The Unsung Ladies of Pop: Willa Ford
|November 26, 2012||Posted by Jess under Celebrities, Music, Tweendom|
As you’ve probably already figured out from my breathless babbling about the Spice Girls and Miley Cyrus, I love me some bubblegum pop music. This love was sparked by Spice in 1997 and fanned into a righteous flame by the Backstreet Boys in 19991, and my music collection contains not just the complete oeuvres of BSB, Nsync, Britney, and Christina, but a fair amount of one-hit wonders and also-rans like Dream and Nobody’s Angel. The other night found me down a YouTube rabbit hole of The Forgotten Ladies of Pop, Circa 2000, and so I thought I’d kick off a new series here to talk about them. Because hey, nobody else is going to.
I have two personal stories about Willa Ford. The first happened when she was still plain old Amanda Willaford.2 See, Amanda/Willa dated Nick Carter of from 1997 to 2000 – the years when the stratospheric rise of the Backstreet Boys was matched only by Nick’s trouncing of Brian and AJ as the heartthrob in the band. Thus, poor Amanda quickly became the most hated woman in America. It only got worse when she was revealed to be an aspiring singer, because of course she was just using Nick, what a tramp, etc., etc.3
For my 16th birthday, my best friend, the one who’d gotten me into the Backstreet Boys in the first place, took me to see AJ McLean’s solo tour.4 The venue was standing room only, so we, being the dedicated fans we were, arrived nine hours early and stood there – no lie – in the snow in order to be as close to the front as possible during the concert. (This is especially astonishing because a) she was a Nick fan and I was a Brian fan, and b) my birthday is in April. The weather was weird that spring.) The girl in line ahead of us was a few years older than us – old enough to follow the Boys around the country when they were on tour – and she regaled us with many stories that I’m now pretty sure were entirely lies. Among those stories were a few about Amanda, who, she assured us, was definitely terrible.
“One time, I was waiting outside the stage door before a concert, and Nick came out to say hi to all the fans,” she said. “He was really friendly, but then Mandah came out and yelled at him and he got really quiet and hangdog. She’s, like, totally abusive to him. Did you know she hit his best friend with a baseball bat?”
I was 16, and Nick was clearly supposed to be in love with my best friend and not Amanda. Hitting someone with a baseball bat definitely sounded like something a gold-digger like her would do.The summer after that, Amanda/Mandah changed her name to Willa Ford and released an album, Willa Was Here. One of the stops on her promotional mall tour was near me, so my friend Holly – not the one who was going to marry Nick – and I decided to go buy her album and get it signed, because why not. I believe the signing was at Skinmarket, the tragically-short lived Skittles box of a cosmetics chain where I bought more body glitter than any human could possibly want or need.
It was a short line, and Willa took pictures and chatted with everyone on it. She was, above all, friendly. I remember she was wearing a pink tank top and looked very pretty and wholesome. There was a blue ribbon pinned to her shirt, and I asked what it was for. Some kind of awareness ribbon, she said (she knew what it was, but eleven years later I can’t remember). “Someone on the line asked me to wear it, so I did.”
She was also wearing a couple dozen thin gold bangles. “I love your bracelets!” said Holly, who was famous in our school for her bracelets, which were of every color and type – including an entire rainbow Slinky – and went halfway up both forearms.
“Thanks!” Willa said. “Do you want some? You could add them to your collection.”
This was unthinkable generosity from someone doing a CD signing in a Skinmarket in a New Jersey mall – someone famous. “I can’t just take yours!” Holly said, flustered. “Do you want to trade?”
So Holly added two gold bangles to the collection on her wrist, and Willa added two glittery jelly bracelets to hers. Holly and I walked out of the store in a daze, and talked of nothing else for the rest of the day. So nice! So friendly! So generous with her jewelry! So willing to put the bracelets of the common man on her delicate, Hollywood-bronzed wrists! How could I reconcile such a person with tales of baseball bats and shrewishness?
I didn’t know what to think.
Anyway, Willa’s first album dropped in 2001, and the first single off of it, “I Wanna Be Bad,” was a moderate success. The thing about 2001 was that the market was absolutely saturated with blonde pop stars and wannabes. Britney was at the pinnacle of her career. Christina had not yet gone “Dirrty” and was still to many people basically indistinguishable from Britney.5 Jessica Simpson’s second album had not quite proved itself to be the bomb it was yet, and Mandy Moore hadn’t yet branched out into acting. And this is to say nothing of the singers who didn’t quite make it past a few appearances on TRL, like Hoku and Leslie Carter – all blonde, all bubbly, all pop. To distinguish oneself amongst this pack, a girl had to have a hook, a gimmick. Christina had her voice. Jessica had her much-publicized virginity. Willa decided to be the “bad girl.”
But that would’ve been much easier a year or two before. 2001 was the year Britney gyrated onstage with a python; the year Christina played a prostitute in the “Lady Marmalade” video; the year even the defiantly viriginal Jessica started wearing midriff-baring leather in her videos. Willa had to push the envelope further than that, and push it she did, with a music video so racy that only the Bowdlerized version could be played on TRL, still the arbiter of pop stardom in those days. The “explicit” version is the one posted above; the final scene of Willa dancing in the strip club was cut for daytime television. But the whole package is racy: the red lipstick, the booty shorts, the scheming seduction of every man in the video, the very title of the song. There’s nothing genuinely transgressive in Willa’s slighty-desperate gyrations for the benefit of the male gaze, but it was still too much for the MTV of 2001 – and especially for the tween girls who were and have always been the primary market for pretty blonde pop princesses. By thrusting herself so aggressively at the Maxim crowd, Willa lost the YM one – and while YM readers would have bought her album, Maxim readers would not. Willa pushed the envelope so far it fell off the table, and her music career went with it.6 Her second album, Sexysexobsessive,7 was never released.
Ironically, despite the fact that they wouldn’t play her music videos, MTV liked her and hired her to do some guest-hosting, which led to regular hosting gigs and a new career as a “television personality.” Her career over the next decade unfolded about the way you’d expect: playing as a celebrity quarterback in the Lingerie Bowl, posing for Playboy, competing in Dancing with the Stars, and, of course, starring as Anna Nicole Smith in the direct-to-DVD The Anna Nicole Smith Story. Last year she released new music for the first time since 2003 – a surprisingly gentle song called “Back, Back, Back.” There’s been no word on a new album, though.
Aside from “I Wanna Be Bad,” “Tired” is probably the best song on Willa Was Here. In it, she lambasts the music industry – a ballsy move for a debut album, especially one with no indie cred whatsoever. “Tired of the clones that look like me/ Tired of the people saying ‘Britney,’” she declares, going on to dismiss fame-hungry “one hit wonder wannabes who cannot sing a note.” But the excellence of the song can’t disguise Willa’s own weak, overproduced voice, or the fact that every word is drenched in unintentional irony.8
The truth is, Willa was never on the same level as the genuine pop stars of the Y2K era. She couldn’t compete vocally with the likes of Christina and Jessica, and lacked Britney’s lightning-rod stage presence. But it didn’t help that she hit the trend about two years too late to make a real splash, and it really didn’t help that the angle she chose to distinguish herself turned off any teen girls who didn’t already hate her for her former romance with Nick.
That said, she’s probably the best remembered of the unsung ladies of pop I’m planning to cover in this series, and she’s managed to parlay that one hit into a decade-long career. “Tired” has been in steady rotation on my various music-playing devices since 2001, and last New Year’s a friend and I may have drunkenly shouted the lyrics to “I Wanna Be Bad” at our annual karaoke outing. Willa may not be burdened with tremendous talent or charisma, but she’s nothing if not tenacious. I mean, come on – it takes a tough woman to put up with the trials and tribulations of dating Nick Carter for three years. P.S. I’m pretty sure she never hit anyone with a baseball bat.
So hey. If she does put out another album? I’m willing to give it a shot. After all, Willa and I have been through a lot together.
I wonder if she still has those bracelets?
- Yes, I caught that particular wave a little late. ↩
- Though she was going by “Mandah” for some reason, which just gave her many detractors among the BSB fanbase more ammunition to declare that she was a man, duh! Terrible and transphobic, of course, but tweens aren’t known for their rapier, politically-correct wit. ↩
- From what I hear of how tweens talk about Selena Gomez and the various One Direction girlfriends, social media has only made this worse. Stop hating other girls, girls! ↩
- Yes. He had a solo tour. He performed under the alias “Johnny No Name” and did a lot of pelvic thrusts. Five girls fainted and had to be carried out of the venue by security. IT WAS AMAZING. ↩
- Of course, Britney and Christina have always been vastly different in terms of skill sets, personalities, and of course vocal ability – sorry, Britney – but they were both young and blonde and that made it easy for the kind of person who haughtily announces that they don’t listen to pop music to dismiss them as basically the same. Because, of course, the best way to assess a genre is to refuse to consume it. Not that this is a particularly pet peeve of mine or anything. ↩
- Her second single, “Did Ya’ Understand That,” flirted a little harder with genuine transgression – Willa is shown in bed with another woman, plus there’s a random death metal section near the end where a dreadlocked Willa rips off her shirt – but it’s all just a little too calculated and coy. It’s her eagerness that we perceive her as daring and dangerous that makes her neither of those things, though I’m sure that had this video actually gotten any airtime back in 2001 I would’ve been scandalized. ↩
- Yes, that was really the name. I KNOW. ↩
- Note to all pop stars everywhere: never put a song about grappling with fame on your first album. It is super embarrassing for everyone to listen to. I’m looking at you, Ashley Tisdale. ↩