November 27, 2002

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Pop is hell
You think you've got it bad? How'd you like to be Christina Aguilera or Whitney Houston right about now? Or Mariah "I took my clothes off on Total Request Live and all I got was a vacation in a rubber room" Carey?

By Jimmy Draper

 

'TIS THE SEASON for a reality check, top of the pops style. From Christina Aguilera's makeover as a street-savvy bump 'n' grinder to J.Lo's insistence that fame, fortune, and a famous fiancé haven't changed her, everyone's out to prove they aren't the puppets that the world thinks they are. So check yourself before you wreck yourself, 'cause not since the immediate aftermath of Milli Vanilli has pop radio been so blatantly preoccupied with keepin' it real.

Blame it on the bubblegum- and boy-band boom. Before the blowup of Britney and the Backstreet Boys five years ago, the pop world didn't have much to kick against. Now, like Lance Bass's chances of getting his mug on the moon, the teen explosion has officially gone into the shitter. As a result, pop's ready-made rules have shifted: Disneyfication is out and finding your inner artiste is in, which means the Mouseketeers are fleeing Orlando in hopes that their careers won't go the way of Tiffany's.

Pink perfected pop's new formula last November with M!ssundaztood, ditching the by-numbers R&B and transforming herself into a r'n'r rabble-rouser with the help of former 4 Non Blonde Linda Perry. Four million sales later, Pink has pounded the final nails in teen pop's coffin. Just check pop radio this year: Britney is hip-hot with the Neptunes-tuned "Boys" remix, while Justin Timberlake Jackos off all over his current nonthriller, "Like I Love You." Nick Carter has gone all emo-edgy ("Help Me"), Kelly Osbourne launches another brat attack with "Shut Up!," and sk8ter poser Avril Lavigne has gone platinum by writing hella-everywhere songs about being yourself ("Complicated," "Sk8ter Boi"). Then there's pop pianist Vanessa Carlton and good-girl guitarist Michelle Branch, both of whom have found success by aping serious singer-songwriters Tori Amos and Lisa Loeb, respectively.

While the teen pop pack attempts to keep it real by shedding the prefab formulas, Christina Aguilera has stripped away her good-girl image the old-fashioned way: by taking her clothes off. With the unabashedly derivative "Dirrty" – the lead single from her long-awaited, better-never-than-late new album, Stripped – the increasingly carrot-colored Aguilera revels in the joys of table dancing, getting unruly, and being a slave 4 U. It's the David LaChapelle-directed video, however, that really gets the harlot party started: with girl-on-girl shower gyrations and enough crotch shots to make Showgirls' Nomi Malone work harder for the money, X-tina's chaps-clad performance makes Britney's snake dance and Lolita routines look downright demure.

The gaudiest, bawdiest, and most unintentionally hilarious grasp at relevance in ages, the porn-prone "Dirrty" is the hideosity of the year – not to mention the soundtrack to the skankfest that's this season's Real World Las Vegas. Unfortunately for Aguilera (who, yes, claims this album finally reveals the real her), her target demographic seems to lack the camp mentality required to fully appreciate such racy, Real World-style debauchery. "Dirrty" didn't make the Top 40, Stripped missed number one by a long shot its first week in release, and she's become the funniest punch line since Glitter. "Has anybody seen that new Christina Aguilera video?" Tina Fey joked last month on Saturday Night Live. "I think it gave my TV genital warts."

The single's gratuitous T&A, however, is less to blame for its commercial failure than are Aguilera's desperate attempts to cash in on paths blazed by Britney and Pink last fall. Had it been released on the heels of her killer Dee Snider imitation in summer 2001's immensely successful "Lady Marmalade" video – also starring Pink – the song might've seemed half original in its attempt to distinguish (however questionably) the vocalist from her prefabricated peers. Instead, a year after Brit Brit released the similar "I'm a Slave 4 U" and Pink enlisted Perry – who had a hand in writing Stripped, too – to help her transition into a faux-hawked hellion, "Dirrty" just sounds tired.

Whitney Houston has been looking a little tired (to put it politely) for a few years now, and her career isn't sounding too healthy these days either. This summer's "Whatchulookinat" was DOA, and on the new "One of Those Days," pop's exquisite corpse bemoans her high-stress lifestyle and just wants to take a break. And while it's hard to begrudge anyone married to Bobby Brown a rest, if the upcoming Just Whitney (Dec. 10) is half as mind-numbingly lazy as this slow-groove filler of a single (too much Mary Jane, not enough Mary J.?), the only vacation she will have earned is a discounted trip to the has-been bin.

Too bad, too, because "One of Those Days" was the perfect opportunity for the Clive Davis-damaged diva to – as everyone else is doing – offer supposed insight into the woman behind the streamlined music. Back in 1998 writer Vince Aletti called My Love Is Your Love-era Houston a time bomb that finally started ticking after years of being bottled up and forced into "mechanical perfection and pull-out-the-stops showiness." The "inevitable explosion has been thus delayed," he wrote, "but its very imminence is exciting." She's since exploded off the record, which may be why the song seems so anticlimactic in comparison to the real-life pot bust, the accusations of addiction and marriage troubles, and her ghastly appearance on Michael Jackson's televised concert. Calling the album Just Whitney, however, hints that she may be ready to shed some light on her inner turmoil and set off a volcano-size eruption.

Not a news flash: the big comeback from Mariah Carey is the same sorta self-help hyperbole that's become her stock-in-trade. If only, as Virgin did after the Glitter debacle, another label would step up to offer her a multimillion-dollar deal not to sing: "Through the Rain" 's I-will-survive message is so predictably syrupy and stoopidly clichéd that making fun of it would be redundant.

Not that anyone expected otherwise: like Houston's squandered opportunity, Carey's meltdown offered the perfect chance for the Voice That Only Dogs Can Hear to resurface sans picture-perfect façade. There are no personal revelations here, though, and maybe that's 'cause there's nuthin' to reveal: while Houston clearly has some serious shit goin' on, it's not unreasonable to assume that Carey's idea of self-reflection is some Q.T. in front of the mirror. It's not surprising, then, she'd spend her downtime accusing ex-hubby Tommy Mottola of sabotaging her career (Wacko Jacko alert!) and recording the inevitably self-aggrandizing Charmbracelet (Dec. 3).

Carey needs all the luck she can get. "Through the Rain" hasn't even cracked the Top 40, while the new single by arch rival J.Lo, the mercilessly repetitive "Jenny from the Block," is moving up the Top 10 and bulldozing right past Timberlake, American idol Kelly Clarkston, and Madonna. Further proof that "realness" is the pop trope of late, Lopez is once again obsessed with proving that staying real is "like breathing" to her. Even the title of her upcoming full-length, This Is Me... Then (Nov. 26) insists this is Lopez, as is.

Don't buy that load of bull? Well, duh: the diva doth protest too much. Introducing her highest-profile album to date with the proclamation that she's just like you and me practically cries out for people to point out the inconsistencies. And though her love may not cost a thing, it's certainly worth its weight in press clips: the timing of the announcement of her engagement to Ben Affleck came just weeks before the album's release, and the video (starring the thick-necked fiancé himself) conveniently multitasks as a cross-promotion for two upcoming flicks in which the couple stars.

Not that Lopez's song is any more or less "believable" than, say, Aguilera's metaphorical and literal stripping. As far as marketing gimmicks go, however, the whole this-is-me shtick is starting to sound a little contrived. For real.