We couldn’t get enough of them. Their songs were our soundtrack, and we laughed, danced, cried and loved along with them. They flashed across our radio and TV burning brightly — but where have they been lately? As you’ll find out in our regular feature Where Ya Been?, sometimes the stories behind your favorite songs are more interesting than the hits themselves.
Who: Vitamin C (a.k.a. Colleen Fitzpatrick)
Biggest Hit: “Graduation (Friends Forever)”
Claim to fame: The only alternative-rocker from the 1990s we can think of who had her own Barbie doll and shade of lipstick.
Why do I know that name?: You may not remember Colleen Fitzpatrick from her early-1990s grunge-pop band Eve’s Plumb, but if you’ve attended any graduation ceremony in the past six years, you know her flame-haired alter ego, Vitamin C. Fitzpatrick, a singer, dancer and sometime actress who appeared in John Waters’ 1988 film “Hairspray,” released a pair of albums with Plumb before the band disintegrated in 1998 and she decided to reinvent herself as a pop princess. “I began songwriting because I’ve always been more into the behind-the-scenes aspect of the music anyway,” Fitzpatrick said. “I do like performing, but I liked the idea of creating a concept, and I have a dance background, so when I started doing Vitamin C, I tried to do more of a dance thing with a tongue-in-cheek side of it. It was going to be more high-concept, like a highly stylized, virtual pop star that was not necessarily based in reality.”
|Vitamin C: Where Ya Been?|
BFF!: At first, Fitzpatrick wasn’t sure whether she would sing the Vitamin C songs or hire someone else to. But the singer said she saw a hole in the late-1990s music marketplace for a pop star with a positive message and a sense of humor singing to a mix of rock and dance music. She was right: Released late in the summer of 1999, Vitamin C spawned the sugary hits “Smile” and “Me, Myself and I,” but it wasn’t until early 2000 that the “concept” blew up into a phenomenon. The album’s third single, “Graduation (Friends Forever),” became one of the most ubiquitous songs of the spring, pushing Vitamin C into platinum sales and worldwide fame. “Everyone went crazy for a while, which is great,” Fitzpatrick recalled. “But I don’t think the level of success hit me until many years later. Every year, ’Graduation’ is played around the world from the beginning of May until July.” She won’t say how much money the song generates annually in royalties, but given its “Happy Birthday”-style popularity and universal appeal, Fitzpatrick is probably in good shape.
How crazy?: Things got so big that in addition to the expected tie-in products like backpacks and school supplies, Fitzpatrick got her own shade of lipstick and a Barbie doll created in her (fake) image — the first, she noted, to have a bellybutton. But with great influence over pre-teen girls came great responsibility — like, well, watching what you say. Far from the dirty-haired boys who came to see her in Eve’s Plumb, Fitzpatrick often found herself playing for wide-eyed young girls (and their mothers) at Vitamin C shows. “I remember one of my first big Vitamin C performances, in Tampa [Florida],” she recalled. “When people had heckled me in Eve’s Plumb — like a guy saying something like ’Take it off!’ — I would be tempted to tell him to f— off. But I looked down and the first three or four rows were packed with young girls holding their mom’s hands. I was like, ’Whoa!’ I had the mic in my hand and I realized I couldn’t curse or get graphic and I was like, ’I’m in a whole different world!’ ”
And then …: Though Fitzpatrick had an advantage over then-contemporaries like No Authority and Sammie — due to her age and experience with major labels with Eve’s Plumb — that couldn’t save her from the sophomore jinx. “I knew the level of success Vitamin C was going to have would ebb and flow,” she said. “I knew after ’Graduation’ that I would have to figure out how to reinvent myself again.” After touring the world, she quickly recorded a harder, more electroclash-influenced second album, More, which was released in late 2000, spawning a hit with “Itch.” But Fitzpatrick wasn’t in the U.S. when the single was hot, and by the time she got back it had stalled out.
Act 3: Fitzpatrick saw the cooling off of Vitamin C as an opportunity to write for other artists, instead of an end to her second career. She worked on a few TV deals, released a mash-up of Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” and the Strokes’ “Last Nite” in 2004 that was a hit in Europe, and was a celebrity judge on the WB’s “American Idol” spoof, “Superstar USA.” Her focus lately is behind-the-scenes work for what she calls her “Baby Black Eyed Peas”: an urban pop group called the Truth Squad. The band of 12- to 14-year-old male and female singer/rapper/dancers have just finished their debut, which is due out this summer — complete with a cover of “Graduation.” In addition, Fitzpatrick, now 33, has written and produced an album “recorded” by Angelica, Camille and Jade of Sky Dancers toy fame (due out late this year), and she’s also written songs for “Unfabulous” star Emma Roberts. (Incidentally, Fitzpatrick is married to her former Eve’s Plumb bandmate Michael Kotch, who is one of the principal musical contributors to “Unfabulous” and the kids’ show “Darcy’s Wild Life.”) Under the name Vitamin C, she’s about to finish work on a children’s world-music album that will celebrate diversity through songs like the Indian-styled “Bhangra On and On” and “We All Share the Same Sky,” and she started work on a non-children’s third Vitamin C album she describes as “Goldfrapp-meets-Vitamin C,” which she hopes to have out by early 2007. “Just because you’re not always on MTV doesn’t mean you’re not actively working,” she said.
The moral: If you’re OK with laying low for a while, a huge hit doesn’t always punch your one-way-ticket to obscurity.
Biggest Hit: “The Way”
Claim to fame: Their biggest hit — and the fact that they were a Beatles-style, two-frontman band.
Why do I know that name?: Like Vitamin C, the boys in Austin, Texas’ Fastball were no novices when their big moment came. The members, singer/keyboardist Tony Scalzo, singer/guitarist Miles Zuniga, drummer Joey Shuffield and late-addition bassist Jeff Groves, had all been in bands for more than a decade before forming Fastball in the mid-1990s. They released their major-label debut, Make Your Mama Proud, in 1996 to some acclaim but not much heat. But when radio got hold of “The Way,” the first song on their 1998 album All the Pain Money Can Buy, the band was suddenly catapulted into the stratosphere.
Unlikeliest hit ever?: … And not only because the song was about an elderly couple who decided to leave their family behind and never come back. Even though the band had toured extensively behind their first album and built up a fanbase, Scalzo said “The Way” was such an overnight success that they didn’t need to. “But I think all that touring we did made us feel like we were a national act when it happened,” he said. The song was #1 on the modern-rock charts for nearly a month and a half, and Scalzo, now 42, said it “completely changed things. We got on ’TRL,’ played ’Leno’ and ’Conan’ … basically every single thing except ’Saturday Night Live,’ and that’s because we were on the road so much,” he said. The song was nominated for two Grammys and the group snagged a Best New Artist nomination at that year’s MTV Video Music Awards.
|Fastball: Where Ya Been?|
Money can’t buy me love: Flush with success and a platinum album, the group threw down big money for their much glossier follow-up, 2000’s The Harsh Light of Day, which featured guest spots from legendary soul keyboardist Billy Preston and even the Stray Cats’ Brian Setzer. And, in true “Behind the Music” fashion, they went a bit buck wild. “We could have saved our money, but we spent way too much on hotels, first-class flights, a bus, a big crew,” Scalzo said. The hits dried up and the group got dropped, later releasing a well-received but poor-selling album on Rykodisc in 2004 called Keep Your Wig On.
What went wrong?: Aside from the big spending, Scalzo said the group’s two-frontman lineup could be the reason it failed to follow up on the success of “The Way.” “The band looked different in the eyes of the public [as opposed to] in our perspective,” he said. “I’m not saying we’re like them, but we saw ourselves as a band in the format of the Beatles, with two lead singers who are main songwriters, and we tried to release singles that had Miles singing on them, and that confused the public and the industry.”
And now: All the members have done some solo projects, including a number of self-released solo efforts by Scalzo and a vaudeville/magic/music/burlesque band fronted by Zuniga and Groves called the Small Stars. Fastball continue to play sporadic shows and are talking about recording a new album. “Our band is just getting better and better because we’re more free on an individual level,” Scalzo said. “It’s a lot more fun and rewarding now.”
Moral of the story: Scalzo’s advice to young bands: “Watch your money and don’t believe everything everybody says when they tell you that you’re great and you’re geniuses. It’s not only erroneous, it’s harmful to your state of mind. And don’t feel like you deserve everything you got, because you don’t.”
Ever wonder what happened to Crazy Town? How about Snow? Ace of Base? Tell us which faded stars you’d like us to check up on, and you just might find them in a future edition of “Where Ya Been?” Send us your suggestions and we’ll get digging…