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Teen sensations grow up so fast

August 09, 2008|Margaret Wappler | Times Staff Writer

Media theorist Marshall McLuhan once stated that anyone who tries to make a distinction between education and entertainment doesn't know the first thing about either. If only he were alive and on hand at the Orpheum Theatre on Thursday, where creme de la creme teen-pop performers Jordin Sparks and Jesse McCartney beautifully illustrated his point.

First lesson: Things on TV are not always as they appear; occasionally, they are better. Sparks won the sixth season of "American Idol" but not without some underwhelming moments when no amount of luscious arpeggios could add shine to her flat eyes. Whatever charisma Sparks sometimes lacked in Nigel Lythgoe's coliseum she has since gained as a working vocalist with her own impressively polished album.

Performing in a black dress and blow-dried straight hair, Sparks showed off a chatty spirit and a sweet and earthy stage personality. By the time she got to her closing number, the soaring, woeful "No Air," she had the audience nestled in her hand. Two little girls with heart-printed handbags swayed together while mom sang along in the next seat, her Bluetooth above her ear beaming its signal.

Next lesson: Respect your idols. McCartney didn't compete on "American Idol," but he ranked high in another training ground: the boy band (in his case, Dream Street). Like Sparks, who sang plenty of covers during her set, McCartney isn't trying to distinguish himself so much from his idols that he leaves them behind. In fact, he builds their strengths into his show.

He opened with a slice of the Verve's "Bittersweet Symphony" and later said backstage that he wanted an epic start and that he first learned of the song from the Nike commercial in the '90s, an increasingly fertile ground for artists' exposure. Dressed in a sharkskin-colored suit and white sneakers, McCartney channeled Justin Timberlake's urban-posh charm with coordinated dance moves and his own brand of sprightly R&B. Wherever his eyes roamed or his finger pointed, a wildfire of teen screaming broke out.

McCartney, like Sparks, is clearly a quick study, both ready to absorb the lessons of performers who came before them, and they are already armed with formidable credits. They walk a fine line where homage sometimes threatens to become mimicry, but they both seem to be slowly but surely stepping into their own.


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