Heart Shaped World
Look out, world, heart-shaped or not. Here comes 15-year-old Jessica Andrews, playing the Nashville Tiffany part to Britney Spears's turn as Debbie Gibson. Blessed with physical attributes sure to ignite fantasies in high school football players and potential pedophiles everywhere, Andrews is a shoe-in to grace the covers of country music fanzines all over the U.S. of A. this year. After having been introduced to the public via the recent soundtrack spin-off The Prince of Egypt - Nashville (on which she appeared as the only nonestablished artist), the Tennessee native has just released her debut album, Heart Shaped World, a 12-song collection that is not only disposable but practically biodegradable.
The record is yet another example of contemporary country musicians failing to create music that actually sounds country. If it weren't for Andrews's Southern vocal inflection (reinforced by the mandatory four layers of vocal harmonies) and the occasional appearance of a lap steel guitar or fiddle, these songs could very easily be confused with the work of such pop-rock icons as Sheryl Crow, Joan Osborne or Meredith Brooks. Consider the song "I Do Now," which begins with the exact same drum-machine thud used to introduce "In the Air Tonight," by Phil Collins. Or perhaps note the repeat appearance of the same melodramatic chorus effect used on guitars in hit power-ballads by such bands as Cinderella and Def Leppard (whose chief collaborative songwriter actually contributes a song to the mix). To answer your question, Willie: No, I don't think Hank did it this way.
The track sequence follows the same tired formula used time and again by producers to ensure the listener is never given to emotional favoritism. For every two rockers, one ballad must be inserted to adjust the adrenaline levels back down to nil. While this is predictable, it certainly is handy, as Andrews gets libidos in a frenzy with tawdry sex tales of a teen couple's first kiss ("You Go First"), dates nearly involving skinny-dipping ("The Riverside") and one track summed up with the title "Hungry Love." Is it hot in here or is it just me?
Making sure not to ignore her natural tendency toward teenage rebellion, Andrews gets those fists pumping with the hell-raiser "James Dean in Tennessee," the story of a chain-smoking stud who fights for his dreams in a fashion not unlike Kevin Bacon's struggle for First Amendment rights in Footloose. More angst appears in the anthem "Whatever," in which a woman tires of her beau's empty promises and (gasp!) walks out the door. Incidentally, Andrews admits in her publicity text that this song's concept was realized in a Waffle House restaurant, which is perhaps the most country thing about this recording.
While listening to Heart Shaped World, I found that my thoughts repeatedly returned to the late comic Bill Hicks and his observations on the Debbie Gibson phenomenon. When did we start listening to prepubescent white girls? We have at our fingertips the greatest minds of all time but, no, what's that little white girl sayin'? The thing is, it doesn't matter what she's saying. What essentially matters is how her body looks draped over a Volkswagen in publicity shots. It matters how well the age gimmick infiltrates listener demographics. It matters if she can generate a fraction of the revenue LeAnn Rimes has. Because if what she was saying mattered, the answer would be the same now as it was ten years ago, perhaps with a slightly different emphasis: not much.
-- David Wilcox
Something in the Air
There's definitely something in the air, all right. Whatever it is has record-label folk and Kmart shoppers butting heads for the latest Buffy in bikini briefs. But unlike conservative criticism against, 17-year-old Lila McCann is here to make a valiant argument for. And why not? She has some semblance of talent, a nice smile and the brunt of Nashville behind her. So even if you can't stay awake long enough to endure this tearfully boring record, you could probably hear enough in five seconds to see why others could. Endure this record, that is.
Like her elder C&W contemporaries -- Shania "Twit," the Dixie Chicks and Faith Hill -- McCann mostly makes records about (what else) boy-girl relationships. Since country-western folk apparently are the only demographic to experience achy-breaky heartache, the theme of Something fits the tear-in-my-root-beer cliche perfectly. Romantics will just suck this up. How in the hell a teenager knows anything about adult relationships is anyone's guess. But how industry types can present this "music" as something other than what it is (i.e., genius marketing that rivals that of one of the best pop bands of all time, Milli Vanilli) is more awe-inspiring altogether.
One can't watch TV or cruise record aisles without seeing at least one prepubescent babe in lip gloss squeezing her underdeveloped breasts together a la Tyra Banks. Britney Spears, Monica and Brandy et al. are becoming marquee acts. And high returns are as certain as sunrise. In one particular week last month, Billboard's Top 10 featured six songs performed by artists or groups whose median age was under 21 -- four of the songs were by girls too young or barely old enough to buy cigarettes. Compare those stats with Billboard's Top 10 of five years ago -- when no songs were performed by young folk -- and the beginnings of a trend, a potentially hot boilerplate issue, become apparent.
When the visual of a young sexpot is matched to a voice or, in some cases, an ability to dance, act, walk down a runway or actually articulate cogent thoughts on late-night talk shows, sparks can and will fly.
Granted, McCann ain't no Dominique Swain. But for what the former lacks in physical appearance, she makes up for in what others would consider "talent." Her voice is soft, laced with twang -- so much, in fact, as to possibly preclude her from "crossing over" -- and probably no more impressive than those of most high school drama queens and/or cheerleading captains. The thing that separates this minidiva from her peers is her, well, maturity. Even though I'm absolutely certain this young Tacoma, Washington, native knows positively nothing about what it's like to observe an abusive relationship, she pulls off the line "you say that when he does come home / he only puts you down" in the song "Go Girl" as if she were sipping beer on the back porch with her mascara-stained, dress-torn neighbor. The phrase "you go, girl" -- originally urban patois intended to mean, in essence, "congratulations" or something -- takes on literal meaning as McCann sings it in this context, when she asks for the girl in the song to physically leave, go. And all this is just another example of America's fetish with black culture and lingo. Even down-home gals like McCann can't escape it.
The teenybopper's first single, "With You," isn't so avant-garde. It fits the cookie-cutter C&W radio mold perfectly. Almost too. The song begins with a couple jaunty strums of an acoustic six string then shifts abruptly into a catchy fiddle riff. The drums are strong, toe-tappy even, but make way quick for McCann to begin singing. Her love-flushed voice croons, "last night I couldn't sleep / I found it hard to even breathe / oh, I'm in trouble deep / with you." But she means "trouble" in a good way. The tune kind of makes you think crushes are so bad after all. The refrain, "I would go anywhere / do anything / no, I don't care / long as I know / I'll always go / with you," which is repeatedly mimicked by the happy fiddle melody, seems perfect for puppy lovers everywhere. Of any age.
Though McCann occasionally pitches in on songwriting, she more or less serves as a mouthpiece for producer Mark Spiro, who guided her debut, Lila, to gold. The hits, "Down Came a Blackbird," "Almost Over You," and the No. 1 seller, "I Wanna Fall in Love," presupposed a sophomore flop this time around. Though the formula hasn't changed, McCann's predictable sound incorporates a little more artistry, always appreciated by the Ford-drivin', chew-spittin', line-dancin' set. Since Nashville is home to some of the greatest studio musicians working today, the moody pedal steel solo on "Can You Hear Me," the formidable drumming of "I Will Be," and the solid fiddle work throughout Something present McCann as something more than a voice and face. What she'll be doing in five years, who knows? But -- now here's a great title for a country song -- if it ain't broke, don't fix it. McCann and Spiro have taken that advice to heart. And to the heartland.
-- Anthony Mariani
...Baby One More Time
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Damn this infernal Teen Renaissance!
That's what this is, you know. Nubile faces and adolescent ideals adorning every movie screen, TV show or album cover. It was cute at first. Now it's just out of control. She's All That, "Dawson's Creek," actors and actresses with more than two names -- you can't hide from it. Teen icons such as Brandy and Jennifer Love Hewitt are even doing triple duty; when they're not teaching the values of some damn thing on their respective TV shows, they're running around in wet shirts in slasher films or trying to appear winsomely prepubescent on Top 40 radio. I've seen the future, folks, and it's gonna be a Children of the Damned-esque existence where the girls wear halter tops, bell-bottoms and platforms, the guys build shrines to Katie Holmes made out of pizza and empty Sunny Delight bottles, and everybody -- everybody -- has a Backstreet Boys tape in his car. Run for your lives!
You need any more proof? Look at Britney Spears. This 17-year-old lollipop lovely (her wholesome yet tantalizing looks should have the WB knocking on her door to give her a development deal any day now) helped her neophyte album, ...Baby One More Time reach No. 1 on the album charts. What makes this cutie so special? Well, besides the fact that she looks like Sarah Michelle Gellar's really-wants-to-be-black kid sister, she collaborated on her album with the same producers who have worked with the pimply-faced likes of 'N Sync and Boyzone. And she also recorded most of it at Sweden's Cheiron Studios, the temple where the Backstreet Boys dropped their own teen-centered tunes. So in the minds of bare-midriffed mall rats everywhere, Spears is practically royalty. Isn't it a shocker that the album doesn't live up to those same high standards? The collection of songs that make up this album sounds blatantly, blissfully commercial. There are the blowsy, dewdrop ballads ("Sometimes," "From the Bottom of My Broken Heart"). There are even songs that sound like the less-than-favorable work of other artists. The boho "Soda Pop" sounds like an outtake from a Sugar Ray album. (It even has a super, catlike background rapper.) "E-Mail My Heart" is probably the album's biggest abomination, an almost laughable ditty that introduces computer love to the pop music world. (Actually Roger Troutman did it in the '80s with "Computer Love," but that was only known of in the black music world.) It's still not up to par with such mass-communication love songs as "Please Mr. Postman" or "Mr. Telephone Man." Only the spunky, funky title track and a rendition of "The Beat Goes On," in which the Sonny & Cher song gets dolled up as if it had been redone by the Propellerheads, are the ones you wouldn't be ashamed to admit you like.
The album wouldn't be all that if it weren't for Spears herself showing promise with every lyric she utters. On "Born to Make You Happy," she exhibits a smoldering, wise-beyond-her-years maturity. It's almost as if she were begging to be taken out of this sterile, bubblegum pigeonholing and be given some music that is worthy of her talents. If this is true, then fight the future, Britney!
-- Craig D. Lindsey