I wrote the book on American Idol.
No, really — back in 2010, as the show was still coming down from its Adam Lambert–Kris Allen season-eight high, FremantleMedia commissioned me to pull together a tenth anniversary memento for fans. Subtitled “The Official Backstage Pass,” I’m proud to say that it delivered, thanks to months spent re-watching every show, conducting interviews and thumbing through tens of thousands of pictures.
Among those images: the wide-eyed, hopeful, pre-TV-makeover faces of many future Idol greats — from Kelly Clarkson to Carrie Underwood, Elliott Yamin to Blake Lewis, David Cook to David Archuleta — then the anguish of the competition, the elation of having advanced, and finally, for the lucky few, the last stop in ultimate satisfaction: the homecoming visit.
This year, four have been granted the trip home, and one of them — 19-year-old Jax — happens to be from my hometown: East Brunswick, New Jersey. In fact, should Jax win season 14, she’ll be the first Northeasterner ever to do so (fellow finalist Nick Fradiani hails from Connecticut), as the Fox show’s voting audience has traditionally looked towards the South for finalists.
She certainly deserves to make the finals. Jax’s dramatic flair both in her performances (among the highlights: her audition with a moody, piano-led “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” and her take on Dido’s “White Flag”) and her look, a mix of goth and glam (she even wore #thedress) with a hint of punk rock courtesy of an ever-present X on her left cheek, made her a standout from the start. And while she’s had a couple of bumpy turns (namely, Lady Gaga‘s “Poker Face”), Jax has persevered through a combination of music smarts, likability and, yes, talent.
But on a personal level, it’s a tremendous triumph for East Brunswick, what some might consider a nondescript commuter town — there are your chain restaurants and diners (says Jax: “the Milltown Diner has my back”), your big box stores and your soccer fields, your big hair, thick drawl and any number of Jersey stereotypes — in the center of the Garden State. (What exit? Nine, if you must know.)
I’m here to tell you otherwise, as Jax would most certainly agree, based on conversations we’ve had throughout the season that don’t concern the other famous resident of the town — and her would-be EB crush, actor Jesse Eisenberg. In fact, I would venture to say that just being from East Brunswick can, in a strange way, be a stepping-stone to a career in music. How so?
First and foremost, its proximity to New York City, 40 miles away, allows an aspiring performer — be it musical theater, acting, singing, dancing — the opportunity to get closer to the craft. You can be enrolled in school and also attend auditions (or, in Jax’s case, be home schooled) or take in a Broadway play or a concert. Back in my day, it was The Cure at Madison Square Garden or Jeff Buckley at the Knitting Factory or whoever was playing Brownies that night. For Jax, that could mean catching Kiesza at Webster Hall or a matinee of Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
Even closer to home: Freehold and Asbury Park, forever affiliated with Bruce Springsteen, and Sayreville, with Bon Jovi; And there’s Rutgers University, a mere 6.6 miles away in neighboring New Brunswick, which, the Smithereens and Marc Ecko aside, never was the bastion of cool but does house a theater, bars and restaurants that feature live music and a respected arts program. The city also once had a record store not unlike the one featured in High Fidelity and a pretty rocking college radio station.
Elsewhere on the school front, East Brunswick’s public school system encourages music education, with the high school’s own website boasting, “one of the most comprehensive performing arts programs in New Jersey.” It also states: “Performing, creating and responding to music … are fundamental processes in which humans engage.” Indeed! My time in the school band and stage-managing the annual talent show will attest to that. Among the courses offered at EBHS are drama, acting workshop, stagecraft, advanced placement music, musicianship and music tech/composition.
Billboard spoke to East Brunswick mayor David Stahl who took great pride in Jax’s success, crediting her with being “another inspiration for so many of our young individuals here in the town — particularly those that are following music.” Asked if the town itself is particularly musical, he seemed to agree, “There are so many talented musicians here in East Brunswick that may not make the radar screen in the news media but are practicing their art.”
Jax certainly was. “I did plays in school in East Brunswick, I love musical theater and when I came here, I fell into the rock ‘n’ roll scene,” says the former Long Islander. “I was in little garage bands with boys and stuff like that. But it pushed me into the professional scene. I was able to put my full focus into music since I was in sixth grade.”
Which brings me to alumni, of which, as news director at Billboard, I’m but one of a good dozen active participants in the music industry. They include patron saint of radio Matt Pinfield, a former MTV VJ and long before that, a DJ at local New Brunswick club the Melody; music manager Jon Topper, whose band Moe. is headlining a three-night stand in conjunction with the Grateful Dead shows in Chicago this July; Universal Music svp of business affairs Daniel Getz; and Beth Katz, formerly of Rogers & Cowan whose publicity clients included Tommy Lee, Diana Krall and Jennifer Lopez (bonus: through the J. Lo affiliation, she met her husband, music attorney Kenny Meiselas, who represents Puff Daddy). Cast the net a little wider and you could count another spouse, Lauren Walk, wife of Republic Records evp Charlie Walk, arguably one of the most important people in radio, herself an East Brunswick High School grad.
Google executive Ted Kartzman is another EB expat who found his way to the music business, first as a cofounder of jambase.com, then as an artist manager and later at Real Networks, which became the slightly-ahead-of-its-time music streaming site Rhapsody. He’s now global head of independent music companies at Google Play Music. To hear him tell it, East Brunswick birthed so many musos from his time because of a confluence of pop trends and counter-cultural tendencies. “Jersey hair metal, cheesy 80s rock, bubblegum pop,” he says. “Then there were the nouveau hippies, the Grateful Dead and Phish lovers who took me to God Street Wine shows at City Gardens in Trenton.”
(Also worth noting: jamband favorite The Wetlands was then conveniently located just outside the Holland Tunnel.)
Kartzman also cites Springsteen, breaking into song, naturally — “Sprung from cages out on Highway 9” — as well as the presence of quality rock radio (K-Rock, WNEW), pop radio (WPLJ, Z-100), “and also those in-between stations, like 105.5 WDHA, ‘the Rock of New Jersey,’ and WHTG in Eatontown,” the latter of which had Matt Pinfield as its program director in the early 90s.
Getz’s take is that “East Brunswick was so typically middle-class suburban and lacked any distinguishing character or sex appeal that it made music seem all the more glamorous.” But he also acknowledges having always had music “as a big part of my culture growing up.” Along with his brother, Getz, who handles recording contracts for a roster that includes Ariana Grande, Enrique Iglesias and Florence + the Machine, says, “We used to go to lots of concerts as kids and collect records. I knew early on that I didn’t have any artistic gifts (in contrast to my little brother, it was easy to see), but I was always fascinated by people who did and realized one day that entertainers need lawyers and professionals as much as anyone. If I had to make a living as some kind of professional, I figured why not operate in an area that interests me.”
To be sure, East Brunswick has a big responsibility to the kids of the town, which make up nearly a quarter of its population, according to the latest U.S. Census — to nurture, encourage, stimulate, guide and send them on their way. And, while 20 years separate Jax’s generation from mine, Getz’s and Kartzman’s, et al (all three of us separated by a year in age), it’s nice to see that some things never change.