By Chris Lee, South Florida Times
She tools around Hollywood in a Batmobile-like $500,000 Mercedes-Benz, squired by various Greek shipping heirs, swarmed by paparazzi. An abstraction of rich, blond fabulosity with a reality TV show and her own signature catchphrase — "That’s hot!" — she dances atop nightclub tables and struts down red carpets from London to Las Vegas.
Paris Hilton has turned product placement and endorsement deals into a kind of synergistic performance art to become one of the Information Age’s keenly sought-after pitchwomen. And for her unparalleled skill at amassing ever greater wealth and fame — by dint of being rich and ubiquitous — we reserve only our strongest emotions: fascination and scorn, envy and lust.
Her memoir, "Confessions of an Heiress: A Tongue-in-Chic Peek Behind the Pose" (written with Merle Ginsberg and Jeff Vespa), spent five weeks on the New York Times bestseller list in 2004. Hilton’s signature scent and Just Me perfumes have racked up nearly $52 million in sales in the last nine months. And in March, plans were announced for a second franchise of her Orlando, Fla., disco, Club Paris (where she is contractually obliged to spend two evenings per month). Even "1 Night in Paris," the DVD of her videotaped sex romp with an ex-boyfriend became must-see X-rated TV (Hilton initially sued to stop its release, but in the end just negotiated a cut of the profits).
Yet this heir to the Hilton hotel fortune never ceases to confound expectations for the simple reason that no one ever expects her to succeed at all. Moreover, she’s set to come into a reported $30-million fortune, so why even try?
Low expectations certainly accompany Hilton’s long-delayed pop-rock album on Warner Bros. Records — she recorded a batch of songs with Green Day producer Rob Cavallo, threw most of them out and started again from scratch.
As her CD’s summer release nears, the drumbeat of pre-publicity has begun in earnest. Next month she will appear on the covers of Out and Blender magazines before embarking on what anyone even passingly familiar with the celebutante’s preternatural promotional talents can assume will be an all-out media blitz.
While curiosity about the project has been high, few musical tastemakers have heard the music. As a result, the press has generally sneered at the project since she signed with the label in 2004. "Could a Paris Hilton album be (choking … on … words) good?" asked the Chicago Tribune last year.
The bar is set so low, in fact, that Hilton has almost nothing to lose. On the other hand, if the CD is above average, the surprise factor could turn her into a pop savant — Hilton’s advantage position time and again.
To hear it from her musical collaborators as well as media observers with no vested interest in her success or failure as a singer, she’s got the discerning ear, protean work ethic and even the pitch control to make it as an American Idol in her own right.
A closer reading of their laudatory comments, however, reveals a common refrain, a shocked, cautious appreciation that seems to almost damn the socialite with faint praise.
Superstar DJ Paul Oakenfold, who remixed Hilton’s song "Turn It Up," sums up the conventional wisdom about her singing: "I think a lot of people were expecting it to be a lot worse than it is."
In the latest referendum on Hilton’s popularity, that may be her most bankable trait. Call Paris Hilton the Queen of Low Expectations.
It’s taking a village
Hilton has recorded an album’s worth of material — 10 tracks — with Scott Storch, the producer behind hits for 50 Cent, Beyoncé and Dr. Dre. But the lineup keeps changing; she continues to outsource songwriting duties to new writer-producers such as Lukasz "Dr. Luke" Gottwald (who has worked with Pink and Kelly Clarkson) and recent Oscar winners for best original song, Three 6 Mafia.
It’s impossible to ignore the perception that the heiress, 25, can pay as much as it takes to surround herself with hitmakers, all but guaranteeing the chart primacy of whatever she records. But according to Kara DioGuardi, who has penned hits for a constellation of Top 40 stars and who co-wrote three songs with Hilton, she seems to have found her musical niche.
"It’s fun music, it’s danceable, with elements of Blondie, a little reggae and great beats," DioGuardi says. "She has a very sweet voice, very breathy. It sounds exactly like what you would want Paris to be doing."
Which is to say Hilton doesn’t totally stink. In an interview with The Times last year, Storch offered similarly qualified kudos: "She’s actually got quite a musical ability. Her rhythm is better than a lot of people I’ve recorded in the past."
Even cynical journalists such as Village Voice gossip columnist Michael Musto, who traveled from New York to Los Angeles to interview Hilton for Out’s cover story, begrudgingly admit to being won over by the international socialite and her music. "I’ve written a lot of negative stuff against her," Musto says. "I came to bury her and I’ve ended up praising her."
Now listen to the praise: "Her fans are not responding to the concept of her fame for fame’s sake," he says. "They’re responding to her personality. The blankness. I’m not saying it as a diss. She has the quality of allowing any viewer to project whatever they want on her. That’s why she transcends all media."
Oakenfold has remixed songs for many of the biggest acts in the music industry, including Madonna, Jennifer Lopez and U2. But he initially blanched at the idea of remixing one of Hilton’s songs when Warner Bros. executives approached him. Oakenfold was ultimately persuaded to take the gig, however, after hearing "Turn It Up"; his remix of the song has become an established part of his set.
Like most Hilton followers, he had prepared himself for the worst. "I was surprised at how good her vocal was," the DJ says. "I’ve gotten a lot of good response on it. A lot of DJs who go on after me ask who it is. I say Paris Hilton and they’re really surprised."
In an age where public recognizability affects record sales more than an impressive vocal range, it’s tempting to assume studio wizardry compensated for Hilton’s lack of formal musical training. But several of her collaborators insist technology played no part in fleshing out her singing. "You can try and use auto tuning and all kinds of stuff like that," Storch says, "but it doesn’t sound natural. I’m not gonna do Milli Vanilli or anything like that."
For Gottwald, who co-wrote and produced a song for her album called "Nothing in This World," placing Hilton’s distinctive voice front and center was job one. "She has a really cool tone, particularly in the lower register," he says. "So I didn’t want to make a song where Paris was copying anybody else."
And so far, fan response has been promising. At Miami’s Winter Music Conference last month, the heiress joined Oakenfold in the DJ booth for the midnight set moment when he played "Turn It Up" — an event captured by filmmaker Adria Petty (daughter of rocker Tom) who is shooting a documentary about the making of the album.
When the song came on, "You could see the whole place was dancing," Oakenfold remembers. "She was really happy with it. The whole place was going crazy."
Hilton has recorded a cover version of Rod Stewart’s "Do Ya Think I’m Sexy," although it remains uncertain whether the song will make it onto her album. And according to DioGuardi, another song on the CD, "Jealousy," deals with the heiress’ public fracture with her former BFF (and costar on the reality TV series "The Simple Life") Nicole Richie. "It’s about the deterioration of a relationship she had with a friend of hers," DioGuardi explains of "Jealousy." "She talks about how one day she hopes they’ll be back together." Never mind that they won’t so much as make eye contact while filming their show.
Under wraps for a change
So far, Warner Bros. has micromanaged when and where Hilton’s music has been played and kept most music critics out of the loop. But label executives allowed a reporter to preview four tracks that will appear on the album. The bass-heavy Storch-produced club banger "Turn It Up" surrounds Hilton’s competent, kittenish singing voice with orgasmic squeals and suggestive panting — think of it as the musical companion to her sex tape.
"Jealousy" rocks harder, shot through with guitars, violins and plaintive lyrics. "You’re not the girl I once knew," she sings. "Tell me where she is ’cause she’s not you." On "Fighting Over Me" (featuring Fat Joe and Jadakiss), her "collabo" in the vein of LL Cool J and Lopez’s recent rap-R&B hybrid, "Control Myself," Hilton busts a rhyme over a hip-hop beat: "Every time I turn around, boys are fightin’ over me / Maybe ’cause I’m hot to death and so, so, so sex-ee." And the reggae-tinged "Stars Are Blind" is a solid pop offering that highlights Hilton’s vocal similarities to Gwen Stefani. Over a stuttering electronic beat, the heiress’ helium-high voice trills about new love with refreshing sincerity.
The quality of her backing tracks and choice of songwriting collaborators is of uniform high quality, but nothing overshadows Hilton’s implacable sense of self, which lends immediacy to her singing. Beverly Sills she obviously is not. But the socialite’s music ultimately achieves its purpose as a saccharine sweet, pop-y diversion.
"It’s a record for her to dance on banquettes to," says Craig Marks, editor in chief of Blender, who chose Hilton for the magazine’s milestone fifth anniversary issue, which hits shelves next month, more for her track record of making magazines fly off the newsstand than any musical bona fides. Nonetheless, he has heard several finished tracks and says her album is not without its merit.
"It’s not a ‘sit down and analyze the lyrics’-type of record. And it’s not a Mariah Carey, ‘this is the touchstone of a generation’-type of record. And it’s not intended to be — any more than a chick-lit book intends to win a Pulitzer Prize."
Neither of Hilton’s pop music confreres in the tabloid media universe, Lindsay Lohan and Ashlee Simpson, are releasing albums that will directly compete with Hilton’s this summer. But their respective paths from the pages of Us Weekly onto the pop charts could auger well for her: Lohan and Simpson parlayed their celeb notoriety into platinum album sales.
For her part, Hilton could teach a master class in playing celebrity for all it’s worth. Trish Todd, vice president and editor in chief of Touchstone Fireside books, which published "Confessions of an Heiress," was blown away by Hilton’s Terminator-like promotional tenacity.
"She had a publicity lineup that even the most sophisticated, road-hardened author would have been intimidated by," Todd recalls. "She hit the mark exactly on time, beautifully dressed, beautifully coiffed, starting at 6 in the morning at the ‘Today’ show, all the way through to the late-night events, parties and book signings. She’s amazing."
In a download-happy era of ripping music al gratis from the Internet, Storch insists fans will want to own a piece of the Hilton je ne sais quoi in addition to grooving on her tunes.
"The music is good and she has a brand name. Most of her fans support the products she released whether it be a beauty product, anything," he says. "I have all the faith in the world this album is going to be well-received. And purchased. People are not only going to want to hear the music, they’re going to want the packaging and to look at the pictures and see all the merchandising and everything that has to do with it."
In the meantime, the record label isn’t tempting fate and risking overexposure of their much-exposed artist; they are limiting her promo duties to select appearances until closer to the album’s release. Nonetheless, she talked to Star magazine about her music in February. Hilton’s verdict: "It’s hot."
Even with her deadline looming, she remains avid about seeking out new collaborators. And despite a busy schedule filming the fourth season of "The Simple Life," she visited Memphis hip-hop collective Three 6 Mafia in a Los Angeles studio two weeks ago to listen to a track they put together for her.
Fittingly, the group sees a potential Hilton collaboration as an opportunity to rebrand themselves as pop music producers.
"I was shocked," remembers Mafia member Jordan "Juicy J" Houston, "that she would want to listen to one of my tracks. As far as my writing and producing abilities, winning the Oscar was No. 1. No. 2 is, wow, Paris Hilton is interested in using some of my music!"
Times staff writer Susan Carpenter contributed additional reporting for this article. Contact Chris Lee at firstname.lastname@example.org.