Packaging is paramount with the new teen idols


January 14, 1999

Britney Spears

...Baby One More Time (Jive 01241 41651)

Anyone who wonders whether the current baby boom will have as marked an effect on popular music as the last one did need only look at the number of teen-idol acts crowding the pop charts. In the last few months, 'N Sync, the Backstreet Boys and 98 Degrees have all put singles into the Top 10, making teen pop a stronger force on the charts than it has been since the days of Bobby Rydell and Fabian.

What's interesting is that this new wave of teen idols is -- to cite an up-and-coming British combo -- pretty much a "Boyzone." Unlike the teen pop boom of the '80s, when Debbie Gibson and Tiffany were every bit as big as New Edition and New Kids on the Block, the stars of today's teen pop are almost exclusively male.

Britney Spears hopes to change that with her first album, "...Baby One More Time."

An energetically wholesome, aggressively marketed 16-year-old from small-town Louisiana, Spears epitomizes the modern idol aesthetic. Her songs are an easily digestible distillation of hip pop styles (hip-hop, dancehall, club music), while her singing offers a perfect balance between imitativeness and individuality. Naturally, her CD comes complete with an interactive CD-ROM element and a link to her Web site.

Spears, in other words, is a perfect pop product for the Playstation generation -- entertaining, accessible and slickly packaged.

Still, there's something vaguely endearing about how blatant Spears and company are about the teen merchandising game. As creepy as parents may find the "Britney Spears Official Fan Merchandise" catalog inserted in the CD (or the ad for the coming Backstreet Boys album tacked onto the end of the album), Spears' peers almost look forward to such features. After all, for many pre-teens, product news is the only news that matters.

Besides, Spears' music is itself a sort of salesmanship, selling a vision of teen life to kids too young to have experienced the real thing. Ballads like "From the Bottom of My Broken Heart" basically just peddle idealized heartbreak, doing for today's lovestruck youth what tunes like "Teen Angel" did for their parents (or grandparents).

If there's any real cause for complaint with Spears' music, it would be that it is such an obvious conglomeration of pre-existing pop sounds. The album's title tune sounds like Aaliyah produced by Ace of Base, while "Born To Make You Happy" comes on like a cross between Robyn and Mariah Carey -- though without the grit of either.

That probably won't matter to her target audience, though. With a teen star like Spears, what's being sold is the package, not the content. So why even worry about something as silly as originality? **

J.D. Considine


Michel Block

Schumann, "Novelletten," Opus 21, and encores by Debussy and Block (Pro Piano Records PPR 224514); Granados, "Goyescas" (Pro Piano Records PPR 224518)

Even piano aficionados under the age of 50 may not be familiar with the name of Michel Block. Block, now 61, was perhaps the most exciting and talked-about young American-trained pianist on the New York music scene in the early 1960s. In an era of clinically perfect, often lifeless playing, Block was an exciting risk-taker. He performed pieces as technically difficult as Stravinsky's "Petrouchka" with all the pyrotechnical display of a July 4th celebration or as musically challenging as Schubert's posthumous A Major Sonata with unaffected profundity and feeling.

Why Block did not achieve the fame attained by such contemporaries as Vladimir Ashkenazy, Martha Argerich and Maurizio Pollini no longer matters. What does is that these performances of Schumann's "Novelletten" and Granados' "Goyescas" (recorded live in 1980 and 1981 at Indiana University in Bloomington) are superb. His interpretations of Granados' "Goyescas" display imagination, rhythmical elan and knife-edge clarity that rival those of Alicia de Larrocha, and he has a more varied tonal palette and a bigger, warmer sound than the great Spanish pianist. His performances of Schumann's Novellettes are of equal stature. Other pianists -- notably Arthur Rubinstein and Sviatoslav Richter -- have recorded a few of these psychological depth charges with such gunpowder explosiveness. Only Block brings that quality to all of them. Both CDs: ****

Stephen Wigler


Phil Woods featuring Johnny Griffin

The Rev & I (Blue Note 94100)

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