Absolutely Prefabulous

In the year of boy bands, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, and Survivor, it only made sense that we got a reality game show (ABC's Making the Band) that stitched together a vocal group called O-Town. (Unsurprisingly, in the networks' unfettered desire for mundane redundancy, the WB has just vomited up a retread named Pop Stars.) The "O" is for Orlando, named after the home base of O-Town's sleazy Svengali, Lou Pearlman (BSB, 'N Sync, LFO), though the group would have more accurately been named O-Ring, because they seem destined to go down in flames.

The first season, shot as the five boys squirmed their way through Pearlman's Trans Continental boot camp, captured cringe-inducing moments of bum notes, internal strife, and self-absorbed behavior exhibited by Ashley (the Cute one), Trevor (the down-to-earth one), Jacob (the arty one), Erik (the irresponsible one), and Dan (the ambitious one who, in keeping with reality television protocol, replaced a cast member who wigged out early on). My favorite scene was when Jacob, upon being informed that the group's self-penned MOR songs likely wouldn't appear on their album, launched into a rant about being told how to dance, dress, and sing, claiming that "not one person at Trans Con even knows what music is." He then piously and ridiculously claimed that his handlers were "afraid" of the boys' own music.

With the release of their debut album, these multimedia boy-droids have geared up for total saturation, popping up everywhere from Regis to Wal-Mart parking lots. On their hit single, "Liquid Dreams" (ewww, gross), O-Town's chiseled, thoroughbred studs utter a new word ("morpharotic") and collage an ideal woman from the pages of glossy style magazines, just as a junior high school boy with scissors and glue might: "I dream about a girl who's a mix of Destiny's Child/Just a little touch of Madonna's wild style/With Janet Jackson's smile/Throw in a body like Jennifer's/You've got the star of my liquid dream." The music aims for a midtempo bounce, but barely rises above a sputtering dribble, never overcoming its assembly-line origins. And given those origins, the song's lyrics (which also toss in Cindy Crawford's, Angelina Jolie's, Salma Hayek's, and Tyra Banks's body parts) stretch beyond cynical sexism and sound, well, downright creepy—making the lyrics' dream-girl seem less like Miss U.S.A. and more like the Bride of Frankenstein with silicone implants.

Buff and bodacious S Club 7.
photo courtesy of Interscope Records
Buff and bodacious S Club 7.

The O-Townies are much better playing the sappy, sincere ballad card than trying to prove their heterosexuality with ogle-poppers like "Liquid Dreams" or "Sexiest Woman Alive." They sing their hearts out on a lighter-waving piece of Diane Warren power-puff called "Baby I Would"—occasionally, inspired flashes of passion can seep even from gooey adult-contemporary poo disguised as creamy teen heartbreak.

On Pop Starsand Making the Band, "character" and "real person" are blurred even more than they were with, say, Ricky Nelson or Mickey Dolenz. But compared to their counterparts on those two new shows, the kids in S Club 7 (whose on-air personalities are scripted) are authentic traditionalists. Their ongoing TV series follows the wacky adventures of seven fame-seeking British brats, and although this semi-low-budget BBC show can't quite go toe-to-toe with Monkeesreruns, it has its own charms. These buff and bodacious boys and girls are bubbling just under the surface of fame, teetering on the brink of either megasuccess or premature ejection from the rocket to riches. Either way, it's interesting to watch.

The cable-TV club kids haven't quite made it out of the Fox Family ghetto, but 7may be just the thing to make them go bling bling. Their bio trumpets that S Club's new album is "remarkably more mature" than their kiddiecentric debut, spelling out the dreaded M-word that's like kryptonite to teen idols. But though the album's smoothed-out first single, "Natural," does indeed sound slathered with Rodney Jerkins hand lotion, the hyperactive sugar-crush of "Reach" could be Martha and the Vandellas backed by Hanson, circa 1997: toe-tapping fun, in an Up With People on methamphetamines kind of way. Even better, the schoolhouse rap of "I'll Keep Waiting" fuses a big, hooky multitracked girl-group chorus with a laid-back electro-boogie beat, and "The Colour of Blue" is a sweet, singsongy number for shiny happy people who want to know what love is.

With all the recent complaining about kiddie-pop's dominance, few have stopped to observe there's not a ton of fizzy pop or childish exuberance in the latest wave of girl and boy barbarians at the gates. S Club 7 carry some of the spirit and spunk missing from today's music and, for now at least, their head-bobbing bubble-soul ditties outnumber their more respectable r&b songs. So there's no doubt that if these electric youth warriors successfully scale the walls, it will set off another wave of anxiety attacks among people who somehow see the onslaught of fabulous prefab folks as threatening to their existence. But if authenticity is what you want, I'll take my S Club 7 CDs and you grab your ethnographic field recordings of potato farmers rhythmically slapping their buttocks. By the end of the night, we'll see who has more fun.

 
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