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Of Love and Natalise 

She dreams of being the next Janet Jackson, but she's just a Stanford grad who sings syrupy pop, looks absolutely fab, and makes local teens swoon.

Which, come to think of it, may be enough, for everyone involved.

Wednesday, Jul 9 2003
Anyone can write a boring artistic song. Pop music is the hardest shit to write.

-- Britney Spears, as quoted in Rolling Stone.

"Are you guys ready for finals?" asks the MC, looking out over 50 mostly Asian-American students from the Cornerstone Academy, a private Excelsior District high school of a Christian disposition. The students are at their prom, being held in a former restaurant on the second floor of the Metreon, a space now used almost exclusively for events such as this. I am sipping on a free 20-ounce bottle of Pepsi and lurking awkwardly off to the side of the dance floor, trying not to think about my own prom eight years ago.

The "booooo!"s evoked by the mention of final exams quickly turn to "wooooo!"s when the evening's headliner is introduced.

Natalise comes onto the stage wearing tight, bell-bottom jeans and a tan crop-top with thin strings dangling across her chest. She is Chinese-American, 5'3" with a flat stomach and blond highlights through her dark hair. She does not speak, only smiles as the track cues up.

On and on and on and on and on and on and on and ...

With one backup dancer, she performs the G-rated lyrics and PG-rated dance moves of "Love Goes On," her first single. Her short set, with no live instruments and a heavy backup vocal track, goes over fabulously. Afterward, nearly everyone in attendance lines up to buy $15 CDs. She stays, signing autographs and posing for pictures until the prom's end.

This is Natalise's second event of the day. Earlier, she was in Monterey for the Extreme Limit Autofest car show, which featured low-riders and a hydraulics contest. She performed at both events for free, simply for exposure. If the Cornerstone kids are any indication, exposure may be all she needs.

Jennifer Low, 17, thinks Natalise's music is unique: "It has a new, edgy style to it."

Jazmina Juarez, 15, thinks Natalise is an inspiration: "She's really, like, outgoing and nice."

I think I am not sure what I think, except that, damn, she's attractive.

Robin Natalise Chow, 21, lives with her parents in the upscale peninsula enclave of Hillsborough and dreams of being the next Janet Jackson. Her songs "Love Goes On" and "Wonderful" have received fairly significant airplay on Wild 94.9, and her debut album Forever Now reached number one in weekly sales at Tower Records Stonestown. She performed the national anthem in front of 20,000 people at a Warriors game in March. She's either going to be a national star or remain a strange sort of local music phenomenon; I'm not sure which.

Robert Chow, her father, immigrated to the United States from Hong Kong in the early '70s. Now he has a prosperous family of four, teaches telecommunications classes at a few Bay Area universities, and runs his own WiFi startup company. But he is clearly nostalgic for his days playing guitar in a rock band in Hong Kong and supports his daughter's sojourn into the music industry wholeheartedly. He can sometimes be seen at her concerts, weighed down with photography and video equipment.

Silvia Chow is a reasonable indicator of where her daughter's good looks came from, and she rounds out a remarkable circle of support for Natalise. Her friends help put up her posters and read her fan mail, and her brother lets her know when he's heard one of her songs playing at the mall.

At 12, Natalise began opera and musical theater studies at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music; she is classically trained in piano and has recently taken up guitar. She was valedictorian of Mills High School in Millbrae and attended Stanford University, graduating in three years with a degree in communications, which she believed would give her a broader education than studying music.

The dream of being a pop star started after her freshman year in college, but her songs are not at all what you might expect from someone who attended Stanford. They seem composed -- entirely -- of the purest, stickiest powdered sugar ever refined; they are the type of over-produced, radio-friendly songs that will give anyone alive during the Carter administration a sense of pop music déjà vu. The diabolically catchy tunes favor synthesizers and light drum-machine beats -- more reminiscent of the '80s Top 40 than current hits -- and the lyrics combine the best of what Janet Jackson, Kenny Rogers, and Britney Spears have to offer:

Sometimes you win, and sometimes you fold

And sometimes that's just the way, that's the way love goes

The disparity between Natalise's intellectual capacity and pop cheese pretensions are almost impossible for me, a jaded, indie-rocking feature writer, to reconcile. The Harvard of the West meets ... Rhythm Nation 1814? I can't help but think she's got to be ruthlessly manipulative of her audience to attempt to pull something like this off.

Talking to her on a number of occasions -- in a Richmond District coffee shop, at her dance rehearsal at the 24 Hour Fitness in Sunnyvale, on her cell phone -- however, provides little evidence for such hard thoughts; she is always engaging and smiley in a way that's more friendly than flirty. She seems genuinely interested in me as a person and is hard not to like, at least partly because she's so easy to look at. Her toned dancer's body has helped her get work doing print ads for companies like eBay, and her slightly crooked right front tooth, like Luke Perry's eyebrow scar, is just imperfect enough to be perfect.

Her image seems to echo Britney Spears in its simultaneous appeal to junior high girls and middle-aged men. She moves effortlessly from outfits befitting car shows to those suited to proms. She denies calculating her appeal to different demographics, though, and denies that Britney's doing it. "I definitely don't think she's trying to appeal to older men; that's a little far-fetched," Natalise says. "I think older men just take to her; that's not her fault."

Everyone can agree, I think, that sexual exhibitionism goes hand in hand with being a pop star these days. (Is there another explanation for t.A.T.u.?) So the question isn't really whether someone who looks like Natalise will go in that direction, but how far she will go.


"I would say that, if 10 is really trendy -- 10 is like Britney Spears -- and zero is what I would wear to church on Easter Sunday, for car shows I would go to eight. For any crowd, I wouldn't go lower than five."

Would she ever do a 10?

"Sure, if I did a video, and it was for an appropriate song; I actually think Britney Spears is very tasteful. I don't think I would wear what Christina Aguilera wore in the Dirrty video."

That outfit, she says, rates a 12 or 13, which is too much for her.

"I'd do Maxim; I wouldn't do Playboy," she says. "Because I think Maxim is more like for fun; they are never nude. It's more like implied sexuality."

Implied sexuality seems a reasonable way to go for someone whose audience is overwhelmingly underage, and word-of-mouth publicity from school-age fans has been crucial to the local success she has had. In fact, Natalise broke program rules at the middle school where she teaches a hip hop class by enlisting her students to pass out promotional fliers and exchanging contact information with them.

Her students were willing accomplices in the breach of policy, however; teens and pre-teens appear to have visceral reactions to her music. One, "Brian aka #1 Brianster," recently posted this shout-out on her record company Web site's message board:

"wassup natalise! juss wanted to say that Forever Now is off the hook! my middle school wrestling team at Presidio Middle School in SF uses your cd at practice every day! i hope that "Wonderful' someday will be the number one song in the entire bay."

I ask Natalise if she feels there is anything ironic about someone with a Stanford education writing repetitive pop songs that appeal, primarily, to people under 18 years of age.

"That's a really really good question," she says. "It really is, it really is ... but ... that's what pop songs are, they are a little bit repetitive; they have a hook, there is a certain type of, like, formula ... . I would say that, like, every song is at least, like, 80 percent true, and then, like, the rest of the 20 percent is, like, it rhymes."

What is "Love Goes On" about?

"Love is good sometimes, and sometimes it's bad," she says, laughing before she can finish the sentence, as if the two of us were sharing an inside joke about how useless an answer this was. "If I wasn't doing [this] I would be doing, like, some kind of esoteric, like, type of music."

Don't let fancy Stanford words like "esoteric" fool you; Natalise has not an ounce of intellectual snobbery in her. CDs currently in her player include those by Savage Garden, J. Lo, Brian McKnight, Justin Timberlake, and John Mayer. Her favorite book is The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry , and though she says she read Richard Feynman books cover-to-cover in high school, she can't seem to remember his first name.

Cutting to the chase, she says, "I think I'm just a real sentimental person. I think I'm very idealistic about love, and I love romantic comedies." She laughs, and I can see her starring in one. For teens.

Tani Tritasavit, 28, has short spiky hair and drives his parents' minivan. He calls himself Tani T. and recently moved out of his parents' home.

Natalise and Tani T. hooked up professionally in late 2001 when Natalise won a grant through the Asian American Arts Centre to intern at an Asian-American-owned record company. That company, 888 Records, was Tani T.'s, and the idea was for her to learn the nuts and bolts of the industry. Natalise made it clear that she wasn't there to get coffee, though. "Right off the bat I was like, "I'm a singer and I want to be a singer,'" she says. "I'm not really here to intern. I signed up for this thing so you could help me get a record deal."

This fit Tani T.'s plans for 888 Records, which he describes as "a very, very small company." Natalise is its only artist, and the goal is to get her signed to a major label and make her America's first Asian-American pop star.

There's nothing particularly Asian about Forever Now, which contains more than its share of the kind of syrupy pop ballads that I have difficulty listening to on a full stomach. But jams like "Tell Me" and "I Wanna Hold You Tight" crawl into my subconscious, threatening to establish permanent residence and perhaps even their own system of local governance and traffic law. They have none of the raunchy lyrics or hip hop beats heard in Christina Aguilera's or Justin Timberlake's latest works; they seem, in fact, a step or two behind the times. But that just makes them more endearing.

Not endearing enough to hit the Billboard Hot 100, however.

"It's pretty discouraging the way the industry is going right now," says Tani T., blaming Internet file sharing and a weak economy for Forever Now's disappointing sales of fewer than 2,000 copies since its February 2003 release. Part of the reason it hasn't sold well -- if you ask me -- is because of all of those damn ballads. But she loves them.

"I like the slow ones. They lend themselves well to sentimentality," Natalise says. "Those are the songs I feel I can get the most emotion across."

"She's a sap," says Tani T. bluntly, and Natalise laughingly agrees. She's also forever optimistic. "People may say that I have lofty goals or whatever, but it's always worked out for me," she says.

But how likely is she to succeed, really? C. Michael Brae, who teaches record distribution and independent record company operations at San Francisco State University and has his own label, Hitman Records, says her success will be "based on how aggressive her internal managers are. Everything is based on performance, airplay, and sales. It's not about the music; it's all business. It's all controlled by the dollar."

I tell him about Natalise's parade of teeny-bopping fans, and her success getting her songs onto the radio. He's impressed, but says that it's not time to go knocking on Columbia Records' door, that more often than not the record companies will approach the artist, rather than the other way around.

And how does one get on the labels' radar? Brae says it's almost exclusively through two tracking systems: Nielsen Broadcast Data Systems (BDS) and Neilsen SoundScan, the primary bases for the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

BDS provides a computer-generated report monitoring how many spins a song has gotten on commercial stations. This is the "proof" of radio popularity that record companies want to see before investing their money in an artist. Unfortunately, yearly access to BDS reports cost tens of thousands of dollars, far too much for small labels like 888 Records to front. ("That's kind of tough," admits Tani T., although, he contends, he has friends within the radio industry who give him information on the amount that Bay Area stations play Natalise songs.) Without BDS numbers, says Brae, it is difficult to convince new radio stations to play Natalise's songs. This sets up a catch-22 scenario: She can't get noticed by the majors without being in heavy rotation, but she can't get into heavy rotation without the majors' money.

Likewise, SoundScan is the "proof" of album sales, providing data from the thousands of record stores, Web sites, and other music vendors in the U.S. and Canada. Achieving high SoundScan figures requires Natalise to have a distribution company that will get her album into as many stores as possible. No one will buy her CDs if they can't find them easily, and for the small 888 Records staff to go door-to-door to stores attempting to sell Natalise CDs on consignment would be ridiculous.

In this regard, Brae says, Natalise is off to a good start, having employed the services of San Rafael's City Hall Records. Independently owned, City Hall is growing quickly and distributes its wares all over the country.

And even if Natalise grabs a record company's attention, someone in that organization still has to be open to taking a risk. "Pop is the priciest genre to break," says Brae, noting that major-label releases must sell half a million units for their labels to break even. "They're very strict right now about signing an artist ... . There were 27,000 records released last year, and 90 percent of them failed."

At the end of the interview, after reciting his litany of bleak statistics, Brae asks me for Natalise's contact information. He is impressed with her level of homegrown support. "You've got my interest. This looks like a real product," he says.

At the crack of dawn on a Thursday in late May, Natalise is a guest on KYLD-FM, WiLD 94.9, the hip hop station that sometimes forays into dance and pop, to face the Stern-lite antics of the Doghouse morning show, which that day features Elvis, Hollywood, Show Biz, and White Menace. Her dues-paying around the Bay Area music scene has won her connections at the station, and her good looks certainly don't hurt. Her appearance follows on the heels of a funny, crass skit involving a character called the "Opera Guy," who phones a sporting-goods supply store inquiring about "something for my nuts to protect the crown jewels, in case I get hit in the huevos with a pitch. I don't want to become a soprano!"

Natalise is nervous about the show, which will serve to promote her upcoming benefit concert for arts programs at a local high school. She loosens up right away, though; comments like "God, you're a little cutie, and I don't mean that with any disrespect" don't require much in the way of response.

The politeness dam breaks when Elvis finds out she went to Stanford.


Natalise: I went there.

Elvis: Usually pretty girls, they're not too smart upstairs.

Natalise: There's some cute girls at Stanford, you should check it out.

Elvis: I bet. I can't walk down the campus, they're all over me. They think that I'm the big marshmallow guy, they try to eat my waist. Funny joke. So, you're this hot (Natalise giggles), you do music, and you're a Stanford grad. What's your boyfriend's name?

Natalise: I don't have one.

Elvis: WHAT?

Natalise: I don't ....

Hollywood: What about my boy Menace over here?

Show Biz: Would you ever consider going out with Menace?

Natalise: I don't know, maybe. (She giggles again.)

Things get even randier after Natalise leaves the studio.

Elvis: You okay there, Menace? You're acting strange. You were hiding in the corner like a little kid [during the interview].

Show Biz: He was trying to hide his boner.

Elvis: She is the nicest young lady, I mean, c'mon .... You're a stalker, aren't you? You just hone in on one chick, and then boom, that's it, she's your whole life?

White Menace: No!

Elvis: Have you whacked it to her? Her picture?

White Menace: No! No!

Elvis: Have you whacked it thinking of her?

White Menace: No! No!

Elvis: You know, she's one of those people who is better looking in person. Just like me.

Natalise doesn't hear about the conversation until a friend tells her later, but she isn't disturbed. "That's just what they do," she says. "I just kind of expect it." On the 888 Records Web site shortly afterward, a picture pops up of her posing with the crew, everybody smiling politely.

Natalise clearly relishes her small degree of fame. She recounts stories of being tracked down in her dance class by high school students, of random people who found out her instant-messaging screen name and started sending her messages, and of the admirer who offered to be president of her fan club.

Though she claims to desire international fame on the level of Janet Jackson or Brian McKnight, she almost seems satisfied as a Bay Area semi-star. She never talks about the exotic animals she wants to get rich enough to buy, or the jet setters she wants to hobnob with. In these days of a million and one reality shows, it may seem like a silly question, but why does she want to be famous? Her Stanford degree has made her marketable, after all, and shouldn't someone of her intellect have better things to do than be stalked by fans and lusted over on raunchy morning shows?

"I would say it's the validation that you know you've succeeded in making your music. You know that it's appreciated by other people than your mom and your friends, that you've actually touched a large number of people.

"I feel like I've been fortunate in my life. My parents have worked hard, so I don't have to worry about money. It's not my only motivation to get rich, to me it's more about succeeding at what I'm doing."

Could it be possible, then, that she's already achieved her dream? She performs about three shows a week, and is already a household name in some school lunchrooms. At her gym, people are constantly recognizing her and coming up to chat, and she has even hooked up with a guy who approximates her degree of local celebrity. Chris Labrum co-hosts the "Daily Mixx," a five-minute news and entertainment update that runs twice daily on WB stations here and in Detroit. An aspiring actor, he is short and good-looking, with his curly blond hair sometimes hidden by a pulled-down knit beanie. Though nearly everyone else says otherwise, Natalise refuses publicly to say he is her boyfriend. And it's sometimes obvious why, such as when he rattled off this digression as MC of one of her concerts:

"Wanna let you know about a Web site called"

The crowd cheers.

"Anybody dig chicks out there?"

Yes! they scream.

"Any of you chicks dig chicks out there?"

Confused yells.

"I dig chicks which dig chicks ... which dig chicks ... which dig chicks," he says, his voice fading.

Does Natalise like this kind of thing? Maybe she digs cheesy guys with low IQs, I theorize, and maybe that explains what she's really like, deep down at her core.

Then I find out that Chris went to Stanford, too.

"Infusion," a benefit to help offset budget cuts in George Washington High School's arts programs, is to be one of Natalise's biggest headlining concerts; tickets are $10 for students, $15 for general admission, and the auditorium holds 1,200. Tani T. and Natalise's friends have been promoting it for weeks. I've noticed posters on bus stops in the Richmond and in bubble teashops in the Sunset. But now, just 15 minutes before the show begins, Tani T. is nervous. "It's still pretty mellow out there," he says of the crowd. "Lowell and Wallenberg have proms tonight."

The opening act is the school's show choir, which perform songs from Little Shop of Horrors. Next is a sort of hip hop/B-girl group whose members wear school colors and bounce onstage in skimpy outfits to abbreviated versions of popular jams. Only 400 or 500 people have come out, but the group seems more hyperactive than the sum of its parts. Much of the predominantly Asian-American crowd stands, cheering and dancing. It may be because I'm no longer in high school, but I'm at a loss to understand why everyone's so pumped.

But by the time the peppy beats of "Wonderful" come on, I understand. The crowd is full of wannabe Natalises. The girls want pink, glossy tickets issued for their benefit concerts with their pictures in silhouette, hands thrown ecstatically over their heads. They want homemade, graffiti-style signs draped over the stage bearing their names. They want Natalise's calculatingly ripped white T-shirt, bangle bracelets, and green eye makeup. They want her backup dancers, Charity and Stacy.

The boys want to be the one picked to come onstage to have Natalise perform a romantic song to him. Although others will try to ruin it by chanting "Lap dance, lap dance!" and "Give her a twenty!" the chosen boy will blush amber-red when Natalise gives him a kiss on the cheek at the end of the song.

"She's an inspiration to all the young teenagers out there. She tells about life and love, and that's what people go through every day," says Aspacia Tripousis, 15. "She, just, influences my life every day."

Natalise will stay late after the concert, giving out hugs and autographs, showing that their love for her is returned. The more love-rays the kids shoot out, in fact, the darker her golden-brown glow seems to become. How could I ever have thought her manipulative? I wonder. An audience full of young fans with their hearts on their sleeves is all she needs. She may never have her picture taped up in the locker of a junior high boy in, say, Lincoln, Nebraska, but as long as she's got a room full of believers right here to perform for, she will shine on, and on, and on.

About The Author

Ben Westhoff


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