Britney backlash?

Sunday, July 28, 2002

NEW YORK -- Since Britney Spears arrived on the music scene three years ago, pop music has molded its teen queens according to three Bs -- blondness, beauty and bustiers.

But a new crop of female singer-songwriters is challenging the notion that you have to bare your navel and cavort in tight clothes to be sexy and successful in pop music. Over the last year, Michelle Branch, Vanessa Carlton and Avril Lavigne have been dominating the charts by putting more of the focus on their music.

Call them the Anti-Britneys.

"I'm just saying I don't want to sell sex," says Lavigne, a 17-year-old from Ontario, Canada, whose debut disc, "Let's Go," has gone gold in a month's time. "I feel that's sort of lame and low. I've got so much more to say."

Fans are listening. In recent weeks, her first video, "Complicated," bested Spears' latest video, "Boys," on MTV's teen-frenzied "Total Request Live." Carlton, a 21-year-old piano-playing singer, has also been a mainstay on the show, along with the 19-year-old guitarist Branch, who sparked the trend when her disc, "The Spirit Room," was released last August. It has sold more than 1 million copies.

"I think that a lot of people were really oversaturated with exactly the opposite of what we are," says Branch. "There were people dancing around who didn't write their own music, and really that's been kind of the marketplace for the last five years."

Tom Calderone, senior vice president of music and talent programming at MTV and MTV2, says of pop's new teen queens: "It has given the audience an opportunity to realize that not every pop star has to show their belly button, not every pop star has to be a waif, and pop stars can pick up instruments."

After Spears showed she could sell millions singing fluffy pop grooves with a Barbie image, there were plenty of others who followed: Christina Aguilera, Jessica Simpson, Mandy Moore, Willa Ford. Most of the teen groups, male and female, fit a similar mold -- emphasizing style as much as song.

(The music of some other successful, female singer-songwriters -- namely Alicia Keys, India.Arie and Nelly Furtado -- was not geared to the teen-age audience.)

Then came the inevitable backlash. Teen pop's once white-hot sales have fallen off, and while Spears' latest album, "Britney," is still a top-seller with 3.8 million copies sold, it did not do as well as her previous discs.

In fact, R&B singer turned pop-rock princess Pink has sold nearly as many copies as Spears with her second disc, "M!ssundaztood." Released last fall, it has sold 3 million copies, and she has made a point in her music and interviews of how un-Britney like she is, with her wild attitude and punk hairstyle.

"A lot of girls who grew up on Britney ... they are a little bit older now, and they are into something different," says Sia Michel, editor in chief at Spin magazine. "It's sort of turning around from this idea when teen-age fun was all about fun and frothiness."

Lavigne says today's fans want to hear music that's "more meaningful; there's more to it than just pretty songs that are all rhymey."

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