Six Famous Movies That Lived up to Massive Hype


What’s more impressive: the fact that 195 nations signed a global accord on climate change or that Star Wars: The Force Awakens lived up to the hype?

I’m going to go with Star Wars. The Paris Agreement to fight climate change still needs to be implemented. The Force Awakens has delivered the goods, earning a 94-percent certified fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and shattering box office records following an unprecedented $350 million marketing blitz from Disney.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the fastest movie ever to gross $1 billion worldwide, thus joining a short list of films have delivered against massive hype. Take a moment to walk with me down memory lane, as I recall six rare gems that exceeded the expectations created by their marketing. To qualify for my list, a movie needed to meet three requirements:

  • Noteworthy promotion that was worthy of analysis in and of itself — in some cases for being inventive and in others for just being over the top.
  • Box office success that exceeded estimates.
  • Critical success, as measured by whether a film received a “fresh” rating on the popular Rotten Tomatoes website, which aggregates reviews from critics and the public. A fresh rating means that at least 60 percent of composite reviews are favorable. All of the films I’ve selected are not only fresh but also “certified fresh,” meaning the earned positive scores from at least 75 percent of reviewers.

Here are six that stand out:

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Honoring #BestBlackAlbumCovers

What are the best all-time album covers by black artists? Google #BestBlackAlbumCovers and find out.

On December 23, 2015, @SonofBaldwin started tweeting his favorite album covers from black artists, using the hashtag #BestBlackAlbumCovers. What followed was Twitter on its best day. #BestBlackAlbumCovers started trending as the Twitterverse began contributing a wide-range of opinions, with ideas coming from journalists such as Charles Blow and Shaun King and many everyday people like you and me.

I got immersed posting some of my #BestBlackAlbumCovers that capture powerful images, such as the sensual, bare-chested Al Green gracing the cover of Greatest Hits and Isaac Hayes’s striking bald head on Hot Buttered Soul. I participated in some fun “Wow, you like this album, too?” moments with people I’d never met — an unexpected joy and a purely organic phenomenon.


My new SlideShare highlights some of the covers that turned my Twitter stream into an inspired collection of some of the best album covers ever made by any artist of any color. What makes #BestBlackAlbumCovers especially significant is how they reflect the many dimensions of black culture. The scarred shoulders on the cover of Nas’s self-titled album express both the pain of being black and the strength required to overcome that pain. Nina Simone’s expressive eyes on Forever Young, Gifted & Black make a powerful statement about black pride.


The florid fashions depicted in the Isley Brothers’s Showdown and Teddy Pendergrass’s Duets — Love & Soul capture a style sensibility that only a handful of black soul and funk musicians could pull off. Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On will forever express a certain kind of indescribable urban cool.

Many of the album covers make strong statements about what it means to be black in America, including the aforementioned Nas, Sly & the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. These covers are not always the easy to look at, but that’s the point of something like It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. These covers are not meant to make you feel comfortable (especially if you are white). They serve as reminders of the racism, injustice, and inequality that characterize the contemporary black experience.


Most of all, all the album cover art featured in #BestBlackAlbumCovers invites you to listen to the music inside the albums, experience the musicians’ art, and maybe even learn something about yourself and the world around you.



Why the Beatles Are Streaming: Legacy, Baby


At a time when news headlines are dominated by disturbing stories about terrorism, social strife, and ugly politics, the world just found reason to rejoice: the Beatles are finally streaming their music.

Everyone is reporting the announcement about the Beatles making their beloved catalog available to Apple Music, Deezer, Google Play, Microsoft Groove, Amazon Prime, Rhapsody, Spotify, Slacker and Tidal starting December 24 at 12:01 a.m. local time. The New York Times, TechCrunch, The Wall Street Journal, and Venture Beat are among the many news media jumping all over the news.

But why are the Beatles streaming?

After all, the Beatles don’t need streaming to continue succeeding commercially. People buy Beatles albums even as albums continue to suffer a drastic sales decline in the digital era. The Beatles anthology 1, released in November 2000, still sells 1,000 copies a week (amounting to 12 million copies sold in the United States to date), even though “there’s really no reason for anyone who owns all the records to get this too,” as Allmusic critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine wrote. (1 was also just re-released as a special edition featuring a Blu-ray surround-sound format in November 2015.) And through a relationship with Apple formed in 2010, the music of the Fab Four has continued to sell in digital format even as downloading gives way to streaming.

I believe the answer comes down to legacy. Especially Paul McCartney’s.

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Memorable Album Covers of 2015

The massive success of Adele’s 25 has prompted the music industry to speculate that maybe the record album as an art form is back. Well, record albums aren’t back — Adele is. Meantime, the album remains stuck in a long, sad period of decline. But the demise of the album hasn’t stopped artists from continuing to grace us with memorable album cover art, and 2015 was no exception, as my new SlideShare presentation illustrates vividly.


Father John Misty, I Love You, Honeybear

The year was notable for the appearance of some over-the-top, in-your-face covers from mainstream artists, with some classically elegant and visual mind benders tossed in. It’s as if musicians everywhere got together and decided, “Screw it — if albums are going away, let’s make the last gasp a memorable one.”

Bjork recast herself as some sort of mutant alien on Vulcarina, and Grimes dropped one of the ugliest album covers I’ve ever seen with Art Angels, demonstrating that memorable is not necessarily the same as beautiful. And I’m still trying to figure out the weird plastic thing creature on the cover of Arc’s Mutant.


Bjork, Vulcarina

But not all covers needed to be outrageous to be memorable. The album cover art for Fetty Wap’s self-titled album was honest and real, and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly was socially provocative and thoughtful. Meantime, Colleen Green’s smart-alecky smirk on the cover of I Want to Grow Up was what rock and roll attitude is all about, while Leon Bridges’s Coming Home and Adele’s 25 were throwbacks with their classic designs.


Fetty Wap, Fetty Wap

Albums may never return to their glory days of the 1970, but album cover art remains an important way for musicians to connect with fans and represent their art. As I’ve mentioned before, their function has changed — from gracing the cover of a single work to acting as a visual totem published across many touch points, ranging from an artist’s Facebook page to their merchandise.

In fact, album cover art is perfectly suited for today’s visual era. Album covers tell visual stories that express the music of the album, capture the personality of the artist, and engage your interest — just as great marketing should do.

Albums as we know them are dying. Long live record album art.

Apple Watch: Hot or Not?

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Adweek‘s hottest digital gadget of 2015 is also one of the most controversial. The Apple Watch has been called both a flop and a behavior-changing device. I believe that the Apple Watch is a flawed first-generation product that will ultimately take hold for these reasons:

  • The Apple Watch makes use of a natural gesture, the swiping of the wrist, to accomplish everyday tasks.
  • Businesses ranging from Target to Starwood have built a large Apple Watch ecosystem via the development of apps that support tasks ranging from shopping to checking into hotel rooms.

My new byline discusses why any business that depends on mobile consumers needs to find a place for the Apple Watch in its customer acquisition and retention strategy. Waiting around for the Apple Watch to become mainstream will cause you to lose ground to the businesses that are already getting exploring the branding potential of the Apple Watch. Check out my new column and let me know your opinion of the future of the Apple Watch.

Adele and Taylor Swift: The Diva and the BFF


Adele and Taylor Swift succeed by writing and performing personal songs that connect emotionally with a fan base consisting mostly of women. But they have pursued markedly different approaches to building their personal brands, demonstrating that superstars can write their own rules.

Taylor Swift, who turned 26 December 13, is all about accessibility. She saturates the public eye by courting the news media, being open on social media, touring heavily, and doing endorsement deals that keep her face visible. But she’s not only ever present; she also connects as personally with her fans as a pop star can. When she released her massive-selling album 1989 in October 2014, she surprised a few lucky fans by holding “secret sessions” consisting of exclusive previews of the album. She even brought baked cookies to the sessions. She is a constant presence on social media, commenting on her life, sharing visual stories, and reaching out to her fans on their own social accounts. Her social content is genuine, earning accolades from branding experts. Through social, she excels at “treating your fans like friends,” in the words of interactive marketing executive Joshua Swanson.

Adele cultivates mystique. She is not quite a private diva like Barbra Streisand was in the 1970s, but she’s nowhere near as accessible as Taylor Swift is. She has tweeted a total of 20 times in 2015 (as of December 11), and she vets everything she tweets. Her social posts usually consist of bland news about her career. Adele maintains a private reserve. She does not do commercial endorsements. There is a sense of vulnerability about her, informed by her real-life experience of enduring a career-threatening throat ailment in 2011. She is only 27, but she seems like an old soul.

Taylor Swift creates moments. Adele creates The Moment. In 2008, Adele broke through to U.S. audiences by owning a huge moment: an appearance on Saturday Night Live in which she sang “Chasing Pavements” and “Cold Shoulder” from 19. The appearance triggered a spike in sales for 19 and made her a superstar in the States. She marked the release of 25 with another highly publicized and well-received Saturday Night Live appearance that created a surge in SNL viewership. She followed up SNL with appearances on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and TODAY and will broadcast a one-hour special concert December 14 on NBC (it’s a prolific time for NBC and Adele).

Adele is well suited for engineering giant moments that rely on the reach of mass media such as TV. She can use her powerful voice and commanding physical presence to make an impact through a televised concert. Television is not as kind to Taylor Swift. Her lighter voice and willowy presence seem small when she performs on televised events such as The Grammys. She is better off creating her own moments on social media and in her own well choreographed concerts and videos, where she can surround herself with a stage that plays up her assets. Each stop in her global, 85-show 1989 tour has triggered branding micro moments as fans capture the experience through Instagram, Tumbler, Twitter, and other social platforms. Her tradition of sending personal gifts to fans (moments she has documented on YouTube), dubbed “Swiftmas,” is a brilliant example of Swift at her best (even if she did attract some snarky criticism for attempting to trademark the term).

Both Adele and Taylor Swift are protective of their music, famously withholding their albums from streaming services such as Spotify. In 2014, Swift withdrew all her music from Spotify because she believes Spotify hurts music sales and fails to compensate artists properly (a view that is shared by many, to say the least). Adele restricted 25 from streaming services (and had initially done so for her last album, 21) to protect music sales.

This is not to say that they’ve withheld their music from the digital realm — far from it. On December 13, Swift announced she would stream her 1989 world tour video exclusively on Apple Music December 20 as part of a broader co-branding relationship. Meantime, Adele’s single “Hello” has become the second-fastest video ever to hit 100 million YouTube views ever. Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” and “Shake It Off” have more than 2.5 billion views between them as of December 11. “Hello” and “Shake It Off” also express the distinct personas of these two superstars: the moody “Hello” dramatizes Adele’s brooding romanticism while the quirky and playful “Shake It Off” celebrates Swift’s chirpy optimism.

Their strategies are working handsomely. Billboard recently named Taylor Swift its top artist for 2015. 1989 is only the fifth album to spend its first year in the weekly Billboard 200’s top 10. As of December, her 1989 concert tour had grossed $240 million. She is the first and only artist to have three albums sell more than one million copies in the opening release week. 1989 has sold 5.4 million units, and even though the album was released in 2014, it was the top seller of 2014 — until Adele’s 25 became the year’s biggest seller only three days after its November 20 release.

As of December 11, Adele’s 25 has sold 5 million copies, the first album to sell 5 million in a calendar year since her last album, 21, was released in 2011. In its first week of release, 25 sold more than 3 million copies, setting a new record for most album sales in a single week — a feat even more impressive when you consider that the previous record holder, NSYNC, achieved its massive numbers before the era of digital downloading and streaming. At one point, 25 was accounting for nearly half of all music sales.

But most importantly, Adele and Taylor Swift share a commitment to writing personal songs about their lives, oftentimes about the ups and downs of relationships. They have inherited the mantel of heartfelt singer-songwriter from the likes of Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Stevie Nicks. By drawing upon universal themes such as the heartbreak of loss, the joy of independence and sexual liberation, and the pleasures of growing up, Adele and Taylor Swift write songs that appeal to a broad audience. Their personal brands extend the reach of their songs even more widely.

What works for Adele and Taylor Swift may not work for lesser-known artists although Swift’s accessibility to fans and brands is a more advisable route for unknowns attempting to build their reputations. It remains to be seen whether lesser artists can afford to avoid streaming like Adele and Taylor Swift have done. Few musicians have the clout they possess. But if the up and comers can make it to their elite level, Adele and Taylor Swift demonstrate that successful artists can still write their own rules even in the fractured music industry.

The Reinvention of Justin Bieber


Justin Bieber is back.

The onetime scourge of western civilization has reestablished his musical relevance with his first-ever Number One single (“What Do You Mean?”) on the Billboard Hot 100 and an album, Purpose, that was Number One on the Billboard charts until Adele’s 25 juggernaut steamrolled the universe. On November 13, he earned the most streams in a single day (36 million) and then broke the record for most album streams in a single week (205 million). With 17 songs on the December 5 Billboard Hot 100, he has broken a record held by the Beatles and Drake for having the most songs in the Billboard Hot 100 in a single week. Starting March 9, he will embark on a 58-date world tour — an ambitious undertaking that would have been unthinkable a year ago, after a binge of epically bratty behavior turned the Biebs into a pariah by age 20.

Why is Justin Bieber enjoying the greatest comeback in music history since Elvis returned from the brink of Hollywood B-movie exile? A number of factors come into play. Clearly, he and his manager Scooter Braun are engineering a charm offensive dating back several months when he issued a public apology on his Facebook page. He has played the media carefully and adroitly. He was relaxed, easygoing, and funny in his Carpool Karaoke segments on The Late Late Show with James Corden, and penitent in a November Billboard cover story, in which he confessed, “I was close to letting fame completely destroy me.” (The same article also described Bieber’s attendance at a religious service and friendship with a pastor.) Bieber as a performer has revealed a warmth and vulnerability, weeping onstage at the MTV VMAs in August and opening himself up to fans by taking questions from the audience during an intimate (and wildly popular) mini-tour no doubt intended to foam the runway for his world tour in 2016.

But acting like a nice guy is only part of the story. With his music and his persona, he’s leaving behind the child star and becoming a fully realized young man, confident in his musical powers and embracing a sensual masculinity. To wit: about the time he was apologizing to fans on Facebook in January, he appeared in a provocative, arty photo spread for Calvin Klein that cast him in a whole new sexually charged context that no one saw coming.

More surprises were in store with his music. The use of Bieber’s vocals in the Diplo and Skillrex collaboration, “Where Are Ü Now” legitimized Bieber in the more mature EDM genre.

The Skillrex-produced “Sorry,” widely interpreted as a both a mea culpa to ex-girlfriend Selena Gomez and to his fans, gained critical praise for its depth and dance sensibility (in the words of Mikael Wood of The Los Angeles Times, an “airy tropical-house banger”).

“What Do You Mean?,” which he co-produced, was not only massively popular; it was also named the best song of 2015 by Spin.

With Bieber embracing genres such as EDM and tropical house, it’s quite likely that he is attracting a more mature fan base. Def Jam CEO Steve Bartels told Billboard, “Any time an artist has been away and focused on personal growth, you see a change in the music. His fans will come with him because they’ve grown up, too.”

Ashley Sandal, a 26-year-old marketing professional in Chicago, is the kind of person Bieber probably needs to court to make a permanent transition to grown-up star. She says, “Justin Bieber didn’t appeal to me when he was a teenybopper. But he’s older. He’s changed. And so has his music.” In April, Sandal will attend one of Bieber’s Chicago appearances during his Purpose tour. She secured tickets the day they went on sale.

So far, the makeover is gaining traction with the news media. He was recently the subject of a positive profile from The Guardian, which focused on his “resurrection,” and The New York Times noted his surging popularity in an article about his and Ariana Grande’s performances November 29 at the American Music Awards. Even the perennially snarky TMZ referred to him as “the comeback kid” in lauding his “triumphant return on stage” at the VMAs. He still has a lot of work to do, though. According to YouGov, a market research company, 58 percent of consumers polled either “don’t like” or “really don’t like” him as of November 24 (although it must be said that on June 7, 89 percent responded the same way — so his numbers are improving).

But Americans love a comeback. So long as Justin Bieber stays out of trouble and stays focused on music, he’s well on his way.