There’s no way to talk about Heidi Montag‘s 2010 album Superficial without first talking about Heidi Montag — the reality TV caricature, the original fame monster — but there are worse places to start than that. After all, we loved The Hills, right? We loved it for Lauren’s Cheshire Cat smile and mundane drama and dull platitudes (“It is what it is, you know what I mean?”), and for the archetypal sleazebag appeal of all those walking soul patches who paraded on and off the show in an endless stream of douchebaggery, and maybe there’s somebody out there who watched it for Audrina, although that seems unlikely.
But many of us watched it for Heidi. Sweet Heidi, Lauren’s friend, who had cameras trailing her grotesque physical and personal transformation over the course of the series of the nice girl from a place called Crested Butte, Colorado (Heidi Montag, the pride of Crested Butte) into a surgeried, waxen-faced Barbie.
It was as compelling a cautionary tale about the vicissitudes of fame as any ever broadcast as her narcissism grew so vast it threatened to swallow her whole. The Hills gave her a platform to become a celebrity in that hypermodern way, the oft-cited “famous for being famous” (as if there was ever a nobler reason to be famous than that), and she used it to distort her body and take staged photos with her gross significant other (“He’s a sucky person!”) and wear lots of bikinis, as all good reality stars do.
So when, like so many reality stars, Heidi Montag turned to making music, it wasn’t surprising — if Paris Hilton could do it, why couldn’t Heidi? What was surprising was that the music was pretty good. Not good in a critically legitimate way, of course, but good in the way that the best trash-pop always is, the songs that you dance to in the darkened cloisters of a nightclub not knowing who’s singing, her digitized voice as blandly expressionless as any other nameless dance diva. If her evolution on The Hills took a nondescript girl and made her a celebrity, with all the glittering glamorous trappings that accompany it, Montag’s album Superficial does the same thing: She has no vocal talent, but the music that surrounds her expressionless vocal track is very shiny and expensive. And if that quality made for good television, it makes for an even better pop album. Like Montag, it’s empty and captivating for its emptiness.
It’s become flop lore that Montag spent $2 million of her own money (predictably, she couldn’t secure a major-label record deal for the album, given that she was tonedeaf and unlikable) recording the record over a period of two years; she recruited a cadre of industry heavy-hitters as impressive as any major pop LP. Contributors to the album include The Runners (Rihanna, Cher Lloyd), Kool Kojak (Ke$ha, One Direction), Steve Morales (Enrique Iglesias, Celine Dion), Stacy Barthe (Katy Perry, Brandy), Chris Rojas (Pink, Sophie Ellis-Bextor) and Laura Pergolizzi (Christina Aguilera, Rita Ora). Most notably, though, four tracks were penned by Cathy Dennis, who is easily one of the best songwriters of the last decade, having penned Kylie Minogue‘s “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head” and Britney Spears‘ “Toxic” — two of the most critically lauded pop songs of the noughties. Dennis’ masterful touch on these songs is apparent: They’d be pretty good if anyone were singing them, and the fact that they’re being sung by someone who can’t sing feels secondary for that reason. (There were so many great songs recorded, in fact, that not all of them even made the album — consider the bubbly “Overdosin’” and the Yazoo-sampling dance cut “Body Language.”)
But when the album debuted, it sold less than 1000 copies in its first week. Generously, that would net her about $10,000 on her $2 million investment.
It makes sense: Certainly no fan of music with integrity would have bought an album from Heidi Montag, even given the quality of the songs, which is a shame: The production is delirious, glistening electropop beats and crunchy, well-crafted hooks. The songs have aged well, even now, nearly three years later. On the living-well-is-the-best-revenge anthem “Look How I’m Doing,” that “Ha ha ha ha ha!” refrain is an instant earworm; the loungy swing of “Fanatic” is tough to resist. “Superficial” could be the unofficial anthem for every Real Housewives franchise ever, with its hilariously campy lyrics (“I wear diamonds for breakfast,” she claims breathily), and the chorus is so absurd it must be tongue-in-cheek: “They say I’m superficial, some call me a bitch / They just mad cause I’m sexy, famous and rich.” It’s all posturing with no track record to back it up, a self-conscious send-up of an implausibly luxe lifestyle.
“More Is More” sounds like a genuine dance smash, even if it barely scratched the Hot Dance Club Charts, peaking at #27, with a thrilling shoutalong chorus (“More is more, on the dance floor / It’s fucking chaos in here!”), and she ekes out a note of genuine yearning in “One More Drink” before her voice is buried in webs of lush synths. “Blackout” is perky as a Radio Disney hit, but the real gem might be “I’ll Do It,” a filthy ode to fetishistic love-making that ends up being heartbreaking in its desperation. “Come eat my panties off of me,” she intones early in the song, and the chorus is all rapid-fire cliches: “I’ll be your blonde tonight, if that’s what you like / Stilettos and fishnets, if that’s what you like / I’ll be your hot mess, schoolgirl in curls / Whatever your type, baby if that’s what you like, I’ll do it.” Mercifully, there are no ballads; she knew better than to bother.
Virtually no major media outlets reviewed Superficial upon its release, but even if they had, maybe it took awhile to get the point: It’s a strong pop album that’s compelling because it’s soulless, not despite its soullessness. Now, it’s worth replaying — and revisiting — because it’s epoch-defining, a period at the end of the sentence after several long years where shows like The Hills, and the stars it produced, dominated entertainment. The songs are good, but it all feels a little sad, really. Montag could buy a new body, a new face and an album worth of killer material, but she couldn’t buy legitimacy, even when she said that Superficial would rival Michael Jackson‘s Thriller.
Now that she’s living wherever she is — in Santa Barbara, apparently, maybe in Spencer’s parents’ house, surrounded by all those crystals and the relics of the celebrity she thought she’d be, the money all dried up and the paparazzi not as eager as they once were — it’s got to feel like a far-off dream, that time when she fancied herself a pop star and spent all that money making an album. Nobody cared about Superficial when it was released, and nobody really cares today. But what makes Superficial so irresistible is that it’s an authentic reflection of the artist’s persona. Montag’s album is expensive and disposable, and so was she.