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Debbie Does Difficult Second Album Syndrome

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Do you remember ‘sophomore slump’? It’s that popular cultural phenomenon in which an artist who hits the big time with his or her first work cannot manage to replicate that success with the follow-up, so-named because it’s like students who start their academic career with dedication, earning excellent grades in their first year, only to slacken when the novelty subsequently wears off.

If you’re of a certain age (to be part of Generation X rather than Generation Y) you may be more familiar with it in  music, where it’s know as ‘the difficult second album syndrome’: having spent several years  working out who they are, finding a voice, building a fan base and finally convincing a label of their worth, a band releases an amazing collection of songs informed by their journey, powered by their hunger and drive for success. Once they make it, of course, they have a year or so to cobble together a new bunch of songs to try and replicate what had been the culmination of everything in their lives thus far. And all of those initial experiences and observations that informed their unique world view? Replaced by the same whirlwind fame machine every other band experiences at that level – every whim catered for, every desire fulfilled. Until it’s time to start again, often on a diminished budget. There are plenty of examples, not so much in the immediate past, but at least when people still mostly bought albums instead of downloading a track at a time.

Consider This Is It, the debut album by The Strokes. It certainly was it. Particularly when compared to their follow-up, Room On Fire.

The title of Franz Ferdinand’s second album, You Could Have It So Much Better ironically rings true compared to their first, self-titled effort.

Whatever Garbage followed up their first album Garbage with, actually was, in comparison.

And despite the inherent camp fanfare of Ta-Dah, Scissor Sisters should have cut it out after Scissor Sisters.

The same effect is evident in literature. Or at least, it is evident to those who still read books. People who still write books produce stupendous debuts – quite often essentially consisting of autobiography done up as fiction – that cause them to stumble on the second novel when, having exhausted their entire life’s repertoire of anecdotes thus far, they are forced to make stuff up. Even if they’re brilliant at making stuff up the first time, the follow-up has a hard time not being overshadowed by the earlier effort.

Donna Tartt’s The Secret History: an amazing debut that came seemingly out of nowhere. A bidding war ensued for her next effort. If sales are anything to go by, the resulting The Little Friend remains comparatively little-read.

And who could forget Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird? But more importantly, who can remember the follow-up? Not you? Nor anyone else, for that matter. Because there never was one – although Lee did assist her buddy Truman Capote with research for his book, In Cold Blood.

As with Harper Lee, Joseph Heller’s debut, Catch-22 was nothing short of a masterpiece; unlike Harper Lee, he kept writing. But he had a great attitude to his inability to top his first effort.“You never wrote anything better than Catch-22, Mr Heller,” a journalist once helpfully pointed out during an interview. “True,” Heller acknowledged. “But neither did anyone else.”

You may not remember ‘difficult second album syndrome’ at all, though. In the Web 2.0 age of instant gratification – and immediately microblogging the experience thereafter – the incredible masterwork which is difficult to follow up is an entirely different proposition. Who has time to read entire books? Or download complete albums? Tweet the salient points as words of wisdom, I’ll retweet them and use them as a status update if they resonate. If you’re lucky, I may even credit the author. If not, I’ll let everyone assume they were spoken by Martin Luther King. And I’ll grab the odd track that happens to grab me.

Occasionally, these two worlds combine, more or less, to form a cool YouTube clip. And that’s where the sophomore slump may still occur. Take ‘Debbie’, for example, the character in a clip currently going viral (uploaded June 3rd 2011, viewed over 4 million times less than ten days later). ‘Debbie’claims to be lover of cats, searching for a soulmate in her ‘eHarmony Video Bio’:

It’s a brilliant piece of work. So much so that you might even watch it twice because you’re not sure if it’s real. But as someone else snickers, off-screen, at about two minutes and twenty seconds in, ‘Debbie’ clearly is an awesome actress. Why haven’t we seen or heard of her before? Can’t wait to see her next one…

But ‘eHarmony Video Bio’ is a hard act to follow. In her next clip, uploaded a day later, ‘Debbie’ is now ‘Cara and Kara’, a pair of siamese twins.

Nowhere near as good as her debut. Viewed a mere 380 thousand-odd times, it carries damning reviews about how obvious its use of basic webcam filters is.

And the backlash has sadly knocked Debbie/Cara/Kara for six: there was no ‘return-to-form’ third release on June 5th and we await its arrival with trepidation, fearing that – whisper it – she may be a one-hit (well, let’s face it, 4 million-plus hit) wonder after all…

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