Revealing, if uneven, new CDs by J. Lo, Mariah, and Whitney prove it's no picnic being a high-flying songbird.

By Tom Sinclair
Updated December 13, 2002 at 05:00 AM EST

In this, the ”American Idol” era, it sometimes seems that every other red-blooded teenage girl wants to be a diva. Public acclaim, designer clothes, lots of loot, celebrity beaus, acting opportunities — what’s not to like? Well, not to trash anyone’s dreams, but all those aspiring Kelly Clarksons out there might want to stop and consider the downside.

Media scrutiny of your every misstep comes with the territory, along with paparazzi, stalkers, and all manner of sycophants, weirdos, and freaks. And that’s just for starters. Consider Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, and Jennifer Lopez, arguably the most successful chanteuses of the ’80s, ’90s, and ’00s, respectively. The past few years have been especially tough on Houston and Carey: The former, who has been looking disturbingly thin, has been plagued by recurring rumors of drug abuse and the legal problems of hubby Bobby Brown; Carey suffered a very public emotional breakdown, no doubt exacerbated by the commercial failure of her acting debut in ”Glitter” and the soundtrack album’s lackluster sales. Golden girl Jennifer Lopez has thus far escaped those sorts of bombshell humiliations (if you discount the negative publicity that surrounded her relationship with P. Diddy), but she’s still a relative spring chicken.

As it happens, all three women have released new albums — just in time for Christmas! — on which they each, to varying degrees, address their current life situations (divas in training, take note). Jennifer Lopez’s ”This Is Me…Then” is the most pleasant surprise of the bunch. It’s a spacious-sounding affair that eschews the heavy-handed production that marred her first two efforts; the vibe is more Minnie Riperton than Missy Elliott. Working with a variety of producers, Lopez cowrote most of the songs, and while no one’s likely to confuse anything here with high art, the girl has a way with hooks, even if they’re often borrowed: ”The One” is built around the Stylistics’ 1971 hit ”You Are Everything,” while ”Baby I Love U” utilizes the haunting melody from the theme from ”Midnight Cowboy.” A high-spirited LL Cool J guests on ”All I Have” (which samples Debra Laws’ 1981 ”Very Special”). Lyrically, Lopez sticks mostly to romance, even penning a starry-eyed paean to fiance Ben Affleck (”I love you/You’re perfect/A manifestation of my dreams”). Some will speculate that ”Still,” a song to a departed lover, is an open letter to Diddy, but that’s as scandalous as things get. On ”Jenny From the Block,” Lopez insists that fame hasn’t changed her, and seduced by the breezy pleasure of her new music, we’re almost inclined to believe her.

Carey’s ”Charmbracelet” carries considerably less charm. Carey is technically a better singer than Lopez, and she’s in fine voice here. The production, by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Jermaine Dupri, and others, is tasteful — in places, oppressively so. Carey’s predilection for windswept ballads grows tiresome quickly. ”Through the Rain,” embellished with her trademark vocal pyrotechnics, is one of those highly personal songs about finding your way out of an emotional wilderness, but it sinks in its own sodden sentimentality, as do by-the-numbers efforts like ”Yours” and ”I Only Wanted.” Thankfully, there are a few genuinely affecting moments. ”Clown” is a moody number graced with mournful acoustic guitar and a gorgeously nuanced vocal, while ”Sunflowers for Alfred Roy” is a short, sweet song sung to a lovely piano accompaniment. Carey’s love affair with rap also rears its head on ”You Got Me,” which features Jay-Z, and the herky-jerky ”Boy (I Need You),” on which Cam’ron guests, adding some welcome energy. Still, too much of ”Charmbracelet” is mired in middle-of-the-road muck.

Houston’s ”Just Whitney…” has a refreshingly old-school vibe. Whatever her personal problems, our gal sounds plucky and on top of her game, confronting her critics on the lively ”Whatchulookinat” (”The same spotlight that brought me fame/Tryin’ to dirty up Whitney’s name”), and proclaiming she’s ”unashamed of the life I lead” (on ”Unashamed”). ”My Love,” a duet with Bobby Brown, is a giant raspberry to all those critical of Houston and Brown’s marriage. ”Things You Say” (cowritten and produced by Missy Elliott) is a slow jam that sounds like a long-lost R&B classic. Of course, amid the wheat, there’s some chaff, like the cover of the Debby Boone chestnut ”You Light Up My Life” and the treacly keyboards-and-strings big ballad ”On My Own.” Still, in her third decade as a diva, Houston remains a formidable role model for ”Idol” wannabes, proving that a great voice goes a long way toward kicking adversity in the butt. ”This Is Me…Then”: B; ”Charmbracelet”: C; ”Just Whitney…”: B-