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12.07.09

Alexa Ray Joel's Struggle

Before nearly overdosing this weekend, Billy Joel’s talented daughter was struggling to make it in her famous father’s industry. Jacob Bernstein on a young artist on the brink.

On Saturday, Alexa Ray Joel was admitted to the hospital after swallowing a handful of pills in what was reported to be a suicide attempt. The daughter of singer Billy Joel and supermodel Christie Brinkley, the story was, naturally, splayed across the New York tabloids Sunday.

The New York Post noted that Joel had been through a series of harrowing breakups with a boyfriend. She’d blogged repeatedly about being lonely and despondent about dating. “I’ve really been having a hard time with everything lately,” she wrote in one post in March. “Between moving into my new apartment & getting used to living alone... I was crying my eyes out tonight.”

“She’s got some pipes,” said an insider at Sony. “There’s no question about that. But her sound is kind of niche.”

But in the music industry, where the 23-year-old singer has been trying to break in, what happened this weekend was also a poignant reminder of just how dispiriting it can be to be a young artist at a time when record deals only seem to go to reality-show contestants, and radio consolidation has made it harder for niche artists to find an audience.

Certainly Joel had plenty of doors open to her because of her celebrity lineage. She has done duets with her father and been the recipient of accolades on television, where the people profiling her were quick to note her talent—which is immediately apparent in her YouTube performances.

But Joel was also a piano woman in an age dominated by Beyoncés and Rihannas, a torch singer with a taste for Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, writing her own music, booking her own gigs, and distributing her CDs independently. The fact that she has skills and a couple of famous parents didn’t necessarily make her artistic life easier, even as it helped get her some press.

In 2007, Joel gave an interview to American Songwriter, in which she admitted, “I’m very, very old-school, and every time I try to listen to more contemporary stuff… it doesn’t seem to resonate with me as much as the older stuff did… I like songs that sound like classics. There are songs that might be cooler or have better production, but I like songs that sound like they’re timeless.”

Consequently, she was struggling with a harder commercial sell than many of her contemporaries, industry economics that are terrible for everyone, and the added psychological hurdle that comes with trying to measure up to a father who’s an industry legend.

“I have these huge golden shadows over me,” she told The Washington Post in an interview last August, sounding less self-pitying than matter-of-fact about the issues she was facing. “I have to define myself on my own terms.”

“She’s got some pipes,” said an insider at Sony, which is the parent company of Columbia Records, which distributes Billy’s music. “There’s no question about that. But her sound is kind of niche.”

Said the Sony source: “There’s never been so much music to choose from and young artists can self-distribute and find all sorts of ways to bring their music to the public. But it’s infinitely harder to get to the top. Before, Columbia Records would have looked at someone like her and thought it was a slam dunk. Now, they’re much more careful.”

A music manager and former label executive who works with singer-songwriters put it similarly: “In the early days of the Internet, people used to say ‘This is so great. There’s nothing standing between the musicians and the public.’ Now it’s just more confusing. There’s no filter and there’s no great place to find a huge audience. And in a certain way, I think it’s harder to be the child of two celebrities because you don’t spend time out of the public eye quietly growing into the artist you want to become. She’s talented and she can sing. But every successful singer songwriter has stories about the Lower East Side café they performed at or the little club they played in, making all the mistakes they needed to make. It’s much harder to do that if your last name is attached to a global icon. I hope the world has some empathy for her.”

Jacob Bernstein is a senior reporter at The Daily Beast. Previously, he was a features writer at WWD and W Magazine. He has also written for New York magazine, Paper, and The Huffington Post.