It’s been an amazing decade for teenpop, and it’s amazing right now, Aly & AJ’s “Rush” coming in at the end of last year and the Veronicas’ “4ever” this year, each with absolutely piercing penetrating X-ray harmonies, as vibrant and insanely sweet as the early Beatles and Byrds before those bands “grew” out of it. In retrospect it feels as if, starting back in 2001 with Michelle Branch’s “Everywhere” and on through Avril Lavigne’s “Complicated,” Ashlee Simpson’s “La La,” and Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone,” something has been straining to let loose: simple outrageous exquisite sound. Maybe because Aly & AJ and the Veronicas are both sister acts, two lead singers apiece, there’s no holding back their harmonies.
Of course, it’s not so simple. The same high harmony can be eerie or desperate or blissful depending on what surrounds it and how it’s delivered. And harmony is just one of the things going on in a song, and songs like these are just a sliver of what’s happening in teenpop, which is never just joy joy joy kids kids kids fun fun fun, anyway. The Beatles were never merely yeah yeah yeah either (“she says you hurt her so, she almost lost her mind”). “4ever” starts with dissonant guitar twang, then in the verse the vocals do a bitchy brat-punk and the music goes up a menacing Transylvanian half-step—as the lead singer basically orders some guy to come on to her—that leads into cascading harmony, inviting us to surround ourselves in its blinding emotion. But in the break the girls sing, as if bargaining, “Let’s pretend you’re mine—we could just pretend, we could just pretend, yeah yeah.” So the ecstatic “We could make the night last forever” has as its underpinnings the idea that not only won’t life last forever but that this particular love won’t even make it past the night.
Which may be how the Veronicas want it. Like a lot of teenpoppers, they run psychologist Erik Erikson’s stage five of youth development (identity versus role diffusion) into stage six (intimacy versus isolation) so as to come up with identity versus intimacy, which is certainly a no-win dichotomy. It leaves me uneasy, despite my liking the music on The Secret Life of . . . . No other songs are as good as “4ever,” but a slew are somewhat within range, with the same brat-bitch vocals and scintillating harmonies and with lyrics that all say “It ain’t me babe” in some way or another: I’m not who you think I am, I’m not who you want, our affair isn’t what it seems. Then, as the album tails off, they sing several sappy love songs with a pro forma ache that’s as dull as any other pop singer’s pro forma ache. This isn’t a poor batting average (two-thirds good), but I’m left feeling queasy, the Veronicas’ being sentimental and sharp-tongued in such proximity. But hey, what’s my problem? Wouldn’t “sentimental and sharp” be, like, the woman of my dreams? Well, the “sharpness” is sometimes glib—the ease with which they put down potential suitors and throw over boyfriends—and I’m wavering between two descriptions: “sentimental and sharp” when I’m feeling good about it, “sappy and caustic” otherwise. One track that bugs me in particular tells a potentially interesting story: A longtime trusted gay confidant whom the narrator had opened her soul to unexpectedly starts putting the moves on her; she not only doesn’t want this, she feels vulnerable and betrayed. So far so human, and I think homophobia is the opposite of the song’s intent, but the line that’s given the spotlight, the showstopper, is “I always thought you were gay,” the word “gay” hanging there as if it’s something creepy.
In fact, the Veronicas‘ sound is unsettled, though this isn’t necessarily a flaw: Their high-pitched beauty feels aggressive, like those needlepoint water sprays you can set on your shower head. “Harm me with harmony,” Naughty by Nature once said. It’s like a woman who will wrap herself deliciously around you and then spit in your eye just to show you she’s real.