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Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2002

Nu-girls on the block

Special to The Japan Times

Last June, Newsweek spotted a species of American teenagers that it called Gamma Girls: high school females who are ambitious about their futures and smart about the dangers of sex and drugs. Rolling Stone more recently ran an article profiling college-age women who exert "control" over their bodies and do what they like, regardless of social convention.

News photo
Vanessa Carlton at Shibuya Kokaido

You can't help but notice the tone of awe, as if high school girls intent on getting good grades and fulfilling careers had never existed; or college women had never before asserted their will and self-possession. Thirty years after the commodification of the women's movement, girls still bewilder the Establishment (yes, Rolling Stone is the Establishment).

But whether or not the Establishment understands them, they must be listened to, which explains the recent ascent of independent-minded girl singers on the album charts. Because these artists write their own songs, work in the conventional rock idiom and, supposedly, chart their own destinies, they have been labeled the "anti-Britneys."

But while the media prefers to look upon them as being career-driven, it's obvious -- from listening to Michelle Branch, who toured Japan last fall, Vanessa Carlton, who toured here last week, and Avril Lavigne, who has yet to come here but whose CD, "Let Go," was the biggest-selling overseas album in Japan this summer -- that "nu-girls" still just wanna have fun.

They also wanna express all those messy emotions that girls love to express, but the problem for teen confessional songwriters has always been that they have too many romantic feelings but not enough romantic experience.

Less concerned with careers as musicians than with honesty as artists (at least for the moment), they write about what they know, and while it isn't much, it's still overwrought. On her Top 10 hit, "Everywhere," Branch spends seven breathless verses obsessing over a boy who doesn't seem to notice her. Lavigne is more practical in her imagined devotions, an attitude that is better suited to her punkier sound. When she sings about a boy being "complicated," it's a put-down, but that doesn't stop her from describing the situation with every adjective at her command. And Carlton, the least subtle of the three and the most syntactically challenged (her debut album is titled "Be Not Nobody"), seems to spend every sleepless night thinking up ways of "getting inside your head."

So while the nu-girls are all being pitched at the same demographic, each displays her own stylistic distinctions, and not just with regard to the music. Branch, whose songs are as generic as Sheryl Crow's, is into jeans and leather jackets, while Lavigne appeals to the skater crowd's rebellious self-image with heavy eyeliner and a signature necktie worn over whatever. Carlton could pass as a wedding planner. If they have anything in common in their wardrobes, it's that none of them expose their midriffs, a decision that, considering how ubiquitous the look is among teens the world over, seems calculated.

The avoidance of sexual signifiers is a rebuke to Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, both of whom ditched the does-she-or-doesn't-she ambiguity of their first singles for the trappings of Vegas hookers. When Lavigne sings "I'm naked around you/Does it show?," she's not being provocative. She's simply copping a metaphor from Natalie Imbruglia, who, within this particular discussion, qualifies as a mentor.

The other quality the nu-girls share is a hyperactive performance style. It's not enough that they try to empty out their thesauri with every song they write. They also try to cover every inch of the emotional landscape. They're the Ritalin brunettes, a description that Vanessa Carlton owned up to at her Oct. 3 concert at Shibuya Kokaido.

While explaining that she wrote "Ordinary Day" in one sitting, Carlton told the rapt, mostly female crowd, "I have attention-deficit disorder, which, y'know, is plaguing the U.S. right now." Carlton's epidemiological expertise is questionable, but it's easy to believe she's got a few extra enzymes racing through her bloodstream. Fast-tracked for professional ballet as a teenager (she's now 21, practically a hag), she bridled under the discipline of classical dance and took out her frustrations on the piano. Carlton isn't a great player, but she tortures the poor instrument so thoroughly that she can easily be mistaken for someone with an artistic temperament.

Her temperament, though, is mostly American suburban. When she said both the F- and S-words in one of her incomprehensible between-song monologues, she added, "My mom is gonna yell at me for cursing," a worry that would seem to indicate mom (or one of her spies) was backstage.

Carlton's playing and singing are so baroque as to be indecipherable, but the audience was caught up in her energy. Those sloppy, incoherent emotions were proof that she was real and, at that particular moment, completely theirs. At one point, she introduced a new song called "She Floats." "I haven't figured out what it's about yet," she said. "It's either a dead girl floating or a girl trying to find her utopia." The lack of thematic coherence was disarming, charming and hardly alarming.

News photo
Alanis Morissette at the Budokan

On the following night over at the Budokan, the queen of emotional incoherence, Alanis Morissette, held court before an even more devout audience. Morissette is seen as the stylistic model for the nu-girl rockers, and like most gurus, she's more well-rounded than her acolytes are. Everyone knows that the former child TV star had plenty of romantic experience before she was old enough to drink. Her new album, "Under Rug Swept," documents an affair she had as a teenager with a man 15 years her senior.

And therein lies the difference, because while Alanis' vocals are even more annoyingly mannered than the nu-girls', her melodies more circular, her vocabulary more exhaustive and her syntax more Byzantine, she manages to distill these traits into compelling music.

Of course, at 28 she has more backstory from which to draw, but even her 1995 debut, "Jagged Little Pill," displayed a range of emotional experience that, for all its histrionics, was broad, deep and credible. The outrage over "You Oughta Know" was pegged to its sexual candor but what made a bigger impression was the anger, which Alanis vented with all the unmediated rancor of adolescence. Singer-songwriters, male and female, had always approached romantic disillusion from a mature perspective; Alanis looked at it as a kid would.

The rawness is still there, but now she's paid to act it out on stage. It's difficult to think of another rock star who's used music as therapy so successfully. When she wasn't behind a microphone playing guitar, she paced the stage fitfully, like an animal in a cage, the original Ritalin brunette. "This is gonna get messy," she sang in "Hands Clean."

Like her truest acolyte, Fiona Apple, Alanis writes way too many songs about duality, a catch-all theme that presents everything she feels at once. But even if nothing in her repertoire of self-investigation approaches the exactitude of Joni Mitchell's stanza, "I could drink a case of you/And still be on my feet," she projects her lovelorn anxieties with force. The main difference is that Mitchell did it in miniature and Alanis needs a backing band of headbangers.

In the rock tradition, guys have attitude and girls have feelings. For some women, this dichotomy is pure (Mitchell), for others it isn't (Chrissie Hynde), and for still others it simply doesn't apply (Patti Smith). Alanis fits the tradition all too perfectly. She finished up a towering version of "You Learn" by hopping all over the stage like a bunny rabbit. To paraphrase a famous old-guy singer-songwriter, she sings just like a woman, but she flakes out just like a little girl. Stylistically, Alanis has a lot to teach the nu-girls, but they'll have to learn about life on their own.

Nu-girls' lyrical wit 'n' wisdom

Back to the kitchen "That particular month we need time to marinate in what 'us' meant"

"That Particular Time," Alanis Morissette

Back to the beauty parlor "She must rinse this all away/She can't love him this way

"Rinse," Vanessa Carlton

Mixed metaphors made easy "I bet you're wondering when my conditional police will force you to cough up"

"You Owe Me Nothing in Return," Alanis Morissette

Pulling the plug on double entendres "You've seen my secret garden where all my flowers grow/in my imagination"

"You Get Me," Michelle Branch

Moon-June-spoon stuff "I was weak and you were strong/and me and my guitar we strummed along"

"Sweet Misery," Michelle Branch

Sociological shorthand "He was a punk, she did ballet/What more can I say?"

"Sk8erboi," Avril Lavigne

Candidates for rephrasing "I want to know that I have been to the extreme/so knock me off my feet"

"Anything but Ordinary," Avril Lavigne

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