike those records, Let’s Go Bang neither represented nor redefined the musical zeitgeist, retreading similar territory as her debut. By way of illustration, here’s the opener ‘Kiss Away From Heaven’. It’s a dance-pop style which must have been transitioning from “overdone” to “retro”, and did not preface the sound of millions of youthful jaws dropping. The record failed to chart.

By the time JLH’s third, eponymous, record was released – she was a bonafide star of the small screen. JLH had a starring role in Party of Five, a show about a picturesque family of children whose eldest brother becomes their guardian after their parents are killed in a car accident. The family’s name was Salinger, which hints somewhat at the kind of people the show was aimed at – not full-on Holden Caulfields, but the kind of smart kids that might appreciate the reference. Party of Five was, in its own way, revolutionary.

Had Love Hewitt released a record that somehow translated Party Of Five’s innovations and edgy youth appeal into musical form, she may have had a chance of converting her increased fame into sales of some significance. My 1996 Fantasy A&R League selections would be production by Dust Brothers, with Cake as her session band. The record failed to sell in great numbers, despite having more gravitas on the production side (nine separate producers are credited including Robert ‘Addicted To Love’ Palmer) and better song selection than Let’s Go Bang. The sound was largely acoustic guitar driven, soft mid-90s R&B – precise and Caucasian as hell, but not unpleasant.

While the music at times aims for sensuality, it never really approaches more than a neutered facsimile of the feeling – in much the same way as Riley’s overt sensuality in The Client List rings strangely false. Perhaps part of the Faustian bargain of child stardom is the compromising of one’s ability as an adult to convey erotic situations convincingly, forever tainting them with images of one’s unsettling modelling of sexuality at an early age.

Love Hewitt’s musical ambitions largely remained on hold during the white hot intensity of her career peak, towards the culmination of Party Of Five and around the release of 1997’s I Know What You Did Last Summer and its sequel from the following year, I Still Know What You Did Last Summer. I Still… spawned a promotional single called ‘How Do I Deal’, which was Love Hewitt’s first genuine chart success, reaching 59 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Helmed by Canadian rock production legend Bruce Fairbairn, whose first great success was Bon Jovi’s 1986 behemoth Slippery When Wet, ‘How Do I Deal’ was a far more effective use of Love Hewitt’s talents. The song married her southern belle vibe with her clear and powerful voice, with a contemporary southern rock sound and a sassy, empowered worldview. It was a sentiment not dissimilar to the kind that Meredith Brooks displayed on her more successful single ‘Bitch’. It’s not a million miles away from The Ring Pops’ ‘Let’s Give Them Something To Talk About’ either.

JLH’s people employed Meredith Brooks, along with New Radicals’ Gregg Alexander, to produce her 2002 record BareNaked. It’s a pretty successful and coherent piece of mature pop, genuinely communicating the idea of Jennifer Love Hewitt as a singer, not just as an actress with a serviceable voice. The album made the top 40 in the United States, and the singles from it were unaccountably massive in Australia. You can sense Love Hewitt’s genuine elation at being received so warmly by a Sydney crowd in this live performance of ‘Hey Everybody’ from 2003. The way she attacks the “nah nah nah nah nah” improvisation at the end, it’s almost as if she could sense the ephemeral nature of her musical success, that any “nah nah nah nah nah” could be her last. Indeed, the promotional giveaway of 3000 copies of the single, scrolling sadly at the bottom of the screen during her impassioned performance, tends to back that up.

Coming up to 13 years after her last release as a professional recording artist, it seems that Jennifer Love Hewitt may have shelved her aspirations in the pop field. She went out on top, or at least as on top as she was ever realistically going to get. But, within the approximately 18 hours of The Client List that were produced before the show was cancelled, her talent and enthusiasm for singing seemed to gain a new life. Jennifer Love Hewitt is not a great actor. But she’s a better actor than she’s a singer. And she’s at her absolute best when she’s doing both at the same time.

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