tupid Al Gore movie, I spent my whole damn summer inside. But I got to listen to a bunch of music, so I thought I’d sort out the best and worst and most OK teenpop releases of the summer and early fall. (A few of these are old, but if I hadn’t heard them before June or so, they counted.) For those of you wondering why this hasn’t been tucked away in the Pop Playground
section, let’s just say that the editors think that this is the most important
music being written about these days that also happened to be available at the last minute to fill the weekly article space.
If you’re actually only here to try to win a free copy of the Hollywood Records Girl Next
compilation—featuring, as far as I know, the only version of Hannah Montana’s “Best of Both Worlds” to be released on CD thus far, scroll ahead for the first ever Sugar Shock teenPOP Quiz
“Best of Both Worlds”
“Pumping Up the Party”
“I Got Nerve”
Those Disney bastards will milk every penny out of Hannah Montana before they actually release the soundtrack—already we have four singles, two of which are available on iTunes and two of which are presumably forthcoming, and no sign of an album until late October. Miley has the same chameleonic charm of Hilary Duff with a slight pop-country edge, not enough to make it country per se, but more in conversation with it than any of her Mouske-peers. From worst to best, “Pump Up the Party” is lacking in ideas and enthusiasm: the best they do is some squelchy bass and squealing synths fighting atop funkless party music. “Who Said” isn’t quite as theme songy or as strong as “Best of Both Worlds,” but the two are at about the same level of inflatable-guitar fun. “Who Said” offers chirpy empowerment (“Who said I can’t be Superman? / I say that I know I can!”) and “Best of Both Worlds” is a lighthearted capsule review of the show’s premise. “I Got Nerve,” the most recent single, is the best Miley has had to offer so far—it’s the closest she’s come to a Duff-level hit, reminiscent of Hilary’s “The Math.” None of this will likely break through to a non-Disney audience—and if High School Musical
is any indication, that’s still enough for triple platinum status. Hannah has quickly catapulted to non-stop airplay in Disney’s parallel media universe; that’s enough reason to listen for thirty seconds, about as long as you’ll need to linger before you hear one of these songs.
Fefe Dobson – Sunday Love
In the grand tradition of good teenpop artists getting screwed by dumbass major labels, Fefe Dobson just got dropped by Island with an album so ready to be released that it accidentally shipped to several Target stores across the country. The copy I ordered never made it here and I may never possess it. But before I left on my cross-country Target search to find a copy of Fefe’s album (and pick up a copy of Disneymania 4
with the hidden Skye Sweetnam track), I remembered that I could download most of it off the internets. Comments:
1) It’s good. The punk/pop stuff (“As a Blonde,” “If I Was a Guy,” “Initiator”) works better than the ballads. “Don’t Let It Go to Your Head” is a great single, but I’m not sure it’s a very good Fefe Dobson single—her voice fights the schmaltzy touches in the arrangement, and the chorus is a little too close to Matrix schlub-anthem hack mode, like that Ashley Parker Angel song I hate. “This Is My Life” is a little better (especially when it picks up at the chorus), she’s not so much at odds with the accompaniment, but it’s still restricting her energy and attitude a little.
2) She’s still really funny. From “If I Was a Guy”: “If I was a guy / I’d be my biggest fan / I’d be the skinny lead singer in a garage band / YEAH!” In this one, like a few other tracks, she’s got a garage/bubblegum spirit, “Gimme gimme gimme gimme gimme gimme some of your love / I’d be the only one, girl, that you’d be thinkin’ of.” And she even does an Ashlee-level bait n’ switch on “Get You Off”: “I would do anything to get you off…to get you off my back!”
3) Overall, it’s about as uneven and even more all over the place stylistically than her debut with no surprise mind-blowers like “Unforgiven” (yet) and nothing quite as sharp and hilarious as “Stupid Little Love Song” or as nasty as “Bye Bye Boyfriend.” She’s playing to an arena, lots of power-solos and shout-alongs, but generally the ballads and quieter tracks aren’t quite clicking with her aggressive personality. I still haven’t heard it all, but I get the sense that this could have been (and hopefully someday will be) great.
Hilary Duff – “Play with Fire”
While Miley tries to nab her Mickey Mouse ears tiara, Hilary adamantly refuses to be usurped, but can’t help herself from “growing up” a little—which means it’s time for some semi-sophisticated Kylie dance-pop! It’s sufficiently hot but maybe too amorphous for the Disney kids, who know an unstoppable parent-repellant hook when they hear one. I doubt this will do too poorly on TRL, but, barring a massive PR push or the changing tastes of the 6-14 demographic (neither of which is all that improbable), this is doomed just about everywhere else. Hilary is currently holing up with Kara DioGuardi in the studio and, apparently, trying something new, unlike anything she’s done before. I can’t imagine her doing anything else.
Kristy Frank – Freedom
Hannah Montana is busy ushering in the era of bubblecountry over on Radio Disney— which has yet to find much room for country crossovers (almost everything is in-house these days anyway)—and Kristy Frank is bringing some twang to otherwise standard-issue bubblegum teenrock. At fifteen, Kristy already has a huge voice that can drive home a great single like “Girls Like Me” (written by Nina Ossoff, of “That’s What Girls Do” fame) or a lite acoustic lighter-waver like “Unattached” or a pop anthem like “Freedom,” or negative self-image lament like “Bittersweet 16.” There’s no unifying style, no wishy-washy singer/songwriter aspirations, and, most importantly, no chaff.
Girl Authority – Girl Authority
Cluelessness begets wtf-pop, so it’s a shame that the target audience probably won’t fully understand or appreciate how bonkers this compilation of girls ages 8-13 singing modern and retro pop classics is—way moreso than Kidz Bop
, which tends to cop out with adult ringers. “Hollaback Girl” in its own special way bests Gwen’s version by stripping its cool down to nothing and reconstructing it as the geeky hyperactive kiddie anthem it was always meant to be. But there isn’t much else that really lives up to its promise, in part because so many of the selections don’t leave much room for going B-A-N-A-N-A-S. There’s some fun with performer mismatching, like a squeaky cover of “Breakaway” (which is too earnestly sung to be much more than strange), and there’s some fun with age mismatching, like a nine-year-old getting some questionable dating advice in “Shop Around”—too soon, mama! But overall the album alternates between competent copycat jobs and misguided head-smackers (useful at least for teaching toddlers how to navigate scattershot albums in the age of the iPod). It’s worth checking out, if only for “Hollaback Girl,” which is totally B-A-T-S-H-I-T.
Paris Hilton – Paris
Paris is a spiritual cousin of teenpop without being teenpop per se; demographically she has the crossover potential of the Veronicas (not Disney-approved) or the Pussycat Dolls (approved, but neutered—strictly “PCD”). Paris has become a receptacle for the projected guilt and scorn of those who are drawn to or disdain (often both) the tabloids. Paris does junk culture bigger than anyone else, so she gets bigger knee-jerk reactions just for existing—she’s a heel, a mascot of capitalist excess (or something). But on record she’s modest, unassuming, occasionally vulnerable but charmingly anonymous, provided you can divorce the album from her public image. But that’s impossible, and it’s one reason why this album is so provocative to discuss on top of being so much fun to listen to. It’s Paris running through the best pop funhouse that her money could buy (well, someone’s money had to buy it, right?), but her voice and barely-there presence weirdly hold it all together and make it distinctive. The army-of-Paris multi-track vocal approach is captivating, even if it proves that she’s not a diva; you get the sense that a diva couldn’t do this music—rich but lighthearted, frivolous without seeming slight—justice so effortlessly. I’m glad Paris did it instead, if only as a reminder that using her as a symbolic punching bag won’t solve any of the world’s problems—especially if those problems can’t even be articulated by the punchers. Paris the heel yawns in their faces, while Paris the pop star invites and/or dares them to listen and try to enjoy themselves anyway.
Jonas Brothers – It’s About Time
The Jonas Brothers, described over on the I Love Music teenpop thread as “boys-who-sing-like-girls pop,” have a penchant for Busted covers and a couple of killer bubblegum pop-punk tunes. As far as boy bands go, they’re not exactly Hanson, but barely tough enough for tweens. In their first single, “Mandy,” the Jonases refer to “all those boy bands” mockingly, but in “Year 3000”—amended to include a shout-out to Kelly Clarkson, queen of teenpop’s new guard—they enthusiastically reaffirm a future full of BSBs (“and another one, and another one, and another one!”). Which makes opener “That’s What I Go to School For” a pledge of allegiance of sorts, and not just to Busted: the Jonas Bros. are unequivocally boy band, despite their modest protests that they, in fact, PLAY THEIR OWN INSTRUMENTS. But so did Hanson and BBMak and lesser-known former Radio Disney faves like Swirl 360, who probably also fought the tag. And if the Jonas Brothers were brave enough to really throw themselves into everything they unconvincingly claim they aren’t (more boys who sing like girls), they’d probably have a real winner.
Cheyenne Kimball – The Day Has Come
I’m convinced Cheyenne’s being marketed as the anti-Ashlee, which makes me resent her on principle. But the music, Sheryl Crow-like teenpop-cum-adult-contempo, is harmless—it’s the idea
that bugs me. The assumption here is that Cheyenne, at one time one of America’s Most Talented Kids, is a “real” artist: she writes her own songs and plays the guitar and is generally safe and tepid enough to prove that she must be running the show. Of course she isn’t: Kara DioGuardi, Raine Maida, and assorted pros offer generally sub-par co-material. DioGuardi, also a producer, has been toying with “real” teenpop in Platinum Weird, an elaborate hoax in which she’s featured as a replacement stand-in for the fictional “long lost classic rock star” Erin Grace. But Platinum Weird achieves the opposite of Cheyenne Kimball, who has been marketed to teenpop’s inside audience—PW brings its teenpop aesthetic to the VH1 masses, thus potentially converting parents to Ashlee-rock. Judged against her peers, Cheyenne ultimately sticks out as uniquely mediocre, even if the album isn’t without its moments. “One Original Thing” was good on the Aquamarine
soundtrack, and a few others, including the title track and DioGuardi-penned “Hello Goodbye,” almost have enough hooks to compensate for Cheyenne’s personality deficiencies. But for the most part, the only thing going for The Day Has Come
is America’s Most Talented Kid’s talent, which isn’t enough in the cutthroat world of fake pop.
Lillix – Inside the Hollow
Lillix’s move from the Shanks-angst confessional rock of Falling Uphill
to the Killers nu-wave confessional rock of Inside the Hollow
is the musical equivalent of a makeover. The results are crisper-sounding and generally more memorable; the highs are much higher, and the lows aren’t particularly low, mostly sub-Shanks throwbacks and new wave noodling. And there are some wonderful surprises, like how in “Little Things” they sorta remind me of a disco-rock/girl-pop Spoon, and how “Got Off Easy” pales in comparison to “Sweet Temptation” but still manages to be better than most of the Killers I’ve heard, and how “Doughnut” (supposedly code for “Duncan,” a hockey player ex who became the subject of Lacey-Lee Evin’s scorn) carefully fuses together its building nervous verses and soaring chorus until Lacey-Lee just throws up her arms and sings “Asshole! Asshole! Asshole!” to the guy, like she knows there’s nowhere else for them or the song to go.
Meg and Dia – Something Real
They may not be the first teenpop act to make literary references, but they’re probably the first to require Cliff’s Notes, and I still don’t know where half these lyrics are (allegedly) coming from. Anyway, it’s Meg and Dia’s powerful melodies and self-proclaimed “edgy pop” angst-guitars and solid arrangements that hit home. Meg, who wrote the group’s eloquent one-sheet, is right in listing “really old, classy fairy-tale stuff” as an influence—and here M&D; aren’t exactly unprecedented: a few post-Avril types, like the underrated Katy Rose, infuse straightforward diary angst with imaginative storytelling and poetry, which sometimes can be more effective than wearing your heart on your sleeve. Meg and Dia do both, and, depending on my mood, I want it to be more direct or more veiled—first single “Monster” is musically powerful but lyrically cryptic, too hesitant to expose its real underlying violence, which would require toning the fairytale ambience down a notch. But it also shows that Meg and Dia aren’t afraid to take chances, and when it works—like on “Indiana,” the album’s highlight—their songs have an elegant lyricism and musical drive that reinvigorates what basically amounts to a harder take on confessional rock, still weary from Ashlee backlash and the dreaded return of the “real” (like “real boring”) to follow. They’re ahead of the curve because they know how to chase love and literature and other lofty ideas with strong, unpretentious music, perhaps to the detriment of the words, which tend to fly by while the melodies connect instead.
Katie Neil – EP
On her new EP, no-label MySpacer Katie Neil
offers a great ex kiss-off single (“Stupid Ex Boyfriend”), a touching Matrix-lilt ballad about coming-of-age hardships (“You’re Not the Only One”), and between them a handful of inspired sugar-punk tracks and pocket power ballads that puts her in good company with artists like Fefe Dobson and Skye Sweetnam. In the enormous field of self-distributed teenpop, Katie Neil stands out; music like this makes me further believe the hype surrounding sites like MySpace and CDBaby, whose impact on music right now is staggering (and Katie Neil herself hasn’t gone unnoticed; iTunes, which recently added some of her songs, and a number of other sites mark the convergence of independent distribution and burgeoning mainstream success). My hope is that there are a hundred acts out there waiting to be found that are as consistently on-target, an army of great basement artists who keep the teenpop underground vital, exciting, rewarding.
Ashlee Simpson – “Sweet Dreams” (Live)
The only show I managed to see this summer was Ashlee Simpson and Ashley Parker Angel, minus the Veronicas who canceled a string of tour dates with the Ashes. Ashlee was in near-top form, a little flat on the ballads but clearly out to prove herself after her career-damaging lip-syncing incident. She’s a goofball live, with between-song stage patter that makes her sound nervous or ditzy or drunk, or all of the above, and a way of jig-dancing around the stage that looks partially choreographed. “Sweet Dreams” was a brief, enjoyable interlude, playful and faithful to the original. This particular performance made a few things clear: 1) Annie Lennox may be overtaking Alanis Morissette as the new bedrock teenpop referent (…nah, but she does come shining through in Stefy’s “Chelsea” from the John Tucker Must Die
soundtrack), and 2) Ashlee is stuck in dress-up mode; she can’t pull off glitzy theatricality or a costume change-heavy spectacle convincingly.
For “Sweet Dreams” she donned a top hat (in other performances she drapes herself in a long veil) and slinked across the stage, but Ashlee trying to be sexy basically amounts to Ashlee hamming it up for the crowd—she can’t do it without betraying a certain discomfort, or at least exuding silliness, in ostentation and pageantry. I think that’s a good
thing, because I don’t think that Ashlee has it in her to be that sort of pop diva. She’s created something far more interesting for herself, something that’s dependent on how she puts forward her personality; she’s like the inverse of Hilary Duff, completely unable to absorb or conform to a style, turning everything she does into a strain of Ashlee-rock (including her cover of “Why Don’t You Do Right,” played fast and almost entirely sapped of swing, and performed devoid of chanteuse sensuality). So I’m worried that, in an effort to regain her audience (whomever that includes; the show I was at was populated mostly by 12-18 year-old-girls with a smattering of college and post-college types at the bar and parents toward the back), she might turn toward material that would require a sort of willful performer anonymity that doesn’t suit her style. She can do (and has done) dance-pop and disco and rock, but only as Ashlee; and if it’s Ashlee herself that so many have rejected (everyone at the under half-capacity show went nuts for a few numbers, especially “L.O.V.E,” but how much enthusiasm was for the songs and how much was for the singer remained unclear—Ashley Parker Angel was received more shrilly, but most of the audience was swooning over him), I wonder how she’ll ever come back.
And now without further ado, swag! Email your answers to the editor
, four top scores (or first four top scores) win their very own copy of Girl Next
! Googlers will be shot.
SUGAR SHOCK teenPOP QUIZ!
01. Which Huckapoo member rides a motorcycle?
A. Angel Sparks
B. Groovy Tuesday
C. P.J. Bardot
D. Joey Thunders
E. Twiggy Stardom
02. Which of the following Swirl 360’s charted on Radio Disney?
A. “Year 3000”
B. “Kitty Kat Max”
C. “Hey Now Now”
D. “Shake a Tail Feather”
E. “Candy in the Sun”
03. Skye Sweetnam was enrolled in “Pop Star Camp” against her will. The camp she would have preferred was:
A. Theater camp
B. Snowboarding camp
C. Surfing camp
D. Guitar camp
E. Skye would have preferred to stay inside playing X-Box all summer.
04. Which teenpop star is the oldest?
A. Fefe Dobson
C. Hilary Duff
D. Ashlee Simpson
05. “Aliana” is the first name of which singer’s little singer?
A. Lindsay Lohan
B. Lisa Origliasso
C. Britney Spears
D. Jesse McCartney
E. Miley Cyrus