New crop of teen singers bares souls, not bellies


The Associated Press dubbed them "anti-Britneys." Time, tongue in cheek, calls them "The Authentic Girls." Total Request Live is giving them lots of face time, almost to the exclusion of the teen-pop starlets who used to dominate MTV's daily viewer poll -- Christina Aguilera and, of course, Britney Spears.

Vanessa Carlton, 21, Michelle Branch, 19, Avril Lavigne, 17, and Lindsay Pagano, 16, each has a hit single and a hot-selling debut album.

None performs the polyurethane dance-pop that has clogged our airspace. Their music is more acoustic-electric than electronic, built around guitar or, in Carlton's case, piano. They do not take dictation from Swedish songwriters-for-hire and did not receive basic training at the Mickey Mouse Club. Most write their own material, or at least participate in the creative process.

These newcomers dress hip-casual, keep their clothes on and make a point of letting audiences know they're all about the music, not haircuts or halter tops. "I've got so much more to say," Lavigne says.

Welcome to the counter-revolution.

The teen-pop backlash was so long in coming, the music industry apparently had time to plan for it and take full ownership of it, with no small amount of help from this new crop of Real Girls, who seem adept at manufacturing themselves to look, well, less manufactured.

For them, being marketed is being real. Watch any one of their videos, and they exude a sense of easy preparedness that Spears, with her beauty-pageant training, has never possessed. There is about these young women an abiding, doubt-free sense of fitness -- rightness -- for public viewing. It's the same quality you see in the contestants on Survivor or on episodes of MTV's Real World. Media savants, they grew up in history's most pop-saturated age, absorbed its customs and methods, and arrived ready for their close-ups. They know they belong.

The eminently likable Pagano is sometimes referred to as the "AOL Girl" because her single, "Everything U R," anchored one of the online service provider's TV campaigns. As poster kids go, she was an inspired choice: Pop-savvy enough to be recruited at age 15 by one of AOL-Time Warner's many music subsidiaries; comfortable in the spotlight; amenable to an experiment in business "synergy" whereby the music unit's product line boosts the online unit's customer base, and vice versa.

Carlton found fame the old-fashioned way -- on MTV. The video for her breathy single, "A Thousand Miles," launched a thousand replays on Top 40 radio and stoked sales of her debut, Be Not Nobody.

If we have genial innocence in Pagano and fumbling poetry from Carlton, we have a different set of cues coming from Branch and Lavigne. They have positioned themselves as the rebels. Lavigne's "Complicated" mocks people she considers posers and joiners, never mind that a career in mainstream media has become the ultimate act of joining.

Branch's single, "All You Wanted," is a straightforward baby-come-back plaint with salable pop jangle, but the Branch persona is all black eyeliner and guitar-wielding disdain.

Still, all bring more than youthful suburban charm to their work. They are remarkably fluent in songwriting of the type that keeps radio focus groups and test audiences jabbing at the "yes" button.

Branch, Lavigne and Pagano have mastered the digestible, lite-rock airwave filler more or less perfected in the '90s by Goo Goo Dolls frontman Johnny Rzeznik. Carlton's provenance is more Bruce Hornsby -- rock-twinged piano pop. All have no doubt received some coaching -- unavoidable for almost anyone under contract to a major label. But what really sets these would-be insurgents apart is how little coaching they appear to need. They must be a low-maintenance joy to their record-company handlers.

The new strain of teen-pop represents credibility because it shows less belly and it writes its own songs -- as if that approach did Hanson any good. The music may be as callow and as dependent on the flattery of television as the most overwrought Spears ballad, but because Branch, et al., wrote it themselves, it means to be regarded more seriously. These women say they have something more vital to communicate than "Hit me, baby, one more time."

Granted, the Branch and Pagano singles are catchy, and if that were all these young women asked of us -- to appreciate them for being catchy -- few would complain. But there is something else being peddled here: the idea that this is some sort of spontaneous uprising, a reassertion of "realness" that must be respected for its independence and integrity. That's a lot of ambition for a flavor of the week. It's almost enough to make you miss Britney.

Sean Piccoli covers pop music for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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