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They're young, gifted and fast

Backstage at the Grammy Awards last month, Fiona Apple, 19, did a teenage double take when she was informed that LeAnn Rimes, the country singer who was named best new artist, was only 14. "No way!" Apple yelped, then calmed down. "Well, I guess I'm not the youngest person in the room anymore."

She'll have to get used to it; there are now teenage contenders in most sectors of pop. Forget about belting Tomorrow in the high school play. In the 1990s, the truly ambitious young performer aims for a Top 10 album, or at least a recording contract, well before graduation.

Rimes wasn't even a teenager when she made her first album (just re-released by MCA/Curb as The Early Years); she was in the studio at the age of 11. Teenagers are making themselves heard in rhythm-and-blues (Immature, Aaliyah, Brandy), grunge (Silverchair), confessional songs (Apple), hip-hop (Kris Kross, Foxy Brown) and blues (Jonny Lang, Kenny Wayne Shepherd).

While Alanis Morissette and Jewel are now old enough to vote, both came up with hit songs before they turned 20. And there are more youngsters on their heels this spring, including the pop-rock bands Hanson (three brothers ages 11, 13 and 16) and Radish (with a 15-year-old songwriter), an acoustic grunge outfit called Days of the New, and Brandy's funk-centered younger brother, Ray J, who is 16.

Like other child prodigies, teenage pop performers rarely come across as originals. They are gifted and well-coached mimics, using technical conventions to suggest experiences they may not have had. They moan and growl like their elders, making up in novelty what they lack in verisimilitude.

The childish voices of earlier under-age stars, such as the young Michael Jackson, have grown less fashionable than the simulated maturity of voices such as Rimes' in her homage to Patsy Cline or Apple's startling, melancholy alto.

The voices reflect a larger difference between 1990s teen stars and most of their predecessors. From Brenda Lee to Little Stevie Wonder to Debbie Gibson, young pop hit makers used to trade on a carefully constructed innocence.

Their piping vocals and sugarcoated lyrics were intended to ease young listeners into the pop market without worrying parents; it was pop with training wheels, G-rated and professionally cute.

But in the 1990s, adult notions arrive earlier. Rimes lets loose her twang as she sings My Baby, announcing that he's a "full-grown man" who "makes me feel like a natural woman/I know he's the only one who can rock my world." Foxy Brown, at 17, dispenses explicit sexual scenarios.

Immature's album, We Got It, is one long PG-rated come-on, promising "body shaking" and "lovemaking," though the singers never make their plans graphic.

Lang, who is 15, does a heavy-breathing version of the blues chestnut Good Morning, Little Schoolgirl. He may be the first bluesman to be unironic when he sings, "I'm a little schoolboy, too."

In some ways, teenage performers represent a triumph for the music business's niche marketing. While dividing the audience up by age (along with geography, ethnicity and social class), why not provide same-age stars for that all-important high school audience?

Arrested development has often paid off for songwriters who most vividly remember the whipsaw emotions and small but earthshaking conflicts of adolescence: the battles with authority figures, the confusion of sexual awakening, the peer pressures and impulses to rebel.

Why get some venerable 24-year-old's ideas about teen spirit when you can get them straight from the source? It's no wonder that Jewel's Who Will Save Your Soul?, a flat-footed and idealistic bit of high school poetry written while she was a teenager, stirs 15-year-olds into ardent sing-alongs.

Silverchair, the teenage Australian rock trio, borrows unabashedly from Metallica, Nirvana and Soundgarden but cuts through their poetic indirection to blurt out clumsy, undiluted adolescent angst: "Me and pain are the same/Me and shame take the blame." For their fans, craftsmanship would just get in the way.

Still, most teenage performers are packaged by their elders, providing voices and physical presences for marketed fantasies. Many teenage pop acts are akin to the teenagers in sitcoms who are smarter, sassier and more decisive than their parents.

(Brandy Norwood, who released her first album when she was 15, has shuttled between music and sitcoms since the early 1990s.) If baby boomers refused to grow up _ or, at least, continually present themselves that way on television _ then their children are on their own.

Teenage musicians face more obstacles than most fledgling acts. Trading on youth has a built-in time limit, and novelty acts fade fast. It's hard to imagine Immature touring under the same name in a decade (though that didn't stop the grown-up Beach Boys).

More seriously, there aren't many Stevie Wonders who can make the leap from child star to adult artist. Early success brings other perils; it can insulate musicians from the kind of ordinary life that they used to write about. And adolescence, no matter how gifted a teenager might be, is a difficult time to shape an identity, even when the music business isn't involved.

But in the 1990s, teenage performers can learn from decades of rock history, avoiding the most obvious pitfalls. And if they play their cards right, they can make it into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame before they turn 45.