What do Hall & Oates, Terence Trent D’Arby, and George Michael have in common? Aside from the fact that they’re carbon-based life forms, maybe nothing, except this: They all disappointed music exec Tommy Mottola by insisting on releasing albums with creative ambitions beyond duplicating the formula of their previous successes. Although Mottola defines himself as a devoted music fan with “great ears,” he makes no distinctions between an album that’s both uncommercial and brilliant (such as D’Arby’s Neither Fish Nor Flesh) and one that reeks of miscalculation and ego trip (such as Michael’s Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1). Nor does he draw lines between those two and Hall & Oates’ Todd Rundgren-produced War Babies, which might best fall into the all-purpose category marked “interesting.” Mottola best expresses his aesthetic philosophy early on, when, in response to Daryl Hall insisting he has to be allowed to experiment for the sake of his artistic credibility, Mottola spits back, “Hits are the biggest part of your credibility.”
When Mottola boasts that he has great ears, what he means is that he has an unerring sense for exactly what kind of bland, well-crafted sounds have the potential to generate a pleasant hum in the greatest number of potential consumers. This is a man who reacted to first hearing Mariah Carey’s voice on a homemade tape like a seminary student having a vision of the Virgin Mary: He tells himself, “That may be the best voice you’ve heard in your entire life!” and feels invested with a crusader’s mission to bring her to the world’s attention. When Mottola, who is almost exactly twice the age of his new discovery, decides he’s also in love with her, his dream model for the relationship is the smooth musical-business partnership of Gloria and Emilio Estefan. One of Mottola’s proudest accomplishments during his 15 years as head of Sony Music Entertainment was his role in the “Latin explosion,” which was a matter not of getting America to open its ears to the thrill and freshness of Latin music, but of finding Latin performers who could fit into the mold of featureless, blockbuster mainstream pop.
In every photograph of Mottola that’s ever been published, he’s beaming with the shiny-eyed, Colgate smile of a big kid who can’t believe all the wonderful things that have happened to him. Bruce Springsteen probably has to practice this expression in the mirror, but for Mottola, it really seems to come naturally. The most likeable parts of his insanely chatty as-told-to memoir (“C’mon, let’s go to Dominick’s and get a quick bite to eat. Oh boy, we’re only on page 6 and I’m already in trouble. I just know the hard time I’m going to get from my friends at Robert’s and a few other restaurants for not choosing their place.”) cover his early years, growing up in the Bronx under the eye of a doting, hard-working father. (When the 3- or 4-year-old Tommy playfully whacks his older sister in the head with a hammer, Pop’s only comment is, “Who left the hammer out?”) Bitten by the show-business bug, teenage Tommy drops out of college and embarks on a singing career, using the name “T.D. Valentine.” He cuts a record, but ends up opening for strippers before switching over to the management side of the industry. There, he discovers what he considers his true talent, which he describes as “being able to hear and to singularly focus songs and writers and artists and producers to help them create popular music just like the music I grew up with and loved as a kid.”
A sincere, hard-working guy who wasn’t able to make his earliest dream come true will search for a reason to explain why a pure heart and dedication weren’t enough, and Mottola is quick to concede that he just didn’t have the voice he thinks a star should have, grading himself a possible “5 out of 10.” That may have planted the seeds for his veneration of the sheer technical proficiency of a Mariah Carey or Celine Dion. (A sub-theme running through the book is “the death of vinyl,” as represented by the Walkman, CDs, and finally downloading; Mottola is struck by the irony that all the wonderful technical innovations he enjoyed and cashed in on over the course of his career eventually undermined the music business model he grew up with. He might consider how much he also served the digital gods by building up a whole line of stars who sing in a tidy system of ones and zeroes.)
His love of pure pop for people whose concept of “now” is a little faded would be easier to appreciate if it didn’t come attached to a faint contempt for people who are harder to deal with but produce more exciting music—people who might even be called “artists” with a straight face. Mottola’s first taste of pop-culture immortality came when one of his early acts, Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band, name-checked him in their biggest hit, “Cherchez La Femme.” But Mottola eventually cut ties with them and can barely mention them on the page without a detectable shudder; they were just so crazy and unreasonable, and August Darnell “once pushed me to the point of a fistfight in my office.” (His only comment on Darnell’s later transformation into Kid Creole is that he and his Coconuts (“had a great run in Europe” but were only “a shadow” of what the Savannah Band could have been, if they’d behaved themselves.) A note of clueless nice-guy snobbery comes through, all too nakedly, when he expresses dismay that someone like Darnell, “who had a master’s degree and had taught English in high school,” could carry on in such a fashion.
The one thing Mottola seems to want readers to learn is that he’s the nicest guy in the music business, if not the world. And he may well be. Nice guys are useless at gossip, and the main thing he has to say about his tabloid romance with Carey is that it was a mistake for which he takes full responsibility. (Days after he met her, his therapist was trying to talk him out of pursuing the relationship.) And though his description of Michael Jackson as “an artist who was starting to melt down because he couldn’t adjust to his shrinking album sales” rings true, it doesn’t add anything to the picture people have already developed from other first-hand accounts, or just from turning on CNN. (After the disappointing returns of Jackson’s last album, which cost $40 million to make and only earned back $10 million, Jackson called a press conference, with Al Sharpton at his side, to accuse Sony of masterminding a conspiracy to prevent the album from selling, and said Mottola was “mean, he’s a racist, and he’s very, very, very devilish.” Mottola’s book includes a statement from Reverend Al, in which he basically said that the whole thing was just his usual Monday-morning appearance with a famous person, and that when he heard the words that came out of Jackson’s mouth, you could have knocked him over with a feather!) As for the dramatic high points of the business itself during Mottola’s time at Sony, whether it’s the palace coup that left him in charge or the Hollywood antics documented in Nancy Griffin and Kim Masters’ book Hit & Run, he always seems to be in another room when the shit goes down.
Mottola often tries to make the scenes he’s describing vivid by talking about how they were like something in a movie. Movies may be as central to his fantasy life as music, and on the basis of this book, they both mean more to him than words; he has no gift of gab. Or he does only in a special, nice-guy-hustler way, best described by special guest Joe Pesci: “In the case of Tommy, and even somebody like myself, growing up in the neighborhood, you get a great street sense and you learn how to manipulate. You know how to talk to people. And you know where people are coming from when they talk to you. You know what’s on the guy’s mind right away. You know where to go, how to approach them, things like that. Tommy knows how to treat people well. I mean, he moved into a whole area of Spanish-speaking people.” The dominant pop-culture image of the music-business guy is of the shark, sleek and manipulative, like David Geffen, or the carny huckster, fast-talking and shameless, like Colonel Tom Parker and Tony Defries. (Mottola, in his own telling, is more like the Broadway Danny Rose who got lucky.) Those guys probably have some great stories, but the Geffens are too smart to write books about themselves, and the hucksters know people would be disappointed to learn they can read.