It’s the law: every new film must now include Jennifer Love Hewitt, and every new music video must feature four or five teens singing homogenized pop while locked into choreographed rap-on-Broadway dance steps. Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but there’s no denying that we’re drowning in a tidal wave of adolescent entertainment, especially in pop — a world in which the Backstreet Boys rule and the New Kids on the Block constitute roots music.
The need for each generation to have its own bubblegum is as natural as a VH1 Behind the Music episode that progresses from drug binge to car crash to overweight comeback. But even in a tradition that’s given us girly-boys from Fabian to Shaun Cassidy, does the current crop of boy bands have to be such wimps? In a sign of the times, they flash rap hand signals and wear oversize pants and wool hats, and at least one member must sport a trim beard. But the music they and their producers and tunesmiths crank out owes less to the Def Jam sound and more to barbershop quartets.
With their slurpy harmonies and puppy-dog songs, ‘N Sync make the Backstreet Boys look and sound like a hardcore band. (It doesn’t help that one ‘N Syncer appears to have a mop on his head.) Both their debut and Christmas collection are two of the simpiest records to occupy the top 10 since the first album by Christopher Cross — whose ”Sailing” they cover, coincidentally. The bulkier 98[degrees] look as if they’ve spent plenty of time in the gym. Even still, their two albums (and the current hit ”Because of You”) have too much flabby tissue. Ireland’s Boyzone pull off one ballsy move — transforming Tracy Chapman’s ”Baby Can I Hold You” into a power ballad! — but the rest of their debut, Where We Belong, feels like songs from the Partridge Family’s last season. As with their peers, you wait for Boyzone’s teen hormones to kick in, but they never do.
No such concerns exist on the distaff end of the current wave. Britney Spears’ No. 1 debut has utterly no personality of its own, but at least it has the strutting energy of a high school vixen on the loose. (Pray that Jive, Spears’ label, releases the ABBA-reminiscent pop goo of ”Born to Make You Happy” as the next single.) England’s Cleopatra, whose button-cute first CD didn’t quite cross over to America, sound as if they’re harmonizing while they’re on a trampoline. Primed for stardom and love, they all make their boy peers sound like a bunch of Goth mopers.
The latest girl-pop export from the British Isles arrives on our shores with a similar air of bravado and glee (and Sony money to boot). On the cover of their just-released first disc, the four members of the Dublin-based B*witched smile as they leap into the air, a sensibility that also infuses their bouncing-ball melodies. There’s also a clever, if cynical, twist. With songs that weave in the occasional fiddle or tin whistle, B*witched sound like the Spice Girls’ younger sisters aboard the Titanic. Still, it’s hard to deny the music’s appeal. B*witched‘s pajama-party tunes, from ”Rev It Up” (about the joys of heading to the beach with pals) to ”Rollercoaster,” are effortless jump-rope pop. And while their windswept ballads manage to be corny yet heartfelt; the dreamy intensity of ”Castles in the Air” captures the sensation of a high school love that feels as if it will last forever.
What isn’t entirely bewitching about the album is how it peters out two thirds of the way through. The final tracks feel like retreads of earlier cuts, giving B*witched the feel of one ice-cream cone too many. Still, it is an educational experience — think of it as homework for adults. The quartet’s first single, ”C’est la Vie,” finds them singing, winkingly, at an apparently reticent male classmate: ”Hey, boy, in your tree/Throw down your ladder, make a room for me!” The album has numerous other such double entendres, especially in the heavy-breather ”We Four Girls,” and makes clear that this generation is much more knowing in the ways of the flesh than were its predecessors. And they’re not afraid to let us know they know it. 98[degrees] growl very adult references to ”makin’ love” and going ”all the way tonight,” and the roughhouse innuendos of Spears’ ”…Baby One More Time” would have caused Debbie Gibson to faint. In complacent times, teens have to take their rebellion where they can find it. B+”