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POP MUSIC

Growing, growing, gone

Onetime youth pop fledglings Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera and Nick Carter take flight from the genre that nurtured them.

November 18, 2002|Geoff Boucher | Times Staff Writer

Isn't it amazing how quickly they grow up? Just five years ago, the Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync were still new kids on the pop block, reviving the tradition of heartthrob harmonies with a fancy dance. Then in 1999 along came teen queens Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. The music charts were crowded with Mickey Mouse Club alumni, and the future of youth pop looked as glittery as a prom dress.

That was then. Now, the whole youth pop thing seems so, like, 20th century to many of the scene's own stars. That's especially clear with the release of three new albums that together offer a story line that's pitch-perfect for the WB Network: "Can our young stars -- Christina, Nick and Justin -- grow up and find happiness?"

Aguilera has just released her first English-language pop album since the 1999 debut effort that won her the Grammy for best new artist. She is resolute this time that she not be viewed as a kid. Her definition of an adult performer? The title of the album, released on Oct. 29, says it all: "Stripped."

Aguilera's raunchy new video, "Dirrty," is a declaration that in 2002 what a girl wants is to be a two-fisted stripper in a nasty nightclub. The cover of the new Rolling Stone magazine, meanwhile, features Aguilera wearing, well, a guitar.

The same week Nick Carter became the first Backstreet Boy to dance off on his own with a solo album. Justin Timberlake set the same precedent a week later for 'N Sync. Each is the blond, blue-eyed star of his group, but their new music is hardly interchangeable. Carter trades in dancing partners for a backup band on "Now or Never," but despite the extra guitar, the music is only an alley or two removed from the Backstreet sound. Timberlake drifts further, offering old school R&B with a new textbook of hip-hop beats.

Who is at the front of this graduating class?

Music fans have weighed in. Aguilera's album has sold a healthy 499,000 copies in two weeks, debuting at No. 2 on the chart and then sagging a bit to No. 4 in the second week. Those may not be spectacular numbers, but Carter's solo project opened at No. 17 and then tumbled to No. 63. His two-week total is 90,000 sold. Timberlake, meanwhile, only needed a week to sell 439,000, debuting at No. 2.

In question is not only their solo efforts' commercial prospects but also their impact on the singers' pop groups. "With Nick and Justin, they're both like Sting coming out of the Police, and that could mean, 'See ya,' " says Roy Laughlin, regional vice president for Clear Channel, the national radio titan. No one, though, is likely to compare Carter or Timberlake to Sting when it comes to artistic heft, not yet and maybe never.

After performing in lock-step with others for so long, Carter and Timberlake are hungry to be seen as individuals, but the same may be said of Aguilera. Always linked to Spears by timing and Mariah Carey by approach, Aguilera yearns to define herself.

"All three of them are trying to grow up; that's clear," says Jeff Pollack, a leading consultant for radio, MTV and Hollywood. "Nothing is automatic for any of them. There's no free pass for teen idols to become more adult, mainstream artists. It will be interesting to watch."

A lot of people have been watching Aguilera with their jaws on the ground. "Sometimes, when kids want to seem like they're grown up, they start wearing less clothes. And that looks what Christina is trying to do."

That nugget of wisdom is delivered, with a laugh, by Jimmy Jam, the veteran music producer who, with partner Terry Lewis, has worked with Janet Jackson, Carey and many others. Jam says Aguilera is not the first diva to flash flesh, but he's not sure she needs to be the newest one.

"I think when you've got the goods and then you go in a shockingly different direction, it can be jolting for the public," says Jam.

"Dirrty" has not cleaned up with radio programmers as well as was hoped. But the video has been the talk of the town. In it, the scantily clad Aguilera writhes, vamps and slugs her way through a gritty club.

Aguilera, 21, seems like a girl looking to dirty-dance her troubles away. Despite the advice of many at her label, RCA Records, she opted for "Dirrty" as the first single from "Stripped" instead of the more radio-friendly ballad "Beautiful," and the album veers wildly from style to style, like a kid playing dress-up.

But Pollack says "Stripped" will be a hit because it has more than sex appeal. "It's like with Cher or Madonna through the years -- they walk out wearing something and it's the topic of conversation and everybody notices, but there also has to be music," Pollack says. "And there are a lot of good songs, including the next single, 'Beautiful.' "

Jam says Timberlake, also 21, might be trying on a new persona as well, albeit a less jolting one than Aguilera's.

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