Because this is a musical theatre blog, I don’t write much about pop and rock music outside of the context of musicals here. However, the walls between the theatre world and the pop/rock industry continue to become thinner and thinner. Today, every musical theatre performer with professional aspirations should have at least one or two pop/rock radio tunes in his/her audition book (3-5 is ideal). These pieces should come from multiple decades/time periods and encompass diverse musical styles (i.e. 50’s rock ‘n’ roll, 70’s disco, early 90’s grunge rock, etc.). In general, performers shouldn’t worry whether or not a pop/rock song is ‘overdone’- that is a bigger consideration when selecting standard musical theatre repertoire. The widespread recognition of a particular pop song can actually be a good thing in audition rooms (especially if the performer can put a unique spin on a well-known tune).
Very soon, I will be launching a brand new musical theatre and pop/rock repertoire consulting service for performers and teachers. For now, I want to offer up several female pop/rock radio ballads from the early 2000s for performers to consider singing for auditions. Remember, there are MANY time periods and sub-styles to consider when choosing pop, rock, r&b, hip hop, etc. songs. Below are some suggestions from a very specific time period- one which included events like Bush II entering the White House, a series of horrific terrorist attacks, the birth of American Idol and iTunes, and more.
1. “I Hope You Dance” by Lee Anne Womack (2000)
Let’s be honest: this was THE defining ‘sensitive female pop ballad’ at the beginning of the millenium. Chances are, if you ever made a computer slideshow at that point in time, this was the song you used as background music. It’s cheesy, sentimental, folksy… and people ATE it up. Here’s what Billboard magazine editors had to say about the song at the time: “This is a career record. Years from now, when critics are discussing Womack’s vocal gifts and impressive body of work, this is a song that will stand out. It’s one of those life-affirming songs that makes you pause and take stock of how you’re living. It’s filled with lovely poetry that will make listeners think.”
2. “If I Ain’t Got You” by Alicia Keys (2003)
The story behind Alicia Key’s mega hit is a sad one. Following the death of fellow pop/r&B singer Aaliyah in a plane crash, Keys wrote “If I Ain’t Got You” largely as a tribute. In her own words, “The song idea came together right after Aaliyah passed away. It was such a sad time and no one wanted to believe it. It just made everything crystal clear to me—what matters, and what doesn’t.” The piece seamlessly blends pop, r&b, jazz, and soul musical influences, and it has been covered by varous artists all over the world. It received two nominations at the 2005 Grammy Awards, for Song of the Year and Best Female R&B Vocal Performance, winning in the latter.
3. “Breakaway” by Kelly Clarkson (2004)
Back in 2002, Kelly Clarkson became the first winner of American Idol, one of the biggest pop culture phenomenons of the 2000s. Clarkson’s first single was the ultra-cheesy “A Moment Like This”, but “Breakaway” has been a more enduring number. Interestingly, the song was originally written for Avril Lavigne for her debut album. After being deemed unsuitable for her, it was then passed to Clarkson to be recorded on the soundtrack for Disney’s The Princess Diaries 2. The song went on to top Billboard Magazine’s US Adult Contemporary chart for 21 non-consecutive weeks, a record that is now shared between “Breakaway” and Celine Dion’s “A New Day Has Come”.
4. “Goodbye to You” by Michelle Branch (2002)
The early 2000s were ripe with folksy-pop/rock artists, and Michelle Branch was one of the most well-known at the time. “Goodbye to You” was the third and final single from Branch’s second album, and it reached #21 on the Billboard Hot 100. Sure, the song’s melody and lyrics are both simplistic, but “Goodbye to You” has become one of most well-known and devastating ‘break-up ballads’ of all time. The song has also been featured in multiple television shows over the years- perhaps most prominently in this scene from the 90’s/early 2000’s cult TV hit, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
5. “I Try” by Macy Gray (2000)
Just how big of a deal was this song in the early 2000s? Well, at the 2001 Grammy Awards, “I Try” won Best Female Pop Vocal Performance, and was nominated for Record of the Year and Song of the Year. It remains Gray’s biggest hit single in the USA to date, and her only one to reach the Top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100. So, you know, it was a pretty big deal (and still is). The song features R&B, soul, and pop musical influences. The music video depicts Gray waking up in a hotel room, buying flowers, and traveling through New York City, traveled through by bus and train to meet a man in a park.
6. “My Immortal” by Evanescence (2003)
I’m not ashamed to say I was obsessed with Amy Lee and Evanesence back in the early-mid 2000s. There was something about the juxtaposition between the group’s dark and broody music/lyrics with Lee’s light, angelic vocals. Evanescence’s music was completely unlike anything else on the radio at the time. One Rolling Stone writer described “My Immortal” in particular as, “a song that’s become something of an Alanis Morissette-like battle hymn for Lee’s goth disciples over the last few years.” An unfair comparison perhaps (though I won’t deny my love for Morissette as well), but it shows just how serious critics were taking the band’s work early on.
7. “White Flag” by Dido (2003)
Alexis Petridis from The Guardian described “White Flag” as “a superb, confidently written pop song, possessed of a chorus that is impossible to dislodge from your memory without the aid of hypnotherapy.” He wasn’t wrong. This is one of those songs you hear and can’t get out of your head for days. The single fared very well on the charts around the world, peaking at number one in Australia, Austria, Germany, Italy, and Norway; number two on the Irish Singles Chart, and number 18 on the US Billboard Hot 100. It was nominated for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance at the 2004 Grammy Awards, but lost to Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful”.
8. “Foolish” by Ashanti (2002)
“Foolish” was Ashanti’s debut single, and it spent ten weeks at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 and Billboard Hot R&B Songs chart. In 2009, it was named the 19th most successful song of the 2000s (decade), on the Billboard Hot 100 Songs of the Decade. “Foolish” is the second best selling physical single of the 21st century, having sold over 8.4 million copies to date. The song earned Ashanti Grammy Award nominations for Best R&B Vocal Performance – Female, and Best New artist. The music video below depicts a relationship where a man, played by Terrence Howard, gets involved in some criminal acts and is unfaithful to Ashanti, which ends up in a break-up after some quarrel.
9. “Beautiful” by Christina Aguilera (2002)
Truthfully, “Beautiful” has become somewhat of a parody of itself in recent years thanks in large part to films like Mean Girls. However, we must not forget that this song was a MASSIVE hit back in the early years of the millennium. It won a Grammy Award for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance and was nominated for Song of the Year at the 2004 ceremony. It was also widely embraced as an anthem by the LGBT community for its message of self-empowerment and inner beauty, earning Aguilera a GLAAD Award. Today, the song is often recognized as one of Aguilera’s signature songs and has been covered on numerous occasions and featured on several television shows.
10. “A Thousand Miles” by Vanessa Carlton (2001)
This final selection was a toss-up between Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles” and Britney Spears’ “Everytime”. Spears obviously won the lasting career battle, but Carlton’s pop hit remains a staple of the early 2000s. Who can forget that hypnotizing piano intro that everyone and their brother learned to play? The song’s now iconic music video below features Carlton moving across the city on some sort of magical piano (because why not, really?). At the time of its release, “A Thousand Miles” had widespread success worldwide, reaching number one in Australia, the top five in the United States and Ireland, and the top ten in the United Kingdom, France, Italy and the Netherlands.