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Selling out with sex

As Team Pop anticipates Christina Aguilera and Justin Timberlake's Tampa show on Monday, there's something we've been noticing.

We're seeing a lot more of the lady pop stars these days. A lot more. As in, they're all nearly naked.

Aguilera's vamping has gotten so familiar that it's almost impossible to remember she got her start as a Mouseketeer. But Team Pop's jaw dropped when earnest, folkie poet-songstress Jewel turned up on the cover of Blender pouring out of a black bustier, sporting leather gloves, heavy eyeliner and a major come-hither look.

Then there's Sheryl Crow, who ushered in her 40th birthday last year by appearing in hot pants on the cover of Stuff, a men's magazine. (Inside the mag she complains that Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera are "marketed like porn stars.")

It isn't just pop. Country sweetheart Lee Ann Rimes has morphed into a Girl Gone Wild.

Indie rock goddess Liz Phair has gone from proto-feminist icon to teen-strumpet wannabe in one short decade.

It's as if someone issued a memo: Every woman in rock, no matter how seriously she once took herself, no matter how good her voice or her level of talent, must start looking like a tramp. Then, please ladies, act all giddy about it when questioned. Tell interviewers how "empowered" you feel when you dress like a floozy. How much "fun" it is to "play" with your sexuality in front of the world.

Christina. Jewel. Sheryl. Liz Phair. Lee Ann Rimes.

Please, step to the front of the class and tell us, what in the world are you doing?

Sure, there are all those pop tarts out there (i.e. Britney Spears) selling music of dubious merit by looking trampy. But you women are talented. You're successful. Each of you has earned critical acclaim. Some of you already enjoy career longevity.

Do you no longer want the world to take you seriously as artists?

SHE PUTS THE "X" IN XTINA: The world fell in love with Christina and her powerful voice during the teen pop heydey of the late 1990s. Like Britney Spears, Aguilera, 22, got her break as a kid on The New Mickey Mouse Club, and later scored pop success with 1999's Genie in a Bottle. The next year, Aguilera was invited to perform at the White House and during half-time festivities at the Super Bowl.

But, the singer, who now calls herself "Xtina," decided to shed the squeaky clean image. A 2001 randy remake of Lady Marmalade with R&B bad girls Pink, Mya, Missy Elliott, and Lil' Kim found Aguilera in new adult territory. The singer's fashion sense went from CosmoGirl to Hustler overnight, with Aguilera sporting dramatic makeup and a street look of shredded-up clothing that barely covered her nether regions. Aguilera's 2002 album, Stripped, pushed the envelope further with decidely sexual material. Racy, nude photo spreads in Rolling Stone followed, as did steamy videos such as Dirrty, featuring the singer in a cockfight with a masked female, mud wrestling, and plenty of sweaty bumping and grinding.

Aguilera explained to VH-1 why she opted to make Dirrty so dirty: "I just get really bored with sticking to the norm and having the proper conservative image. That's just so not me."

More recently, Aguilera was asked by MTV to tone down the video for new single, Can't Keep Us Down, even dirtier than Dirrty. (MTV was particularly bothered by a scene in which the singer plays provocatively with a water hose, which, we suppose, is the new trend in video. See: Jewel.)

JEWEL: FROM FOLKIE TO FLOOZY:

It seems like yesterday folkie pop star Jewel was asking the world, "Who will save your soul?" on her 1996 breakout hit. The 29-year-old garnered a huge fan base and critical acclaim for earnest, socially conscious lyrics and no-frills style. The press made much ado about Jewel's unorthodox "hippie" upbringing in Alaska, her musical beginnings singing in coffeehouses, and the fact that she was "real people" _ even living out of a van for a spell.

Jewel, who has sold nearly 25-million records with her clothes on, was never about glitz and sex. But, there she is on the cover of this month's Blender, looking like a S&M vixen. Jewel's new video, Intuition, a foray into bland dance pop, features the star having her shirt blown open, and being hosed down by firefighters.

Jewel explains to interviewers that until now she has "always held back" her sexuality. The singer told NBC's Today that she's excited to be "doing things I never thought I'd be doing," adding that the video is a commentary on "the commercialization of myself." Jewel says it was a breakthrough, showing off all that skin. She told Today, "I get embarrassed showing off my body a lot. I've never wanted to be known for cleavage as much. I'm shy."

SHERYL CROW'S CHANGE

One of the greatest things about free-spirited Sheryl Crow was that she made no secret that she wanted to have some fun. But when the Lilith Fair veteran sang in the mid-1990s that A Change Would Do You Good, who knew that she'd soon be changing herself _ into the hot tamale on the cover of Stuff, with her derriere hanging out of short shorts? The interview was a classic, with Crow crowing about young pop stars: "I don't mean to be a fuddy duddy, but the images are pretty sleazy." Huh? In the booklet packaged with Crow's most recent disc, C'mon, C'mon, the singer, who at 41 is making a big fuss about celebrating her sexuality, poses in a bikini in saucy shots.

LIZ PHAIR EXILES HER IMAGE

Liz Phair became the darling of the indie-rock world back in 1993 with her smart, groundbreaking, proto-feminist Exile in Guyville, considered one of the most influential underground albums of that decade. Phair's two follow-up albums garnered more critical praise.

But something with this year's Liz Phair CD went dreadfully wrong. Critics are having a field day dissecting the Identity Crisis of Liz Phair. A New York Times article this month called the 36-year-old singer to task for crafting an album of idiotic pop with The Matrix, the team of songwriters who wrote hits for teen popster Avril Lavigne, and, worse, for her new image. The article blasted "a woman approaching 40 getting dolled up in market-approved teen gear (the bad schoolgirl look, recently embraced by Britney Spears.)"

To her fans, the newly divorced Phair seems to have lost her mind. Fans loved her for singing frankly about love, lust and gender woes on Exile. Who knew a decade later she'd reinvent herself as a talentless "teen" star?

LEE ANN RIMES' BLUES: Sweet little Lee Ann Rimes had everybody in country music excited when she got her start at age 13. The Grammy-winner, whose signature song Blue had folks saying she was the next Patsy Cline, now seems to be working blue. Her image makeover finds Rimes, 21, who went through heavy legal battles to get out from under her father's management, abandoning the girl-next-door look for jailbait chic.

See the evidence on Twisted Angel, last year's critically panned album of icky pop and dance music. In the album's booklet, newly married Rimes, listed last year as one of Esquire's "Women We Love," poses provocatively in skimpy dresses, cleavage pouring out. The disc's tunes are sexed up and naughty, which Rimes told interviewers was "liberating" and "empowering" for her to sing, now that she's an adult. To promote the album, produced by Des mond Child _ the same fellas who gave us KISS's Let's Put the X In Sex, Rimes posed in a steamy layout for Blender.

To contact Gina Vivinetto, e-mail ginasptimes.com. Times researcher (and pop music enthusiast) Cathy Wos contributed mightily to this story.

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