So, I heard the news this morning — David Foster is splitting from his wife of over a decade, Linda Thompson-Jenner. I read it about it first over at ohnotheydidnt, which was an awesomely surreal experience, sort of like hearing about General Westmoreland’s death via a special announcement from Bert and Ernie on Sesame Street. Not that Foster’s love life is too serious for those lovable gossipmongers to discuss, just that it seems like most of them are too young to know anything about his career.
As I’ve receded and wrinkled my way into adulthood, I’ve come to loathe David Foster, both as a producer and a human being, but I think this is at least partly because he was such a large part of the soundtrack to my youth. Becoming a man means casting aside the trappings of childhood — you don’t wear Tuffskins pants, you don’t vote for your father’s party, and you don’t listen to tooth-rottingly sappy love songs written or produced by David Foster. For all his hits, and all his millions of dollars, Foster is not a great producer.
“You go win some Grammys if you’re so smart,” I can hear you saying, and that’s fine. If you want to defend that walking mound of Velveeta, and pretend that he belongs in the same ranks as guys like Tom Dowd or Phil Ramone — or hell, even Ben Wisch — that’s your prerogative. Go find a Celine Dion message board. This is not the place for you. My point is this: Any good producer can give you a hit. It takes a great producer to unleash the full potential of an artist, and David Foster has never done that; all he’s ever done is make his clients sound like the backing bands for a David Foster solo album. And it’s that “sound” that’s the problem — great producers just arrange the room and get out of the way. Only the geekiest music geek could hear a few notes of something produced by, say, Eliot Scheiner and know instantly who was behind the boards, because Scheiner knows it isn’t his job to make you know he was there. With Foster, on the other hand, you can smell his goopy touch a mile away; what you often can’t do is figure out who the artist is. His work for The Tubes is a great example — before he came along, they were one of the wildest, most entertaining rock bands around. He gave them a hit — “She’s A Beauty” (download) — that sounds vaguely like half a dozen other bands, none of them The Tubes. Shit, with some of the stuff he produced for Earth, Wind & Fire, you can’t even tell those guys are black.
I don’t deny that a lot of his early work is entertaining; these songs weren’t hits for no reason, after all. Kids like me ate them up by the handful. But I believe that part of that is the fact that, in the first half of his career, Foster was often working with bands that had little in common with him artistically. As a songwriter, he’s always favored taking the least interesting elements of pop and R&B, mortar-and-pestling them into the blandest possible dust, and then sprinkling liberally. When imposing himself on bands that had a few rough edges — like The Tubes, or even Chicago — it created a certain amount of tension (however slight) that made the end result more than just bland pabulum. Now, listen, I’m not saying it was much more, but it could make for fun listening; sort of the audio equivalent of seeing your perpetually disheveled uncle in a tuxedo.
The eventual problem was obvious: By making all David Foster productions sound like David Foster productions, he robbed his clients of artistic latitude. In some cases, his bands eventually suffered a net loss of fans. They’d made an old-fashioned deal with the Devil — get some big hits, but give up your soul. And Foster’s ego is so grandiose that it wasn’t enough for him to create an army of David Foster soundalikes; he also, according to artists I’ve interviewed that have worked with him, had a tendency to give himself co-writing or production credit for doing almost nothing at all. For a time, in the early ’90s, it looked as though his string of hits was coming to an end. Top 40 radio had moved past, and totally rejected, his sound, and because of this, his old clients couldn’t get arrested on the radio anymore (or afford his enormous fees).
And then a funny thing happened: David Foster figured out that his sound — remember that bland dust we talked about before? — had become the template for pretty much everything on smooth R&B playlists. Guys like Walter Afanasieff made entire careers out of (God help us) becoming poor imitations of David Foster. Boyz II Men, for instance, would have been a great Foster act in the ’80s (and, in fact, eventually worked with him in the ’90s). He realized that he could dress the same old crap in snappy new duds, set up a boutique label through Atlantic, and started a new phase in his career that, if anything, has been even more successful than the first. From All-4-One to Josh Groban to Celine Dion, his enervating touch has brought joy to soccer moms all over the world, and you really can’t escape hearing his technique anymore, unless you listen strictly to classic rock stations (which I don’t suggest for anyone, ever).
For all of the above, this is not an anti-David Foster post. As much as he might suck, I am absolutely unable to divorce my childhood memories from his synth-laden hits; much as I might be embarrassed by this, I can’t blame him for it any more than I can blame REO Speedwagon for the fact that I put “Can’t Fight This Feeling” on a tape for Tiffany Hansen in fifth grade. In fact, if I could assemble an all-star band to play in my living room and help me relive the years of, say, 1984-1988, it would have Foster at the helm. He’d be playing piano, manning the boards, and taking 50% of the mechanicals. The rest of the band would be rounded out thusly:
Dann Huff on guitar1
Phil Collins on drums2
Fee Waybill on vocals3
On bass? Nobody really played bass in the ’80s. You got your low end — like your “woodwinds” — by pressing a button. Foster could do it. Or maybe Jeff Bova and Jimmy Bralower. They’d play all the hits, like “Man In Motion” (download) and “Will You Still Love Me” (download), and there would be a few special guests, like Richard fucking Marx. Everybody would have a mullet.
1I don’t expect you to know who Dann Huff is. But if you were alive in the ’80s, you heard his signature sound. And if you do know who he is, let’s go get coffee sometime.
2Admittedly, Collins was not the best drummer of the decade — that honor goes to Jeff Porcaro — but he was the most ’80s drummer. He invented that terrible/wonderful snare sound featured on every single hit record between 1982-1990.
3Yes, Fee Waybill. Fuck you, it’s my all-star band.