Thursday, December 11, 2003

They are young women. Hear them lay claim to the mantle of singer-songwriter.

Alicia Keys, Nelly Furtado, Norah Jones, Michelle Branch, Vanessa Carlton, Avril Lavigne: They may vary in aptitude and style, but they are all part of a new breed of female pop stars.

Call them the Borderliners.

Let me explain: If Joni Mitchell, Carole King and Chrissie Hynde blazed the trail of songstresses who write as well as they sing, and if women such as Aimee Mann and Lucinda Williams are keeping the trail fresh, our new X-chromosomed crop is something different.

Much of the considerable respect they enjoy today is derived from their contradistinction from their contemporaries, the Tarts: Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Jessica Simpson.

They’re not quite Britney, and they’re not quite Joni. Hence the Borderline. They write, sing and play, but they need lots of outside help; they lack creative verve and imagination.

They are, to varying degrees, all talented musicians but they are all primarily performing artists, not boldly original creative artists.

Perhaps because of the pressures of MTV, they’re also image-conscious to a fault (reassuringly, not in Norah Jones’ case).

When did the Borderline become visible? The case could be made that it was in the late ‘80s, when Madonna began to affect seriousness.

The fault line became more apparent in 1993, with Sheryl Crow’s debut, “Tuesday Night Music Club.” She was an acclaimed update on the Mitchell archetype who made friends in high classic rock places, but the real mastermind behind the album was producer-guitarist Bill Bottrell, who wasn’t alone.

Take a look at the songwriting credits on that record — they’re as long as your arm.

However, my candidate for the first real Borderliner is Alanis Morissette, whose 1995 monster album “Jagged Little Pill” would’ve been nothing but a “Harmless Little Placebo” if not for the production and hook-writing of Glen Ballard.

“Pill” had all the markings of Borderline insipidity: It struck a singer-songwriter pose, but was calculated for easy Top 40 appeal.

Indeed, all the Borderliners have positioned themselves as singer-songwriters. But how did the music press come to accept their positioning at face value? I suspect that what’s behind it is something vaguely sinister. It is this: the soft chauvinism of low expectations.

In the most recent example of Borderline-dom, the 22-year-old Miss Keys on Dec. 2 released her highly anticipated sophomore album, “The Diary of Alicia Keys,” which debuted at #1 and made her the female artist with the highest number of first week scans in 2003 with over 618,000.

Miss Keys very much wants us to know she’s a virtuoso. On the back cover of the disc, there’s a baby grand piano turned on its side, in a state of disrepair.

The message is that the instrument is her milieu, that she’s no dabbler; a piano is in a workshop, and it’s being readied — or has just been played to shreds — by a real concertmaster.

Miss Keys can indeed play for real, but she back-pockets that refined talent. There are scattered displays, such as the opening flash of classical piano on “Harlem’s Nocturne” and a cascade of chromatic notes on “You Don’t Know My Name.”

But those moments are few and far between.

The singer-songwriter’s formidable playing skills, it turns out, are there only to embellish the muscular hip-hop and funk grooves that have netted her mega-platinum sales. Fine. Who can blame her? National Public Radio is a boring place.

Like Miss Keys’ debut, “Songs in the Key of A Minor,” “Diary” is an easy and eclectic listen, evoking old-time soul (“If I Ain’t Got You”), Isaac Hayes-style funk (“Heartburn”) and contemporary R&B (“Wake Up”). Knitting it all together in one go is a sexed-up version of the Gladys Knight hit “If I Was Your Woman.”

But there’s something missing on “Diary.” For all of its high-carb hooks, “Diary” lacks protein. “Diary” is a sugar high. It is 58 minutes of tonal sameness that seldom changes its subject matter of love on the rocks or on the make.

“Diary” faces a two-timing man about to split town and can think of nothing better to call him than a “Samsonite Man.” It says that “What goes around comes around / What goes up must come down” and, reaching further into its quiver of metaphors, calls it “Karma.”

On each track Miss Keys is helped by a bevy of co-writers and producers, suggesting that “Diary” isn’t quite what it says it is. If it’s a musical as well as personal diary, then Miss Keys is carefree enough to let friends and colleagues sound off in its pages.

Club grooves like the ones found on “Diary” are necessarily the stuff of collaboration with, in this case, rainmaking laptop jockeys such as the Kerry Brothers Jr., who re-create on “Karma” the same shards of processed orchestration that propelled rapper 50 Cent to fortune and fame.

The rule, which applies equally to Macy Gray and Miss Furtado, seems to be: If it makes us dance, why bother about who wrote what?

Miss Jones, who plays a decidedly different kind of music, is such a fresh and distinctive voice that one can easily forget that she penned little of the material on her debut though that could certainly change next year when she releases her follow-up.

Is it just me or is there something a mite patronizing in all the superlatives being lavished on the young performers?

My, Alicia plays a concert instrument; she sings with tingling soul and can hit nearly as many notes per bar as Mariah Carey; she braids her hair, too, and has impeccable taste in top hats. Why not let her stick her name on her own record?

Don’t get me wrong. Like Miss Furtado’s “Folklore,” “Diary” is a cleverly crafted record. It will shake rumps and strain subwoofers in old cars. And give it credit for piano-boostering its way out of the characterless “Zone” in which Miss Spears has placed herself.

But has Miss Keys — or any of the other Borderliners — even approached the songwriting achievements of predecessors such as Joni Mitchell, Carole King and Chrissie Hynde? Or even those of older peers still in their songwriting and recording primes such as Aimee Mann and Lucinda Williams?

To write memorable songs, it helps to have lived. Miss Keys, Miss Jones, Miss Furtado and the rest don’t have a lot of life behind them. But they do have a lot of career still before them, so there is plenty of time to close the gap with their hall of fame predecessors.

Can they reach those rarefied heights in time?

I have a hunch that some of them can.

But I also have a fear that until we start holding them to higher standards, we may never find out.

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