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Evolving idols

Okay, we're confused: Justin Timberlake and Christina Aguilera are selling millions of CDs? And drawing thousands and thousands of people to what Rolling Stone magazine has officially told us is the sexiest tour of the year?

What year is it, anyway?

After all, as we all know, teen pop stars come and teen pop stars go. And usually quickly. One day you've got 14-year-old girls screaming at you and adorning their bedrooms with your photo, and a year or two later you're a trivia question at a beer bash, old news as your former fans get out of high school and discover new favorites.

But no, it really is 2003, and Timberlake and Aguilera, whom we first saw as cute, bubbly kids back in 1998 and 1999, respectively, have defied the usual pop music one-and-done/rocket-ride-to-nowhere story: The pair's co-headline tour is doing solid, if not sell-out, business in most markets.

Moreover, their recent solo CDs, Justified and Stripped, have sold more than 2-million copies each and spawned several hit singles. Timberlake's Rock Your Body hit No. 5 on Billboard's singles chart. Aguilera's Beautiful went top 10, and Fighter is still around after peaking at No. 20.

Just as significantly, the pair have become genuine pop-culture figures. Timberlake gained that status through his tabloid-ready romance with Britney Spears and a more sophisticated R&B/hip-hop sound, and by collaborating with urban music heavy-hitters. Aguilera gets the attention through an ever-shifting display of hair and clothing styles and raunchy videos.

"It's easy to understand," said Amy Doyle, MTV's vice president of music and talent programming. "Both of them came back after riding the new pop wave with a new look and a new sound. Justin incorporated more soulful vocals, which is what people want. His timing was perfect.

"And Christina came back pushing the envelope with Dirrty and got noticed, and people respected her for not being put in a box with all the other young singers, the Jessica Simpsons and the Mandy Moores."

Doyle, and others, agree that part of what separates the pair from the pack of late-'90s pop acts such as Simpson and O-Town is an eye for reinvention and actual talent.

In both cases, the reinvention reflected their core audience's maturation from teenagers to young adults. Suddenly, both seemed, well, more adult and less like little kids at the time their early fans were growing out of being little kids. Spears, for all her sales, does not have as strong a voice as Aguilera, and her transition from kid to adult, detailed on her latest CD, 2001's Britney, often sounded forced. Aguilera's willingness to try a variety of styles has made her appear to have more musical maturity.

Of the two, though, Timberlake has been more successful at merging music with image. By teaming up with such respected names as Nelly and the Neptunes, he has earned genuine respect among many urban music fans. He recently became one of the few white acts to be on the cover of Vibe magazine.

"He seems to have a genuine respect and love for hip-hop and dance music," said Andy Greenwald, a senior contributing writer for Spin magazine. "He didn't act like he could waltz from a 14-year-old girl's bedroom wall to the hip-hop charts. He's the first white singer to be accepted on this level in urban music since the early days of George Michael's solo career.

"He went to the Neptunes and (producer) Timbaland and said, "You do what you do, and I'll work with that,' and it produced some great tracks. He's not pandering. And he really has personality and charisma. People genuinely like him, and he has enormous good will among the fans and the media."

On the negative side, both have harsh critics, people who say that Timberlake sounds too much like vintage Michael Jackson and that Aguilera is selling sex to generate sales.

Serena Kim, Vibe's features editor, said that both are "here to stay. Maybe at some point Christina will settle down and find herself and realize she doesn't have to be so ostentatious."

Greenwald said that both are now "more celebrities than musicians," but he also thinks that Aguilera, who can "make her voice work in a variety of styles," could be the one with staying power.

"She really has a voice, and a voice that sounds good on the radio," he said. "And you can't ever count out someone like that. In many ways, she's on a path to a better career than Britney. She's already pushed through the rockiest part of her career. She's a diva now."