To paraphrase William Carlos Williams, so much depends upon a debut single in modern pop music. Want proof? Look at the recent career trajectories of Ariana Grande and Victoria Justice. One is a mega-star, and one is exploring new label options. And both situations seemingly stem from their respective debut single releases.
At the beginning of 2013, the profiles of Grande and Justice were strikingly similar: both were 19-year-olds from Florida whose hit Nickelodeon show, Victorious, was winding down. Both were aspiring singers whose vocal abilities had only been showcased on the various Victorious soundtrack releases. Both were obviously ready to put kiddie-show acting on the back-burner once Victorious wrapped up in February 2013, and establish themselves as convincing pop entities.
Grande went first, with “The Way,” and the song was a hit from the get-go. Co-starring on Victorious had helped Grande accrue millions of Twitter followers before her debut single was released, and when the buttery R&B track dropped, a fan base for the song was already in place. Even with Grande’s pre-existing TV fame factoring in, however, “The Way” took off with unexpected rapidity, debuting at No. 10 on the Hot 100 chart and selling 219,000 downloads in its first week, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Chalk it up to the delicious Big Pun interpolation, Mac Miller’s flirtatious guest verse, Grande’s gigantic pipes or all of the above: “The Way” made good on Grande’s promise to longtime fans while introducing her to mainstream pop fans curious to know who was behind that big voice.
Less than three months after “The Way” blasted onto the Hot 100, it was Justice’s turn — and it was reasonable to believe that she was destined for even greater success than her former co-star. By the time “Gold” was released as Justice’s debut single in June 2013, the 20-year-old had already been a more well-known star in the Nickelodeon world than Grande: she had co-starred on the mid-00s dramedy Zoey 101, headlined Victorious, appeared on several other Nick shows and starred in the Nickelodeon Movies production Fun Size, which hit theaters in October 2012. The Victorious soundtracks were primarily composed of Justice’s voice, and had been relatively bankable, with two out of three scoring Top 20 debuts on the Billboard 200 chart. Days after “Gold” was released, a summer tour with fellow Nick stars Big Time Rush was set to begin. Justice was an enduring star with fiercely dedicated fans, and the surprise hit of her co-star was primed to precede her own pop smash.
But it never happened. Justice’s debut single didn’t just miss the Top 10 of the Hot 100 chart — it missed the chart altogether. By the time Justice’s tour with Big Time Rush wrapped last August, “Gold” had become an afterthought — it’s sold 33,000 downloads to date, according to Nielsen SoundScan, while “The Way” has moved 2.2 million downloads — while Grande was preparing to guide the debut album that followed “The Way,” Yours Truly, to a history-making No. 1 debut in September. One year later, Justice has yet to release a follow-up single or announce a debut album, while her former co-star has an even bigger radio hit than “The Way” under her belt (“Problem” featuring Iggy Azalea) and is preparing for another big album debut with My Everything, due out Aug. 25. To add insult to injury, Grande even found time over the past year to guide another Nickelodeon show, Sam & Cat, to huge ratings — this time without Justice, and as the title star.
Did “Gold” spoil a promising musical career with the same swiftness in which “The Way” launched one? Inarguably, Justice’s debut single was a misfire, and a poor choice for a debut single… but upon revisiting the song, “Gold” does not sound like a death knell. Co-produced by the Messengers, who have a track record of crafting elastic radio fare with Justin Bieber, Pitbull and Chris Brown, “Gold” is a completely safe, forcefully pleasant pop-rock come-on that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Natasha Bedingfield album. There are snare rolls, guitar strums, high-school-notebook lines like “Hey! Boy! Whatcha gonna do/If you want me like I want you?”, and a rap interlude short enough to be forgiven. Whereas “The Way” served as a pristine demonstration of Grande’s dazzling vocals and aesthetic embrace of 90’s R&B, “Gold” entertained well enough but failed to capture Justice’s likable personality, or establish her approach to non-Victorious music.
Although Justice did not crack the Hot 100 with “Gold,” but the singer charted three singles on the Hot 100 back in 2011, all of which were billed as ‘Victorious Cast featuring Victoria Justice’ and were featured on the show’s various soundtracks. These tracks, which were often crafted by pop production maestros like Savan Kotecha and Shellback, reveal more about Justice’s musical abilities than “Gold” ever does: “Beggin’ On Your Knees” and “Best Friend’s Brother” zip along with compact hooks and unabashed attitude, while “Freak The Freak Out” deserves to be re-discovered as a highly campy, totally transfixing single. Peaking at No. 50 on the Hot 100 chart in January 2011, “Freak the Freak Out” finds Justice having a blast with the G-rated concept and flashing an undeniable amount of charisma on a Nickelodeon soundtrack song.
Justice has musical chops and a recognizable name; she just needs the right project and set of collaborators to make herself shine. According to a rep for the singer, the 21-year-old is currently focused on a handful of acting projects, including the upcoming MTV series Eye Candy and the romantic comedy Naomi + Ely’s No Kiss List. She has also recently written and recorded new tunes with Toby Gad and MAGIC! frontman Nasri Atweh, and is planning to release new music “next year sometime.” Justice has also left Columbia Records — the home of fellow Nickelodeon stars Miranda Cosgrove and The X Factor, but not Grande, who signed her own deal with Republic Records — and is currently weighing her label options.
Whenever Justice does return to singing, it will be understandably tough to recalibrate her audience to bring in adults — but then again, Miley Cyrus recently did just that, taking a break from music to star in edgier films and shake off her Disney persona. If Justice spends a year or two away from music and comes back with a bulletproof single courtesy of a producer like Gad (One Direction, Kelly Clarkson, Demi Lovato), who knows what she can accomplish?
A reinvention is needed, and perhaps her music career will never be Grande-sized (sorry). But count out Victoria Justice at your own peril. Over the next few years, it’s realistic to expect a new single that makes everyone… wait for it… freak the freak out.