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I'd Much Rather Be with the Girls

Fantasia belts out another ode to biological heroism.

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 Idol by-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.

We would not bother with the "White Power Olsen Twins," who perform folk versions of White Power classics, if the mainstream media did not insist on giving them attention they didn't deserve. Had they the voices of angels, then we'd have something to talk about. But even though their toneless voices should keep them playing the third stage at the county fair, America is so crazed about race that it will make anti-stars of these Hitler youths.

Fatwa! Fatwa on these girls who have reached the age of reason -- and their mother, their fans and the media that is so frightened about race that it cannot see that this führer wears no clothes. They all deserve each other. May they all know it. It is written. -- The Ayatollah of Rock

CLOSET CASE
Is there no way out of R. Kelly's fiendish clutches?

As my dearly departed mother would say, R. Kelly needs to sit his ass down somewhere.

Just when we thought we were done with Trapped in the Closet, his five-part "urban soap opera" that was the talk of black radio stations and beauty salons this past summer, Kelly has tacked on seven chapters and released the whole sordid mess on DVD.

The Trapped in the Closet DVD documents the degeneration of Kelly's once-riveting, once-daring experiment into a ridiculous bedroom farce, made even more ridiculous with the new chapters, which we'll get into a bit later.

It also reveals how stubborn Kelly has become about his mutant musical creation. It was quite obvious in the first five chapters that Kelly was running out of good ideas, as his story of infidelity, deceit and closeted homosexuality progressed. Now, as the new chapters show, not only has he run out of good ideas, he's in denial and has just become a dick about the whole thing. He figures he's gonna keep on dropping chapters until he thinks of something brilliant again. It hasn't happened yet.

Everyone from Jimmy Kimmel to Mad TV to South Park has mocked Kelly and his ever-expanding, ever-ludicrous song serial (one of the most saddening things is that Dave Chappelle missed the opportunity to take a shot before goin' MIA from his show), but the fact is, none of the parodies comes close to the actual absurdity Kelly himself drops in these new installments.

In the new volumes, we find out that Kelly's name in the series is Sylvester. The cop (played by Michael K. Williams, the gay thug from HBO's The Wire) who slept with his wife, Gwendolyn, comes back to the house. Through a tussle with Sylvester, the cop accidentally shoots Gwendolyn's ex-con brother, Twan, who survives and is ready to pop a cap in anyone, including Rosie, the nosy neighbor. Afterward, the cop goes back home to his white, Southern-fried wife, Bridget, and discovers that she -- surprise! -- has been creeping on him with a well-endowed, midget stripper named Big Man. It all ends back at Rufus and Cathy's (remember them?), where Cathy gets a call from good friend Gwendolyn, who finds out her girlfriend was the "crusty, wig-wearing-ass ho" creeping around with her man.

If you think that's the end, you are so sadly mistaken. Kelly has said there are ten more chapters in the works. As Martin Lawrence once said on his old Fox sitcom, damn, it ain't ever gonna end! -- Craig D. Lindsey


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