A Newsweek cover story last month branded them “Gamma Girls”—the allegedly emerging social class of female teenagers who aren’t meanies yet are unconcerned with being popular. They get good grades, play sports, and shun social deviancy in an effort to get life right the first time. Anyway, if adulthood is just high school with money, it would seem that these Gammas best get accommodated by the music business. After all, if this burgeoning target demographic considers experimenting with sex and drugs so unseemly, maybe they feel the same about downloading.
Proof that Gamma Girls might be a genuine movement can be found in the current hit parade—they have names like Michelle, Vanessa, and Avril. All with straight manes, flat faces, and, most of all, an air of terminal uncertainty. A blueprint of sorts had already been provided by Nelly Furtado, who carved out a radio-ready niche as a fanciful coffeehouse refugee who gets so giddy at the fact that you’re paying her any attention whatsoever, it seems downright perverse to think that she might have any carnal desires beyond being like a bird, hanging out with Missy Elliott, and giving Portugal a World Cup theme song. She projects nothing that might compel any dudes to speak of hooking up with her. The bare midriff isn’t meant to tease, any more than an exposed earlobe.
Despite the best efforts a decade ago to package Juliana Hatfield into something more than Evan Dando’s virginal enabler, there has never been a culture of performers like this before, because there had never been that damn Britney Spears to get the dialectic started. For lyrical fodder, Pink might milk her indifference to being pigeonholed, but her name is not Susan—she’s still filed under Pink. You can’t switch your personal prototype in The Breakfast Club from Molly Ringwald to Ally Sheedy and not alienate the vast expanse that rests between. That’s where these three creatures have stumbled into the picture.
Because, even if you are a high school girl too concerned with impressing a college admissions officer to grapple with emotion, at least you understand devotion. That is Michelle Branch’s cuddliest commodity—on “All You Wanted,” her biggest and most recent hit off a year-old album, this Arizona 18-year-old offers to save you and take you away from here. Yet the offer sounds mighty tentative, since she actually wants you to show her the way. If only the boys her age could muster more than mumbling propositions punctuated by the occasional shrug. Indeed, there are no delusions of romance on The Spirit Room. One ditty is called “I’d Rather Be in Love,” but darned if she anticipates it happening anytime soon. Based on her initial crop of songs, Branch should keep plugging away at being mistaken for Todd Rundgren’s daughter. The day she kisses a girl, her career will be all over.
More cathartic yearning comes from Vanessa Carlton, if only because “A Thousand Miles” beckons the listener to thrust along by playing the air string section. At the piano, Carlton postures like Susan Dey from a dysfunctional Partridge Family. Her dewy vocals suggest she’d rather be fixated on the Dewey decimal system—she oughta know that The Celestine Prophecy is at number 823.09—than staring down Fiona Apple comparisons. But even a 21-year-old librarian type from Pennsylvania needs to let her hair down: Be Not Nobody‘s pinnacle, “Prince”—where she moans about being “willing and able to come” is to its namesake what “Oh Sheila” was to recent Brooks & Dunn collaborator Sheila E. Too bad Carlton succumbs to covering “Paint It Black” in a vain campaign to invoke brooding. Is she goth or not? Who knows? She’s just an ex-ballerina too adept at getting lost in herself to worry about anybody else’s dumb-assed feelings.
Avril Lavigne is easier to please in “Complicated”—at 17, she doesn’t want to be frustrated, nor will she settle for being sedated. To her pubescent constituency-in-waiting, Let Go might as well be channeling Edgar Allan Poe and John Bonham—even if she’s actually more like the resurrection of Poe and Tracy Bonham. Presumably, the shadow cast by Alanis Morrisette has just started to fade in affable Avril’s hometown of Napanee, Ontario. Once the wailing gets out of the way, she manages to sound like the long-awaited hybrid of Suzi Quatro and Stacey Q. Seems that L.A. Reid told her she’d be a pop star if she kept three baby-faced male bandmates at close range—thus helping facilitate a tomboy image that will endure until the day Avril turns into Gwen Stefani, bemoaning the rock star boyfriend who refuses to knock her up. For now, Lavigne is extolling the virtues of being out with the out crowd. It’s the kind of conceit that cheerleaders just don’t understand, and sufficient reassurance for Gamma Girls to stay the course. In the end, Avril gets away with purring, “I’m naked around you/And it feels so right,” simply because her clothes ain’t going nowhere.