Sugar Shock #006: Screwed: The Lost World of Shelved Teenpop
etting screwed over by a major label: it’s a venerable tradition in all genres of music, and teenpop is no exception. This year, the Jonas Brothers, Christina Milian, and Fefe Dobson were all victims of major label fickleness (Island didn’t even release Dobson’s excellent sophomore album), while Ashlee Simpson, Paris Hilton, and Lindsay Lohan have floundered (poor ticket sales, poor album sales, and label falling-out/general chaos, respectively). It’s actually difficult to think of many teenpop acts that haven’t had a tough time on a major. Most teenpop is somewhat audience-ambiguous, so achieving immediate results for a big label and establishing longevity with a clearly defined audience can be difficult. And even securing one (the Jonas Brothers established a solid Disney following) doesn’t guarantee the other. Maybe Hollywood Records or some other philanthropic label could open up shelters for struggling artists (The Hope Partlow Home for the Temporarily Indie), but until then, these artists are stuck in the lost world of shelved and neglected teenpop.
Hollywood Records itself has been known neglect artists on its roster, particularly before the label became Disney’s stronghold for homegrown talent. Toronto artist Alexandra Slate received a limited release of her 2003 debut Edge of the Girl, but the record fizzled in the absence of a concentrated PR push. The album—produced by Rob Cavallo of Green Day (and more recently Paris Hilton and My Chemical Romance) fame—is pretty good, lots of angst-rock in the Lillix (circa Falling Uphill) model with vocals closer to Aimee Mann, an occasional catchy pop-punk tune, and a few sleepy singer/songwriter ballads that are boring-but-pretty enough not to completely bog things down.
Had her album been released only a year later, Slate may or may not have been automatically plugged into a trial run on Radio Disney, which is now a required launching point for most of Hollywood’s artists. But even now, a post-Hilary Hollywood artist like Caleigh Peters, an Avril-lite hopeful and Barbara Streisand’s goddaughter, can fall through the cracks—ultimately, deck-stacking doesn’t guarantee success. Currently, the only place to hear Slate’s new music is her MySpace page (featured in a previous column), unless you track her to the Toronto coffeehouses from whence she came.
Alexandra Slate isn’t alone; the list of ill-fated Disney-associated artists is long and includes Disney Channel wannabes (Cavallo-produced Lalaine from Lizzie McGuire, Anneliese Van Der Pol from That’s So Raven), specially manufactured and therefore disposable entities (Zetta Bytes), and a large cast of outside acts (Fan_3, Cooler Kids, Hoku). The most notable of the latter category is probably Huckapoo, a girl group consisting of five Spice Girl-esque character types, which existed as an “artist’s conception” (and a securely copyrighted entity) before the group was even formed.
After the producers held a national talent search for real-life members, Huckapoo began appearing on Disney compilations. Details of the group’s short-lived original line-up are sketchy: Their original lead singer was featured only once, on their early single “Perfectly” from Disney’s Pixel Perfect soundtrack. (Songwriter Jessica Harp—no stranger to major label woes herself before joining Michelle Branch in the country duo the Wreckers—has a demo version available at her website.) A reformed Huckapoo with a fairly egalitarian lead singer policy then recorded an entire album, plus a bonus album’s worth of B-sides, that garnered zero interest from distributors and is still officially unreleased.
Part of the problem was bad timing. Huckapoo formed after Avril Lavigne and Michelle Branch initiated the paradigm shift to confessional rock and about a year before the second wave led by Kelly Clarkson and Ashlee Simpson. But Huckapoo is good old-fashioned dorky kid-pop that might have fit into a more flexible early 00s Radio Disney lineup alongside acts like No Secrets and Nobody’s Angel. The group is still around and kicking, and Radosh.net offers the best up-to-date Huckapoo coverage on the web: Recently, biker chick Angel Sparks left the group to pursue other interests, but the rest of the group has embarked on its film career, including an accidental cameo in crossword documentary Wordplay and a featured role in Doubting Thomas, a movie which co-stars Shawn Rider of Boy Meets World fame.
During the peak and eventual ebb of the first teenpop boom, labels like Jive and DreamWorks were responsible for mishandling their fair share of promising acts, too. Carter family sibling Leslie followed brothers Nick and Aaron into a teenpop career in 2001 at age 13 with a full-length scheduled for release on DreamWorks. Instead, after a seemingly nightmarish series of events during the recording process, it was unceremoniously shelved, and Leslie Carter abandoned her teenpop career. At the time, Metal Mike Saunders reviewed the album and commented on the tumultuous recording process in a 2002 Village Voice article, including this description of a video shoot for “Like Wow!” (the album’s only released single):
All heck had broken loose (between the video production company reps, label A&R; reps, the singer’s handlers, and the video director in charge himself) when Leslie showed up with “issues” (namely, she was real-life chunky à la latter-day Nick Carter, instead of wannabe ChristinaBritney twiglike). After a grueling day of endless takes nearing the eight hours permitted by child labor laws, a cautionary tale of why 14-year-olds maybe shouldn’t be aspiring pop stars doing a $350K video shoot unraveled like the cheapest suit you ever bought at JC Penney’s: “You wouldn’t believe what’s going on up there. It’s surreal. I mean, Leslie, she doesn’t even want to be here. It’s all the mother. They keep having Leslie try on outfits, and all Leslie keeps saying is, ‘When can we go? I want to go home.’ And Goldie [the A&R; man]’s up there saying, ‘Think urban.’ Urban! Leslie Carter’s from Orlando. She’s not urban!”The album, of which only a few promos remain, has essentially vanished, but the “Like Wow!” single is still widely available and both the Carter family drama and Leslie Carter’s solo career live on. The Carter children have reunited for a reality show on E! and Leslie is in a new pop-punk band called the Other Half. All Leslie updates are available on what I’m assuming is her legit personal MySpace page, where she continues to write about her various issues, most recently defending Nick and Aaron against online bullies. Aaron doesn’t do coke (it’s just severe acid reflux) and Nick isn’t gay, just sensitive.
And so symbolically ended the 1997-Y2K pop era, with the next star-in-grooming saying in the back room: F* this, I want to go home (which she did, just after the video wrapped).
The queen of shelved teenpop comes from Jive, once the undisputed dominant teenpop label. Melissa Lefton is a progenitor of what I’ve started calling “post-teenpop,” which embraces a distinctly teenpop aesthetic with an added wink giving the music self-conscious “edge.” It’s not much of a genre, but a few recent acts fall into this category, like Shut Up Stella (featuring rapper Fan_3) and Betty Curse. It’s not clear to me who the audience for this kind of music is, since it seems to require a listener’s simultaneous honest enjoyment and measured disdain (e.g., being asked to choose between “real” Shut Up Stella and “fake” Lindsay Lohan, just as Melissa Lefton was once pegged as the “anti-Britney”). But they both have major label deals and I suppose they couldn’t do much worse than Fefe Dobson or Lillix or Hope Partlow or Rose Falcon or Katy Rose or…
Anyway, Melissa Lefton was actually a two-time victim: Her first band’s major label debut was never released, and then Jive shelved Melicious, her official solo bid for teenpop stardom. You can still find Melicious if you snoop around for it, and like everything else on this list, it’s worth the effort spent. Occasionally smug or not, the tunes are great, 100% goofy electropop bubblegum. There’s a Melissa Lefton MySpace page with tracks available for download, including her only officially released material, the meta-in-quotes “My Hit Song,” which was destined to live and die by the soundtrack to the Lance Bass vehicle On the Line, and “I Love Life” from the Princess Diaries soundtrack. (Completists need to pick up the Jimmy Neutron OST to find non-album track “He Blinded Me with Science.”) Meanwhile, Lefton has music available from her new band, the Jon Brion-ish sunshine pop group Hello.
Considering the perils of entrusting one’s fate to the whims of a major label, the trend toward celebrity teenpop moonlighting makes sense. Artists whose celebrity status precedes their music careers are exempt from the uncertain fortunes that might otherwise consign them to the lost world. Personally, I take some comfort in the fact that no matter how badly her album tanks, Paris Hilton isn’t screwed. She couldn’t fade into obscurity if she tried.
By: David Moore
Published on: 2006-11-08