When Avril Lavigne donned a skimpy Hooters costume at a 2004 Halloween gig in Philadelphia, the pint-sized punk princess put the scare into fans who’d taken heart in her appearance in 2002 as a gritty alternative to reigning tween-pop glamazons like Mandy Moore and Jessica Simpson. Subsequent photos taken over the summer of
Lavigne sporting a shiny blonde hairdo and an engagement ring from Sum 41’s
Deryck Whibley—previous paramour: Paris Hilton—only bolstered their anxiety.
These tender souls may have more to worry about. A new breed of post-Avril starlets (many entering music from the parallel universe of kiddie TV) are complicating the once simple distinctions between cream puff fluff and pop-punk spunk. Flexing the same God-given contradictions Lavigne does with her Estée Lauder scowl, these ladies bare midriff regularly but sing about hating gym class, and convincingly cover old new wave tunes without seeming to have ever heard the originals. What’s more, they do it as naturally as kids dressing up for Halloween.
Seventeen-year-old Tennessee farmhand Hope Partlow is the most promising member of this emergent cohort (even if, as she reported on her MySpace page last month, her contract’s been dumped by Virgin). On Who We Are, her excellent yet totally overlooked debut, Partlow gives the rural yearnings of a small-town girl some liberal city-chick polish, sassing up what she admits was an adolescence spent picking peas. “I don’t wanna put on my makeup,” Partlow sings over a skintight kick-and-snare groove in the title track. Yet that’s exactly what she does here, in her own appealingly earnest fashion. In “Girlfriend” she sounds like Shania Twain playing Mimi, the exotic dancer in Rent; in “Crazy Summer Nights,” about hanging out at the local car wash, she holds onto John Cougar as long as she can. Partlow’s tour de force, though, is “Sick Inside,” a seasick power ballad in which she apologizes to a classmate for kissing “a boy who is in love with you.” Over a wrenching beat that’s too slow to conceal a shred of emotion, she finally drops the mask, unveiling her titanic country-mouse insecurity.
Much of the meaning in Partlow’s music comes from her interaction with producer (and deposed Virgin chief) Matt Serletic’s arrangements—the way she’ll cede the spotlight to a nimbly strummed acoustic guitar, then snatch it back. Emma Roberts, niece of Julia and star of Nickelodeon’s Unfabulous, engages in no such back-and-forth on her CD, which sounds like the result of a couple of hours of high-priced karaoke in a plush Hollywood studio. In the torturously punned “Punch Rocker” (a Jill Sobule credit that nonetheless provides a pretty handy name for the music these kids make), she summons some goofy spirit over fuzzy Franz Ferdinand guitars. But homegirl can’t sing, and “Peter Punchkinhead” is worse than unfabulous—it’s unfunny.
Also an actor, Brie Larson fares much better on Finally Out of P.E., which offers more consistent bubblegrunge thrills than Hilary Duff’s recent hits comp. Larson’s theme is teenage self-reliance: In “Life After You” and “Go Goodbye,” she informs a pair of hapless exes of what they’re missing, and in the title track she begs her gym coach for a passing grade, since she’s “never gonna win a medal, but maybe a Grammy.” Appropriately, Larson’s one of the few tween stars unafraid of rap, so her CD is the worldliest-sounding here; in “Whatever” she even rides an alien synth bounce lifted from “Milkshake.”
Into the Rush also has a few ostensible hip-hop beats, but it’s hard to imagine a pair of sisters whiter than Alyson and Amanda Michalka—possibly including Prussian Blue, the California white-power duo that became a media sensation for a day or two in October. Newly inked to a development deal with the Disney Channel, Aly & AJ stick to tried-and-true self-help aphorisms in taut little tunes that end up rocking harder than you expect them to. Their manicured war cry comes in an album-closing “Walking on Sunshine,” where the sisters revel in their gleaming multi-platform privilege. And don’t it feel good?