Can Toni Braxton un-break her career?

After a few false starts, Maryland-born R&B singer plots a musical comeback via reality TV

  • Singer Toni Braxton, Tamar Braxton, Evelyn Braxton, Traci Braxton, Towanda Braxton and Trina Braxton arrive at the celebration for the new WE tv series "Braxton Family Values" last week at The London Hotel in West Hollywood, Calif.
Singer Toni Braxton, Tamar Braxton, Evelyn Braxton, Traci… (Charley Gallay, Getty Images )
April 10, 2011|By Erik Maza, The Baltimore Sun

Bret Michaels did it. Bobby Brown did it too, to much less success. So did Paula Abdul. The preferred vehicle for a musical comeback is not on the charts any more but on reality television.

The latest to join that rich tradition is Toni Braxton, the Severn native who was one of the highest-selling artists of the 1990s but has seen her sales droop to dramatic lows, just 145,000 units for last year's "Pulse."

In the last decade she has also taken personal blows, a multimillion-dollar bankruptcy filed earlier this year being the most recent to attract unflattering attention from the tabloids.

The singer says "Braxton Family Values," which premieres Tuesday on We TV and revolves around her life with her sisters, is an attempt to take ownership of her media narrative and return to the spotlight she has ceded to younger stars.

"My sisters kept telling me, come 2011, you have to start telling your story. Everyone knows about your financial woes, your bankruptcies, but they don't know what really happened," she says. "In the end, I'm glad I did it."

The jury is still out on the impact of reality TV on a flagging music career. The path to a comeback is littered with stars who didn't fare much better than a token slot on "Celebrity Apprentice" or "Dancing with the Stars." Tellingly, Braxton's already done the latter. She placed sixth in 2008, bested by Cloris Leachman.

Makeba Riddick — the recently Grammy-nominated Baltimore songwriter who worked on Braxton's "Pulse" album — says it's her best bet.

"It's just where we are. Everything is reality TV," she says. "I think with Toni, it's helping her to get her audience back, to keep her relevant."

Advertised as an intimate look at Braxton's life, "sibling rivalry, man drama, bankruptcy, a DUI and much more," the show delivers on that premise.

In the first episode Traci, Towanda, Tamar, Trina and Evelyn, the family matriarch, squabble, sun-tan, toast champagne, and lounge on the private plane they've rented to fly to the Bermudas.

Tamar shows herself to be a student of the genre. She shrieks and pouts and generally plays the part of histrionic diva better than Countess LuAnn de Lesseps herself.

We TV, which has taken a page out of the Bravo handbook, has been building up its reality TV programming and was looking for a follow-up to their just-finished Joan and Melissa Rivers show.

John Miller, a senior vice president, said the network was attracted to the show because of the backstage dynamic of the sisters.

"Our series showcase women in real-life situations with all the raw emotion and chaos that comes with it," he wrote via email.

Mainly set in Atlanta, the show is less interested in the music. When Braxton does sing in the first episode, it's a modest coda after an hour of the typical sturm und drang of the genre.

It finds the singer far from the stratospheric heights of the '90s, when she was a musical supernova, on par with Madonna and Mariah Carey at dominating the radio waves.

Guided by mega producers L.A. Reid and Babyface, she created a unique blend of R&B and pop that broke through the pop-dominated charts of the time.

"Whitney was doing straight pop. Then you had other artists, like Mary J. Blige, who was straight R&B, very urban," Riddick says. "Toni bridged those two."

The new sound was combined with her voice, a sultry, almost hushed alto that lent songs like "Un-Break my Heart" a quiet drama, but that also surprised listeners by hitting sky-high notes.

"The singing that everyone's raving about today, the Jennifer Hudsons, Fantasias?" says Gail Mitchell, senior R&B editor at Billboard magazine. "That's what Toni was doing in the '90s in the wake of Whitney and other real singing singers."

Braxton's self-titled album spent three weeks atop the R&B/hip-hop albums chart. And over the course of the decade, she had four No. 1's on that chart and five top-10 albums on the Billboard 200, Mitchell notes.

But the last decade has been criminal on her personal and professional life, as she allows in the show's opening close-up. She filed for a second bankruptcy, discovered that one of her sons is autistic and separated from her husband.

She's also says she's been affected by health issues — a heart condition and lupus — that prevented her from furthering her career and committing to projects.

"My career is on hiatus by choice," she says. "I don't look at it as a low point. In any career there's ups and downs. It's been a really tough three years."

Even before that, she was at a generational impasse. Like many '90s contemporaries — Janet Jackson, Boys II Men, among them — she wasn't able to transition to the 2000s with the same strength.

In fact, since 2000's "Heat," which moved 2 million copies, she's been shedding listeners by the millions. Her follow-up to that album sold 243,000 copies, and last year's "Pulse" sold 145,000, a career low, according to Nielsen Soundscan

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