In their 15 minutes of fame (20 days, in actuality) on MTV's Band in the Bubble, Cartel made their way into the living rooms and hearts of teens who wanted to find out what it's like when five individuals from Atlanta stop being polite and start getting real while recording an album in front of 23 webcams. The cast is as follows: Will, the good-guy lead vocalist who downplays his ego despite the fact that all the girls know his lyrics by heart; Kevin, the party-hearty, firecracker drummer who likes having a good time all the time; Joseph, the greasy loner lead guitarist who veers away from the mainstream; Nic, the shy-guy rhythm guitarist with Abercrombie & Fitch looks; and Jeff, the nerdy replacement bassist who overcompensates with 20 tattoos and constant proclamations of his love for beer (when he's not drinking Dr. Pepper as a plug for the sponsor). In the miniseries, the band is promoted like a product made for the 12- to 20-year-old target audience, and yes, the brand...ahem, the band is essentially the emo-punk version of a boy band, but with members who already have a proven chemistry and can actually play their own instruments. The concept is an infallible cash cow and a record exec's dream, since numbers have proven time and time again -- from the Monkees to American Idol -- that artists with televised good looks and winning personalities sell loads of records.
The wrench in the plan is that the material recorded during the band's stint in the clear dome on Pier 54 really isn't all that special. The lyrics are filled with clichés and big hooks that leave all of the songs sounding like blink-182. Everything's slick as possible with extensive layering, pitched vocal treatments, razor guitar distortion, additional drum loops, and walls of keyboards. In a meeting on the first episode, an executive from Epic Records gives advice, suggesting to the band, "You can't have singles, you need a sonic weapon...you have to have an album that from beginning to end is fantastic." After loads of studio trickery, resulting in a glossy sheen and a bonus remix from Wyclef Jean, the outcome is a bland wash. Cartel could be more accurately described as a big-budget version of Chroma. There's not a lot of depth, but that's not a priority when music is created with the goal of becoming fashionable. What's more important here is whether the songs are catchy or not, and the hook of their big single, "Lose It," is immensely hard to shake. Problems aside, their second release serves its purpose and, well, the guys are cute enough to make the teenage girls swoon, so it's possible that they could have a shelf life longer than other MTV reality show creations like O-Town, Da Band, and Danity Kane.