New bubble gum queens hold court


February 27, 2005


So long, Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears and Jessica Simpson; hello, Ashlee Simpson, Hilary Duff and Lindsay Lohan. A new wave of self-empowered young divas has arrived, and as the now-dominant force in teen pop, the Age of the 'Hoes has ended.

When the likes of Courtney Love, PJ Harvey and Liz Phair yielded in the late '90s to the new pitch-corrected, pop-oriented pin-up girls, the saddest aspect of the inevitable passing of the pop-music torch wasn't the abandonment of alternative-rock sounds, but the shift in attitude from the strength and self- assurance of the post-feminist riot grrrls to the submissive and often demeaning pandering of the teen popsters.

The ol' gals haven't faded from the spotlight. Britney continues to make headlines for her bad-girl behavior and overnight marriages; Jessica is sporting tube tops and short-shorts in "The Dukes of Hazzard" movie and crafting a country-flavored album featuring a duet with Willie Nelson; and Xtina is ubiquitous in a series of footwear ads depicting tawdry male fantasies such as a scantily clad cop and a slutty criminal, a scantily clad matron and an errant schoolgirl, and a scantily clad nurse and an ailing cheerleader.


When: 7 p.m. March 6
Where: Rosemont Theatre, 5400 N. River, Rosemont
Tickets: $39.50
Phone: (312) 559-1212



But as they hover around the median age of 24, Britney, Xtina and Jessica are emitting the sickly sweet stench of pop has-beens, resorting to outlandish stunts and dubious career moves in a desperate attempt to grab 15 more minutes of fame. The turning point came during last summer's concert season, when Spears and Aguilera both canceled planned arena tours. Their official excuses were, respectively, a knee injury and strained vocal cords, but concert-business insiders said the real reason was embarrassingly poor ticket sales.

The obnoxious tactics of the misogynistic marketing machines behind the last wave of teen-pop goddesses simultaneously played to the insidious cultural anxieties of the pre-pubescent female audience and the "Lolita"-like obsessions of sweaty-palmed men, middle-aged readers of "Barely Legal" and randy teenage boys alike.

On their singles and in their videos, the old teen divas spread the message that superficial beauty trumps brains -- witness the rumors of Britney's breast augmentation and the trumpeting of Jessica's ditsiness -- and that the path to success for young women is via rampant consumerism ("You can be popular, too, if you buy designer clothes like I'm wearing!") and sexual submission ("I'm a Slave 4U," Britney proudly boasted).

To be sure, the new teen queens are as expertly and unceasingly marketed as their predecessors. Like Britney and Xtina, who were veterans of TV's "The New Mickey Mouse Club," Hilary was introduced to her audience via the Disney-produced "Lizzie McGuire." And like her older sister Jessica, Ashlee stars in an unreal -- and unwatchable -- MTV "reality" show.

The new teen queens aren't more laudable than the old ones because they're more "authentic," playing their own instruments and helping the hired teams to write their own songs. That argument was laughable, even before Ashlee's much-publicized lip-syncing meltdown on "Saturday Night Live." And while their music is slightly more organic than the sounds that dominated the charts a few years back, we're still talking about lowest-common-denominator bubble gum pop. The new stuff is just a little more chewier.

I've debated pop fans who contend that I prefer the new teen queens because they use more rock cliches -- i.e., "guitars and drums rather than synthesizer and beat boxes." But comparing Ashlee or any of her peers to, say, PJ Harvey is like holding up the Lovin' Spoonful to Slayer: They're not even in the same universe.

Other defenders of Britney and the old gang charge that I've become more conservative -- i.e., "a prude who's afraid of sex" -- while raising an 8-year-old daughter. But I was a critic and a feminist long before I became a father, and I maintain that pop's greatest female artists have always been sexy without sacrificing their self-respect or selling themselves and other women short.

With that in mind, here is my survey of the current teen-queen scene, including the current rulers and the climbers who aspire to the throne.

Red-hot teen queens

Ashlee Simpson: The 20-year-old Texan has thrown up plenty of obstacles to overcome before you can judge her music on its own merits. While I can't defend the pathetic copycat reality show -- like most music lovers, I try not to watch MTV -- I maintain that she got a bum rap for the "SNL" debacle. Of course she lip-synchs in pressure situations; every teen queen does! She was just aping her own gutsy-sounding vocals, and you have to give her points for spunk (that goofy hoe-down dance), an anti-glamour fashion sense and an inspiring message.

Simpson presents herself as an unaffected teen eager to assert her individuality and reluctant to take a back seat to the boys. "You can throw me like a boomerang/I'll come back and beat you up," she sings in "La La" from her 2004 debut, "Autobiography." That message has connected in a big way, and the disc is already certified triple-platinum. The singer's tour in support of the album stops March 6 at the Rosemont Theatre in Rosemont, And Ashlee swears she'll be singing live.

Hilary Duff: The debut album by the former Lizzie McGuire, 2003's "Metamorphosis," was a soggy, saccharine dud, compared to the harder-rocking nod by her fellow Texan Ashlee, but that didn't stop the 17-year-old Hilary from selling more than 3 million copies. And the multimedia star, who also scored at the box office with 2004's "A Cinderella Story," was a pleasant surprise in concert last year at the Allstate Arena.

Duff's voice -- and yes, I'm sure she was singing -- was nothing special, ranging from slightly screechy on ballads such as "Where Did I Go Right?" to glee-club passable on mildly rocking hits like "Come Clean" and "So Yesterday." But she succeeded because of her energy and her down-to-earth persona, and she encouraged young female fans to be themselves and seize the day. "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." It wasn't exactly Patti Smith, but it was inspiring nonetheless, especially if you were under age 10.

Lindsay Lohan: Like Hilary, 18-year-old Lohan got her start with Disney: She appeared in the 1998 remake of "The Parent Trap" and the 2003 remake of "Freaky Friday" (you don't have to worry about repeating yourself when you're appealing to 9-year-olds). Unfortunately, the New York native isn't as feminist-friendly: She's hugely popular on the Web for that odd new media faux pas of the "nipple slip," or having your top drop down "inopportunely" in front of a crowd of photographers.

Released last December, Lindsay's debut album "Speak" has already gone platinum. The disc is a schizophrenic mix of generic, watered-down pop-rock and generic, watered-down dance music, and the singing is barely passable. Despite her fondness for flashing -- which continues in the CD artwork -- she tows the new grrrl-power line in her lyrics. "Why can't you just let me do/The things I wanna do?" she coos on "Rumors," the infectious dance-pop single. "Why can't they back up off me/Why can't they let me live/I'm gonna do it my way!" You go, girl.

Pop princesses vying for the throne

Joss Stone: England's entry in the teen-pop sweepstakes is the 17-year-old Joscelyn Eve Stoker, whose 2004 album "Mind Body & Soul" peaked at No. 11 on the Billboard charts, but is experiencing resurgence thanks to recent attention from the Grammys.

Blessed with the best voice of this lot and grounded with a love of vintage Aretha Franklin and Janis Joplin, Stone's album is the one from this crop most likely to appeal to Mom and Dad -- which means she'll probably have the least success with the kiddies -- but she may eventually connect with an older, hipper crowd. She sold 2 million copies of her debut EP, "The Soul Sessions," early last year, thanks to "Fell in Love with a Boy," a funky reworking of "Fell in Love with a Girl" by the White Stripes.

JoJo: Stone may get some serious competition from this Boston soul singer, who's still only 14. Joanna Noelle Levesque got her break after auditioning for TV's "Kids Say the Darndest Things" when she impressed host Bill Cosby with a show-stopping rendition of Aretha Franklin's "Respect."

Mixing old-school R&B and more modern, slicker sounds, her self-titled debut has already sold a million copies, and it's still a presence on the charts seven and a half months after its release. Add to that the fact that she records for Blackground, the label run by Barry Hankerson, who launched his niece Aaliyah to fame and fortune, and you've got a serious teen-pop contender.

Raven-Symone: Another Cosby protege, the former child actress declared that "This Is My Time" with the title of her 2004 album, her third. Once again, the singing is nothing special, and the watered-down hip-hop and R&B is a generic and arid piece of pop product, rather than the updated take on Janet Jackson's "Control" that she was shooting for. But the 19-year-old Atlanta native has a great marketing platform with her own Disney Channel series, "That's So Raven," and she's appealing to the boys as well, some of whom obsessively chronicle her, um, "post-pubescent blossoming" on Internet fan sites.

Avril Lavigne: The spunky, Hot Topic-outfitted, 20-year-old Canadian grrrl-rocker didn't sound nearly as fresh on her sophomore album, 2004's "Under My Skin." It's still hovering in the Top 40, and it's been certified double-platinum, but her 2002 debut "Let Go" sold 14 million copies. It just goes to show you that teens like songs about crushes ("Sk8er Boi") and ranking on misbehaving boyfriends ("Complicated") a lot more than tunes about the merits of chastity ("Don't Tell Me") and the death of your grandfather ("Slipped Away").

Mandy Moore: Sure signs that at age 20, this New Hampshire native is on her way to being a has-been: She has launched a clothing line for short girls called Mblem; she garners headlines these days primarily for rotating through high-profile boyfriends (Zach Braff, Wilmer Valderrama, Andy Roddick), and her last album was a "best-of" set -- a good trick, considering she only made her debut in 1999.

Her fans are faithful, though, and she's staying in front of them with appearances in movies films like 2004's "Saved!" and the recent "Racing Stripes," which finds her giving voice to a horse named Sandy.

Kelly Clarkson: Last year, the 22-year-old Texan (why does the Longhorn State breed so many teen queens?) valiantly tried to distance herself from her "American Idols" origins with the aptly titled "Breakaway." It is a vast improvement on her debut "Thankful," with a new, harder-rocking sound and strong declarations of self-reliance such as the title track, "Since U Been Gone" and "Hear Me." But that "American Idols" link is a daunting curse to overcome, it's hard to forgive her banal performances on the show's cash-in concert tours, and her long-term career prospects remain a dicey bet. (She performs April 14 at the Rosemont Theatre.)

Pink: Armed with a powerhouse voice and sassy attitude to burn, Philadelphia-born Alecia Moore made her debut at age 18 with an invigorating mix of dance, R&B and pop-punk sounds. The 2000 album "Take Me Home" effectively launched the new wave of self-empowered teen queens, and the follow-up, 2001's "M!ssundaztood," stands as a classic of the nascent genre.

Pink's defiant nonconformity continued on 2003's "Try This," where she stretched the envelope by working with Tim Armstrong of the punk band Rancid. As she gears up for the release of disc number four, the now 24-year-old singer may already be ancient history for today's teeny-boppers, but I am rooting for her.

Puffy Amiyumi: Manufactured in Japan and marketed with the ruthless efficiency and ubiquity of Hello Kitty, the pop duo Yumi Yoshimura and Ami Onuki have been superstars at home for several years, and they recently launched their U.S. invasion with the two-pronged attack of a TV show on Cartoon Network and a tie-in album, "Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi Music from the Series." Think of a sexed-up, flesh and blood version of Josie and the Pussycats collaborating with various techno hipsters. The duo skirts the edges of submissive pandering, and the marketing is truly insidious. You'd be better off introducing the kids to Shonen Knife.

Skye Sweetnam: "Now I'm living on the run/Looking out for No. 1," the 16-year-old Toronto resident declares with impressive gusto on the opening track of her 2004 debut, "Noise from the Basement." She's got mall-punk attitude ("I don't need to read Billy Shakespeare" she yelps at one point; "I'm the girl who's kicking the Coke machine," she sneers at another). She's got a pouty-lipped, sleepy-eyed, come-hither look. She's got an updated cover of Blondie's "Heart of Glass." And she's got a high-powered corporate tie-in with AOL. Watch her: She may well rule the world.