It's bubblegum, but Duff delivers


August 1, 2004

BY JIM DeROGATIS Pop Music Critic

The things parents do for their kids.

This was the thought going through the heads of a quarter of the crowd -- the portion that weren't prepubescent females --before a sold-out show by multi-media teeny-bop sensation Hilary Duff at the Allstate Arena on Friday.

No mom or dad is immune to these sacrifices. Sitting a row ahead of me, just returned from the Democratic National Convention in Boston, was Gov. Blagojevich, accompanying his eight-year-old daughter Amy and a passel of her classmates as a birthday present.

But Duff had a surprise in store for all of us on the far side of adolescence. Not only was she not awful, she was -- dare I say it? -- really very good.

To be sure, the mighty Duff Merchandising Machine is an obnoxious and inescapable force. Her latest film, the dreadful "A Cinderella Story," grossed $30 million in its first 10 days in theaters, and her debut album, 2003's miserable "Metamorphosis," has sold more than 3 million copies.

Between her appearance on stage and the opening set by sister Haylie, we were subjected to video commercials for her next album--"Fly," due on Sept. 28, her 17th birthday -- her concert DVD, the video player she's endorsed, the soundtrack for her current hit film and the trailer for her next movie, "Raise Your Voice," opening Oct. 8. You don't even want to know about the plethora of overpriced concert souvenirs for sale in the lobby.

It would also be highly inaccurate to say that Hilary can sing. At its worst -- during the saccharine ballad "Where Did I Go Right?" -- her voice ranged from squeaky to screechy. At its best -- as on the uplifting, anthemic and mildly rocking hits "Come Clean," "So Yesterday" and "Why Not" -- it was high-school glee-club passable. But that was basically irrelevant.

Quibbling about the depth of Duff's musical abilities is like griping that a sommelier did not appear at the ballpark to recommend the perfect wine to compliment your hot dog. This is bubblegum pop, and talent has nothing to do with it. Personality rules, and Duff has that in spades.

Hilary's handlers have made a conscious, well-calculated and so far very lucrative decision to position her as a clean but spunky teen queen, a role she plays to the hilt, and which contrasts sharply with those ever-skankier, soon to be dethroned competitors, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera.

Carrying a hot-pink microphone, Duff bounded onstage wearing a simple black T-shirt, a not-too-mini black pleather skirt and Converse sneakers, and she didn't change costumes once during the 17-song, 80-minute set. There were no elaborate stage props, fireworks or high-tech gimmicks, just the music. Best of all, there was no pedophiliac-pandering. Duff sang about sex (in PG terms) and exuded a magnetic appeal, but she never played the Lolita card or appeared to be anyone other than herself.

Fronting a pretty kickin' nine-piece band featuring two guitars, bass, drums, keyboards, three backing vocalists and no prerecorded tapes of digital sweetening that I could discern, Duff simply ran around a lot, sweated and occasionally gasped for air while belting out her factory-made, hooks-galore anthems.

The set-closing covers of "Our Lips Are Sealed" by the Go-Go's and "My Generation" by the Who -- she changed the lyrics to "I hope I don't die before I get old"--far outclassed the originals. But it was hard to argue with the themes of Duff's best tunes, which emphasized standing up for oneself against errant boyfriends and jealous "Haters"; being proud to be "Weird" (a surefire hit from the next album); asserting a rambunctious but reasonable form of grrrl power ("Girl Can Rock," "Rock This World") and that timeless teenage message, "carpe diem."

"So why not take a crazy chance?/Why not do a crazy dance?" she sang in "Why Not." "If you lose a moment, you may lose a lot."

Unfortunately, 19-year-old look-alike Haylie had none of her little sister's charms. Her voice was even less impressive, she was stiff and stilted and her material is clearly the uninspired grade-C junk Hilary rejects. The best thing that can be said is that her set was only four songs and 17 minutes long.

Maybe if Haylie dyed her hair and became a bad-girl brunette a la Mary-Kate Olsen or Ashlee Simpson, she'd become a competitor. Then again, maybe not. On the current bubblegum-pop scene, Hilary Duff seems unbeatable.