Tracking Down is a Stereogum franchise in which we talk to artists who have been out of the spotlight for a minute.
Like a lot of famous pop stars, Tiffany Darwish began her career expecting to perform one genre and was pushed toward another. A huge country and rock ‘n’ roll fan, the ’80s mall-pop staple began courting record-label deals when she was just 14. But The Powers That Be didn’t know how to promote a rock or country singer who, as she recalls, “wasn’t old enough to get into a rock club.”
So her label suggested a first-of-its-kind marketing stunt: a mall tour. Other teenage girls liked to hang out there, so why not go straight to the source? The Beautiful You: Celebrating The Good Life Shopping Mall Tour ’87 proved undeniably successful, launching Darwish’s career with a synth-spangled cover of Tommy James & The Shondells’ 1967 hit “I Think We’re Alone Now” and its follow-up, “Could’ve Been,” both of which went to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Meanwhile, Darwish’s “I Think We’re Alone Now” music video captured that mall-tour magic, with the red-haired singer shimmying on a series of makeshift stages and palling around with the road crew behind the scenes. By today’s standards, Darwish’s shopping center romp looks rather amateur, but it ultimately laid the groundwork for promoting dozens of future rising pop stars: *NSYNC, Britney Spears, Jessica Simpson, and 98 Degrees all wove their way through the suburban mall circuit on their way up in the late ’90s.
Later, in the aughts, “I Think We’re Alone Now” earned a sitcom spoof in How I Met Your Mother, in which one of the show’s main characters, Robin Scherbatsky, used to be a bubblegum-pop singer called “Robin Sparkles” with a hideously on-the-nose single called “Let’s Go To The Mall.” Darwish thought her ’80s doppelganger was hilarious; later in the series she even made a cameo in the video for Robin Sparkles’ second single, “Sandcastles In The Sand.”
Today, Darwish is proud to say that she alone decides the direction of her music — this past fall she released her 10th studio album, Pieces Of Me, which showcases her beloved country-rock roots. In the spring she’ll embark on the Mixtape Tour, an ’80s nostalgia tour featuring era-specific acts like New Kids On The Block, Naughty By Nature, Debbie Gibson, and Salt-N-Pepa.
Below, Darwish opens up about her reluctant turn as a teen icon, finding her voice on Pieces Of Me, and why she still loves to sign records in brick-and-mortar record stores.
STEREOGUM: Congrats on the new album!
TIFFANY: Thank you. I’m very very happy. It’s getting great reviews. It’s a busy time. It’s like all of these things came to be at once. Me and my little staff, we’re just running through the fire to make it all happen. When the [Mixtape Tour] news came from the New Kids, it definitely made everything a little crazier, but it’s going to be great. The tour’s going to be awesome.
STEREOGUM: Since you mentioned it, I’d love to know how you got involved in the Mixtape Tour.
TIFFANY: Gosh, for me and the New Kids, the fans have been asking us to do something together again for probably over 20 years. There probably hasn’t really been a day that it’s not on social media. Or back then, [requests] came through fan mail, or just with fans alone, asking me. And I know that they’ve asked the New Kids over and over as well. So for the fans, this is a dream come true. I’m really excited about it.
I was just with [NKOTB] at the Apollo, and I had never been there before. It’s a beautiful theater. It was really cool just to be on the side of the stage and watch them sing. They did all the Hangin’ Tough album — the first half — and it was really cool because that’s the album. That was the first tour with us together. Night after night I would go up there and watch them sing, especially my favorite songs. It was kind of like my childhood a little bit again, like old-school. I really was a mess that night, I was tearing up a little bit, just kinda takin’ me back.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, so you guys really share a history, huh?
TIFFANY: Yeah, I mean, I’m the one who put them on the road. I know they were struggling, as I heard the story later on. It’s hard, I mean it’s still hard. So they signed with my agent to start doing live shows.
They came backstage that day, and I didn’t have an opening act, and they rose to the occasion. I always say, had it not been their willingness to [be my opening act], I might’ve missed a total opportunity. Just them saying, “Okay!” Thanks for life. It was meant to be.
STEREOGUM: In a way that reminds me of Britney Spears being paired with *NSYNC at the beginning of their career.
TIFFANY: Yeah, I mean Britney and *NSYNC were managed by the same people, and so that makes sense. That’s just kind of corporate putting everything together. But I think what happened with me and the New Kids is very, very organic. I was the artist who made the decision. It made me feel very good, like I took a chance and look what great things happened with it.
STEREOGUM: Absolutely. And I could see how the pop-music machine of the ’90s left little room for spontaneity, as opposed to what you experienced a decade earlier. From your perspective, what were some other major differences you’ve noticed in the way pop singers were marketed in the ’80s vs. today?
TIFFANY: I think now we spin a lot of stuff — what’s she wearing, or who she’s dating — you know, things like that, to work some records. Which is cool, but it can be kind of frustrating. It’s like … stick to the music. I think sometimes the music isn’t really as strong as it used to be.
I still miss the big lead-up to things. You know, you saw a billboard of Michael Jackson on Sunset, and you knew in three months they’ll have a whole album out. You had to have patience, you had to wait for stuff.
But I do love the social-media aspect of working records nowadays. You can do a video and put it up on social media and people check you out who would never check you out before. I think it’s much cooler that you can just get the product right to the fans.
Corporate [also] got a little more difficult. Sometimes I think a lot of people [in the music industry] don’t even love it, and that’s the problem. It’s just a job [to them].
You can feel that as an artist when you’re in a room full of people discussing a project. It’s like the lights aren’t on. I think before, in the ’80s, I [admired artists like] Janis Joplin, Zeppelin, Stevie Nicks, people back then in the ’70s that were getting record deals, and every rep was on fire about music — if they didn’t want to be a musician themselves because they just didn’t have this true talent. They wanted people to have careers, and I think it’s a little different now.
Nobody really talks about careers. As long as they can get a hit, everybody’s feeling fine. But nobody really looks at the album as a whole anymore. Kind of a bummer, really.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, the album today — at least in popular music — feels a little bit perfunctory. It’s fallen out of favor compared to promoting tour dates and streaming singles.
TIFFANY: Right, it’s just it’s a different mentality now. I mean, I still love some of the old-school techniques. I don’t think they ever go away. Right now I’m doing in-store signings at [British music store] HMV. And we don’t do that in America anymore because we don’t have any record stores.
STEREOGUM: I haven’t been to the UK in a minute — are there really still HMV stores in business?
TIFFANY: Yeah, they’re in all of the major marketplaces like Manchester and Birmingham and London and places like that.
STEREOGUM: I bet your fans, especially the ones who love your “I Think We’re Alone Now” video, must really get a kick out of meeting you in a retail environment.
TIFFANY: Oh, they do. And I push really hard for it because those are my fans. They do like a little bit old-school. They do remember that kind of stuff. It makes them feel like they’re a part of something, and then getting the album quickly signed and buying it right there.
STEREOGUM: So listen, obviously I can’t let this interview end without talking about How I Met Your Mother.
TIFFANY: Yeah. So I’m a fan of the show, first of all. And Robin Sparkles obviously is kind of a thrill to Tiffany. I got a kick out of that. She had such great style all the time. I was a little envious! Looking back at old-school pictures, I never had a hair or makeup person. I wasn’t required to wear a lot of hair and makeup. I was never really allowed to do that because it was the image.
So behind the scenes I was kind of experimenting a little bit. But any time I would get somebody professional to do my hair and makeup, it seemed like they got crazy creative, like crimping. I don’t know, just awful hairstyles. I’m so over it, but Robin Sparkles had a cute wardrobe. It was like, a better Tiffany. I love it.
STEREOGUM: What did you get to do on this album that perhaps you hadn’t gotten a chance to on previous releases?
TIFFANY: Well, I grew up listening to Stevie Nicks and Led Zeppelin. Those were always my influences. Even when I started getting record deals or going around and doing demos, I went from country music, which was my parents. They love country music. I went to Nashville when I was 10. Tried to get a record deal. Everybody was like, “You’re 10, it’s not gonna happen, come back later.”
When I got a record deal, [I started] doing pop. It was the age thing. Everybody loved my voice in that genre, but I was just 14, [and record execs said], “We can’t possibly promote that. You’re not even old enough to be in a rock club.” Actually, when I released “I Think We’re Alone Now” they started sending me to clubs in New York, and we had the same problem. The project almost died.
So that’s how the mall tour came. But really it’s always been inside of me, to have more of a rock base. That’s always been my vision. It’s taken me a long time to get back here. We tried a lot of things over the years with different producers that never saw the light of day.
I’m not a one-hit wonder who got lucky. This really is my life. I was born with this talent, and this is what I meant to be. I’m totally grateful.
I desperately wanted to make another record, but I had actually given up a little bit of hope that I was ever going to find somebody that would really listen to my thoughts. Because again, you know, I tried rock but it always got watered down to pop. It was always like, I don’t want to say cutting corners, but, “Be this vision of Tiffany,” you know, right back to Pop Girl.
I think with this album, it was an organic experience. My tour manager, Mark Alberici, he’s a producer and has his own band. We were just discussing music. I said something about making an album, and he was like, “Why don’t you make the album you want to make?” There’s always been a lot of things in my head, like, “Well, I can’t do this because of this or I can’t do this because of that.” But life is short. Do what you want to do.
STEREOGUM: I think it’s great that you’re simultaneously working towards the sound that you always wanted to have and still engaging with fans who connected with your ’80s pop roots.
TIFFANY: Oh yeah. I mean, the system doesn’t change. What I learned in the ’80s still works, it’s simple. I think the fans, they just want that personal contact, they want that time with you. They want to see that spark in your eyes when you’re excited about things. And I don’t think that fans mind if you grow a little bit, as long as long as you keep that foundation and you don’t try to run away from it.
You’ll never come to a show where I won’t sing “I Think We’re Alone Now.” Even though now my stuff is a little bit more rock-based. We’ve reworked some of [my older] songs to give them a bit of an updated edge without messing with them. I don’t want people to come to my show and go, “I can’t wait for ‘I Think We’re Alone Now’ and then it comes out and it doesn’t sound anything like ‘I Think We’re Alone Now.'”
I’m very sensitive to that because again, I’m a music lover and I buy tickets to concerts, and I’m that fan that sits there and waits for something, and if it’s not the same or they don’t play it, I’m heartbroken. I’m not down with that at all. “I Think We’re Alone Now,” “Could’ve Been,” they’re great songs. I’m lucky to have them in my life.