September 25, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT

Everyone wants to be complimented for qualities they lack. That’s why teen artists crave kudos not for their deep dimples and hot bods but for their distinctive songwriting and musical daring.

Take 98 Degrees. For the hunky foursome’s fourth album, they’ve announced their intent to mature from manipulated boys to grown up men. On Revelation, they’ve written more of their own material, just as the Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync did on their last albums. They’ve made their first single a Latin number, just like something you might hear from Enrique Iglesias or Marc Anthony. And they’ve featured more upbeat tracks to break up their ballads, just like every major teen act has done in the last year.

Too bad the group still winds up singing formulaic radio fodder with a near militaristic reverence. The faster tracks just mean to add market share by stealing some of current R&B’s percussive punch. The ballads continue to lean on the same old longing bass lines and lonely piano arpeggios. When the group sings, at one point, ”you’ve heard this a thousand times before… /You’ll hear it at least a million more,” it sounds like a real threat. That 98 Degrees wrote many of these new lines and tunes themselves only proves them to be genuine ciphers, capable of mouthing clichés from the heart.

Not that the group needs a distinctive sound. They’ve already made history with their looks. They’re the first muscle bound jocks to make headway in a world of lithe pretty boys. Culturally speaking, their success measures an increasing awareness by the public, at an ever younger age, of masculine beauty. 98 Degrees’s blandness only ups the appeal: There’s less character to get in the way of the audience’s drooling fantasies.

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