'Blue' it

If she isn't careful, LeAnn Rimes could fade away before she's old enough to vote

For a moment, she seemed like she was country music's underage savior, a teen angel with the voice of a rode-hard, road-weary woman. For a moment--a moment long since forgotten now, though it happened only...when was it?...Lord, just two years ago?--it appeared as though LeAnn Rimes would rescue country music from the pop depths to which it had sunk one more time. No matter that she had done it by channeling the voice of a dead icon or with a song that sounded like a pastiche of Patsy Cline cliches--she was a 13-year-old girl who went to No. 1 by resurrecting history, by imbuing lifeless country radio with a little newfound ancient soul.

But now, two years and three--three!--albums later, all one can do is sit back and marvel at what a profound disappointment LeAnn Rimes turned out to be. The Patsy Cline of the 1990s isn't anything more than Celine Dion/Whitney Houston in high-school drag, another talented singer who performs material so far beneath her she needs scuba equipment and a pick ax just to find it. Turns out country's little princess ain't nothing more than a wanna-be queen of pop, a 15-year-old who refers to herself as a "businesswoman" and greedily eyes the charts without a lick of consideration given to artistry.

Two weeks ago, Curb Records released Rimes' fourth album in just two years, Sittin' on Top of the World, whose title is as appropriate--and arrogant--as a James Cameron Oscars acceptance speech. Indeed, she's not little LeAnn anymore, but a full-blown corporation: LeAnn Rimes Entertainment Inc., with offices on North Central Expressway (also home to the LeAnn Rimes Fan Club). She has, to date, sold more than $150 million worth of albums; captured two Grammys, one for best new artist; "written" a pseudo-autobiographical novel, Holiday in the Heart, as part of a now-voided three-book deal (and she hasn't even graduated home schooling!); starred in the made-for-TV "movie" based on her "book"; and appeared on Days of Our Lives. And word is Sittin' on Top of the World is just the first part of what was to be a double-disc collection, with the second album due to hit stores in September. No wonder she looks as though she's aged 20 years in two.

She's the richest 15-year-old in town (though she and her mother Belinda, divorced last year from papa and manager Wilbur, now spend more time in a new home LeAnn built in Nashville) and the busiest; she'll sleep when she's dead. But Rimes, in such a rush to catch her idols--Barbra Streisand, Wynonna Judd, Celine Dion--has failed to consider what happens when you give the world too much of not enough. She and Wilbur and co-manager Lyle Walker have become so cynical so quickly: They exhibit no restraint, no caution, no care. Theirs is a desirous ideology built not upon young LeAnn's art and what it might become, but the rewards that come with cashing in on what is so often country music's fleeting popularity: Better to sell the garbage now before the public, so generous and unsuspecting, figures out they've been had.

And so Sittin' is one more failure in a line of fiascoes, too much of a bad thing. Like the two records that preceded it--Unchained Melody, which features Rimes' pre-Blue recordings, and You Light Up My Life, a dreadful album of so-called "inspirational songs" that inspires only groaned laughter--Sittin' reveals that the promise of Blue is far from being realized. Indeed, You Light Up My Life was a most wretched affair: Rimes treated Debbie Boone's soft-rock hit as though it meant something, whispering/belting the flaccid words (to a lover? God?) with all the heartache of Helen Reddy. Only the deaf could have made it all the way through the disc, from her mishandling of "The Rose" to the triple threat of "God Bless America," "Amazing Grace," and "National Anthem" that close the disc. Is it unpatriotic to burn this record?

But one need go no further than her ill-considered cover of Prince's "Purple Rain" on Sittin' on Top of the World to find proof that Rimes is doomed to become a victim of her own quick-hit success; she's this far from becoming her own best parody. "Purple Rain" is the biggest laffer yet in a young career already filled with misguided covers, including "Yesterday," "Blue Moon of Kentucky," and "Bridge Over Troubled Waters." Hers is the broadest misinterpretation possible of the Prince song, the result of talent colliding head-on with stupid hubris: She performs "Purple Rain" as someone who has never heard Prince at all, merely someone's description of him, and only someone with a voice as good as hers could make the song come out this damned bad.

She rambles the song's intro ("I never meant to cause you any sorrow/I never meant to cause you any pain") like a drunk slurring the words at a karaoke bar, well after last call; it's such a silly, exaggerated performance you can almost see Rimes in the studio, closing her eyes, bending her knees, pursing her lips, convinced she's giving...it...her...everything as she plumbs the depths of her appropriated soul. By the time she says, "I never wanted to be your weekend lover," the moment is too uncomfortable, too ridiculous to take seriously. Drag queens everywhere writhe in envy.

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