Which, come to think of it, may be enough, for everyone involved. By Ben Westhoff Wednesday, Jul 9 2003
-- 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."