The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Charge of the Britney brigade

Last August, when Britney Spears announced a hiatus from the music business, her detractors enjoyed a snigger or two. She’s finished, they chuckled, a washed-up hot-pants diva whose simmering harlot act had overstayed its welcome. The teen-pop craze seemed, at the time, fatally wounded and was presumed to be a few heartbeats from a bright pink toe tag.

And if this corpse were buried, well, that’d be the end of Ms Spears, wouldn’t it' By January, an 18-year-old Canadian lass named Avril Lavigne was being hailed as the Britney-slayer, lauded for writing her own songs, playing an instrument and dressing in anti-showbiz, unslutty duds, such as T-shirts and jeans. A new era of substance seemed to be dawning, an era that would wipe away all the froth that had so enraptured 12-year-olds for so long.

Thanks for playing our game, Miss Midriff. Don’t let the door hit your career on the way out.

But 11 months after announcing her hiatus, look who’s laughing.

True to her word, Britney hasn’t released any music lately, but the world of female singers is today more Spearsified than ever.

The Britney Brigade just keeps growing. And here’s the funniest part: Few of these recruits actually belong in this army.

Remember when Jewel was a preachy coffeehouse folk poet who wondered Who will sa-aa-aa-ve your soul' She’s been rah-rahed off the field by a perky cheerleader with a mesh shirt that doesn’t cover her bellybutton. On her latest, 0304, Jewel regresses to a high school sophomore, her do-gooder sentimentality buried under mechanized beats and the Abba-esque group harmonies that are teen pop’s favorite cliche.

If you want me let me know/ I promise I won’t say no, she sings on Intuition, a tune that could have been an outtake from Britney’s Oops, I Did It Again sessions. Jewel even resorts in the liner notes to instant-message glyphs (Would U like 2 come along') and brings aboard a producer named Lester Mendez, whose previous credits include work with the Spice Girls and Shakira.

All this is so shocking that 0304 comes with an explanation. “This record may seem different to you,” she writes in the liners. “To me, it’s close to what’s been in my head for years.”

What, you thought she was mulling the Greenpeace agenda all this time' Nope. Britney is the soundtrack to Jewel’s life.

Jewel isn’t the only singer trying to back-handspring into the lives of youngsters. Liz Phair took five years off from fame and emerged with a decidedly grit-free rock album that sounds sunny enough for the Jell- shot contest at spring break. You’d think a single mom of 36 would have some grown-up things on her mind, but within a minute of the album opener, Extraordinary, Phair is offering to demonstrate her love-worthiness by jumping into a car and running stop signs in the buff.

Four of the 14 tracks here — including Extraordinary — were co-penned by the Matrix, a Los Angeles-based songwriting trio that has rented its mastery of the three-minute pop song to artists like the Backstreet Boys and Lavigne. (Yes, it turns out Avril doesn’t really write her songs, either.)

The Matrix excel at what they do, but they sell a formula that Phair’s longtime fans would be surprised to learn she’s buying.

This is the woman who in 1993 released Exile in Guyville, a sexually blunt album intended as a song-for-song answer to the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street. Guyville is idiosyncratic and raunchy enough to seem like the work of just one febrile and highly original imagination. Not true of Phair’s new album. It sounds a bit like Avril after five beers and a couple of heartbreaks.

So even if Britney’s next album bombs — there are reports she’s collaborating with, who else, the Matrix '— those eulogies back in August seem pretty silly. She has won. And all efforts to out-Spears her are doomed to fail because she does herself better than anyone. If you’re looking for a heroine to sa-aa-aa-ve pop’s soul, your wait could be a long one.

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