Life in Plastic, It’s Fantastic

Who are all these new singers who go straight in at No 1? Caroline Sullivan on the rise of the boil-in-the-bag pop star

MEET 18-YEAR-OLD Christina Aguilera, the latest person-you’ve-never-heard-of to top the singles chart. Her debut, ‘Genie in a Bottle’, sold 172,600 copies last week thanks to heavy advance airplay and teen-mag cover stories that appeared before the record was even released. Little Christina, who’s from Pittsburgh and was once a Mickey Mouse Club Mouseketeer on American TV, is set to be the biggest sensation in Teensville, according to insiders.

Smash Hits editor John McKie is so excited that “we’ve even given her a nickname: Christina Aqualibra.” Which would be pretty impressive if we hadn’t heard exactly the same claims made of a panoply of other young hopefuls in the past year.

Industry sources predict that next month’s debut by BreZe, the controversially young (the oldest is 11) girl group signed for £500,000 by Warner Music, will repeat the feat. Their instant success has raised the stakes for other would-be teen sensations, who must now consider themselves failures if they don’t go straight to the top first time out. (Farewell, then, Northern Line, A1 and Thunderbugs.) More damagingly, the formerly rare achievement of having a huge hit with a first record is now so commonplace that the UK singles chart is no longer taken seriously in other countries.

“Going straight in at number one used to be a real event, but it’s not now,” concedes Gavin Reeve, a marketing manager at Aguilera’s label, RCA. Aguilera’s self-titled album may have sold 2m copies in America, but the Backstreet Boys’ latest has done 8m, so does that make her a phenomenette?

There’s something a bit unreal about Christina, Britney and their child-woman colleagues, a sensation that they’ve been reconstituted by adding water. The reason is that there’s too much at stake to allow adolescent artists to evolve at their own mistake-prone pace. The age at which people start buying records has dropped to as young as three — as soon as Junior is able to lisp, “I want that CD” — meaning there’s a significant kiddie pound put there. And with even supermarkets stocking CDs, there are more places than ever to spend it. Meeting the demand has become a finely calibrated science in which a teen act can spend up to two years in “development”. During that time, they’re scrutinised from every angle and fitted with an image (like Aguilera’s virginal-sexpot persona).

The musical side isn’t neglected, either. Songs are bought in from successful writers like Diane Warren, and the sound manipulated into kid-friendly catchiness with a mildly risqué bent.

She does have a big, vibrant voice — ‘Genie in a Bottle’ gives scant indication of her abilities — that may just take her out of the teen ghetto when she’s had a chance to grow up. At the moment, though, she seems to have relatively little control over her career.

“I do think I had a say in what was picked [for my album],” she hesitantly asserts, then confesses she hasn’t even met all of her producers. Contrast that with the easy assurance of her idol, Madonna, when she started out 15 years ago. The difference was that Madonna was already an adult, with fully-formed tastes and a disinclination to let anyone tell her what to do. Christina, Britney and 1999’s other overnight sensations maybe single-mindedly ambitious, but they’re also young and pliable. That can be a recipe for trouble.

© Caroline SullivanThe Guardian, 15 October 1999

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