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I'd Much Rather Be with the Girls

Critics might damn Fantasia's music with faint praise, but we say she's keeping up a sacred pop tradition

Earlier this year, Rolling Stone reviewed Fantasia Barrino's Free Yourself, writing, "Like all other American Idol albums, the debut from Season Three winner Fantasia Barrino leaves too much room for the pyrotechnics that constitute vocal talent on the show. But Barrino has gotten crucial help from a cavalcade of top urban songwriters and producers. The result is solid, up-to-date R&B that puts some sexy bounce into its soccer-mom pop and bookends a cover of 'Summertime' with a Missy Elliott jam." A more backhanded three-star review is hard to imagine, as the reviewer essentially dismissed Barrino, crediting anything good about the album to Elliott, Jermaine Dupri, Rodney Jerkins and Jazze Pha.

The American Idol synergy machine invites such suspicion. The winners agree to be managed by Idol producer Simon Fuller, suggesting that the show is an ad for the winner's eventual album, and the album is an ad for the show. Such an insular system feeds the suspicion that the CD is the product of some manufactured nothing, and that buying it means falling for hype. The Milli Vanilli debacle cemented the American pop anxiety that "There's a sucker born every minute" is the fine print beneath "In God We Trust" on the dollar bill. Free Yourself feeds that fear with the overwrought slog through "Summertime" -- the judges loved it on TV -- and "I Believe," a bland anthem that resembles "The Wind Beneath My Wings" but without the confusing metaphors.

It's easy to think of Barrino as another prefab pop star, but Rhino Records' recent boxed set One Kiss Can Lead to Another suggests another avenue for understanding her CD's charms. Free Yourself may have been released more than 40 years after "I Sold My Heart to the Junkman" by the Starlets, but Barrino has as much in common with the great girl groups of the early '60s as she does with her contemporaries.

In both cases, for instance, there's a tendency to credit others for the recordings' success. Any discussion of the Shangri-Las involves producer Shadow Morton, and the Ronettes' success is attributed more to Phil Spector than to Ronnie Spector, Estelle Bennett and Nedra Talley. One Kiss Can Lead to Another also features songs by Ellie Greenwich, Carole King, Jimmy Webb, Neil Diamond and Ashford & Simpson, to name a few. We like to think that great art involves self-expression, but anyone who has attended an open-mike poetry reading can attest to how overrated self-expression can be.

Free Yourself shares the same strength as the great girl-group records. Barrino may be singing someone else's songs, but she inhabits them and makes the romantic complexities credible. When she sings, "I'm sick and tired of waiting / don't know what I'm waiting for" in "Ain't Goin' Beg You," she sounds like someone who can't remember what was once fun about the relationship. Brenda Reid is at a similar place in 1963's "He's Got the Power" by the Exciters when she belts out, "He makes me do things I don't wanna do / He makes me say things I don't wanna say." She can't decide who she's madder at --her guy for giving her reasons to be so conflicted, or herself for being too in love with him to walk.

Those songs explore the awkward realities of young love, and the girl-group tradition is defined by them. One of the most extreme songs is the Fabulettes' "Try the Worryin' Way," which advocates loving a cheating man as a way to lose weight. On first listen, it sounds like a novelty song, but linking love, weight and self-esteem eventually sounds disturbingly accurate.

"Baby Mama," the cause célèbre of Free Yourself, provides similarly discomfiting insight. It celebrates single mothers taking care of their kids while trying to make a life for themselves. It's easy to point out that young women wouldn't have to work so hard if they weren't mothers, and that treating the young mother as heroic is reducing "heroism" to a biological process. But, like it or not, that's how many young mothers think about their experiences, and disapproving doesn't make it less real.

Barrino, who performs at Reliant Arena on Friday, November 25, has now written her autobiography, Life Is Not a Fairy Tale, which promises to be an Oprah-friendly opus of struggle and triumph. Which of course feeds cynicism toward Barrino as another Idolby-product. Still, holding up the past as the gold standard for pop greatness can easily lead to overlooking something contemporary and valuable. Fantasia might be loud and proud singing "Baby Mama" while Patti Hamilton was far more contrite singing "How Can I Tell Mom & Dad" in 1969, but that doesn't mean they both don't grab you. -- Alex Rawls

CRITICAL FATWA

We are arbiters of music, not ideals. So all hail Crass, who made great music in spite of their goofball politics. From the silly socialism of Rage Against the Machine to the street capitalism of 50 Cent, the music is the message. So we do not deliver a fatwa against Prussian Blue, the newest teen sensation on the White Power circuit, because of their odious beliefs. No, we fatwa these two adorable 13-year-old Aryans because they are horrid, horrid singers.

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