Since Britney Spears arrived on the music scene three years ago, pop music has molded its teen queens according to three B's _ blondness, beauty and bustiers.
But a new crop of female singer-songwriters is challenging the notion that you have to bare your navel and cavort in tight clothes to be sexy and successful in pop music. Over the last year, Michelle Branch, Vanessa Carlton and Avril Lavigne have dominated the charts by putting more of the focus on their music.
Call them the Anti-Britneys.
"I'm just saying I don't want to sell sex," says Lavigne, a 17-year-old from Ontario, Canada, whose debut disc, Let's Go, has gone gold in a month. "I feel that's sort of lame and low. I've got so much more to say."
Fans are listening. In recent weeks, her first video, Complicated, bested Spears' latest video, Boys, on MTV's teen-frenzied TRL. Carlton, a 21-year-old piano-playing singer, has also been a mainstay on the show, along with the 19-year-old guitarist Branch, who sparked the trend when her disc, The Spirit Room, was released last August. It has sold more than 1-million copies.
"I think that a lot of people were really oversaturated with exactly the opposite of what we are," Branch says. "There were people dancing around who didn't write their own music, and really, that's been kind of the marketplace for the last five years."
After Spears showed she could sell millions, plenty of others followed: Christina Aguilera, Jessica Simpson, Mandy Moore, Willa Ford. Most of the teen groups, male and female, fit a similar mold, emphasizing style as much as song.
(The music of some other successful female singer-songwriters _ namely Alicia Keys, India.Arie and Nelly Furtado _ was not geared to the teenage audience.)
Then came the inevitable backlash. Teen pop's once white-hot sales have fallen off, and though Spears' latest album, Britney, is still a top-seller with 3.8-million copies sold, it has not done as well as her previous discs.
R&B singer turned pop-rock princess Pink has sold nearly as many copies as Spears with her second disc, M!ssundaztood. Released last fall, it has sold 3-million copies, and Pink has made a point in her music and interviews of how un-Britney-like she is, with her wild attitude and punk hairstyle.
"A lot of girls who grew up on Britney . . . they are a little bit older now, and they are into something different," says Sia Michel, editor in chief at Spin magazine. "It's sort of turning around from this idea when teenage fun was all about fun and frothiness."
Lavigne says today's fans want to hear music that's "more meaningful; there's more to it than just pretty songs that are all rhymey."
Her songs and those of Branch and Carlton are mostly about the same things that Spears and 'N Sync touch on: love and heartbreak. And Spears has taken to songwriting herself; she co-wrote a few on her latest disc.
But the songs of Branch, Carlton and Lavigne tend to be more introspective and lyrically sophisticated, delving into everyday teen angst a little deeper. Most were written or co-written by the singers.
The music and the singers' independent image harken back to Fiona Apple, Jewel, Alanis Morissette and Paula Cole, singer-songwriters who were the hottest thing in pop a few years ago, before teen pop took over.
Trying to buck the feel-good pop trend hasn't been easy, the artists say.
Even after she signed with A&M Records, Carlton says, she didn't get much attention until Keys, 21, became last year's sensation with her singing and songwriting and won five Grammys.
"Guys (at the label) were like, kicking themselves," she says. "And suddenly, then I became a priority."
Lavigne, who also plays guitar, says that at times when she was working on her album, people at Arista wanted her to sing other people's pop ballads instead of her songs, filled with attitude and angst.
"There was nothing wrong with (the other songs), but it wasn't me," she says.