Out & About

To your average rock-and-roll fan there is no discernible difference between the Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync--or any other teen-pop outfit for that matter. They're all a bunch of skinny, middle-class white kids--even though a few have ethnic-sounding names--who shake their lithe and limber bodies to canned synth-pop while singing lyrics most didn't even write. It's hard to argue with that assessment, but there are marked differences between the two bands. And you don't have to be able to pick up audible frequencies that only canines and teen-agers can hear in order to recognize them. Simply put, 'N Sync specializes in upbeat dance pop, while the Boys' forte is the mid-tempo ballad/love song.

You'll find just that sort of silk on last year's Black & Blue. With master puppeteers Babyface and Rodney Jerkins pulling the strings, along with the Swedish songwriting and production horse that brought them--the Cherion team (Max Martin, Rami, Kristian Lundin, Jake, Per Magnusson, David Kreuger) and songwriter Andreas Carlsson--that should come as no surprise. Their combined track record in the '90s almost gives them a license to print money--or at least travel coast to coast conducting hotel conferences about how you, too, can turn that good-for-nothing, no-tax-paying, not-old-enough-to-vote junior high and high school student into the world's greatest pyramid scheme ever.

Blue continues the sweet, soulless syrup of Boys' hits like "I Want It That Way" with "Shape of My Heart," a nothing-ventured, nothing-lost surefire pop tart. But you can hardly fault the Boys and their men and women behind the music for not trying anything new. Commercial pop of this caliber and budget by design hopes to fold itself into vapid radioland as seamlessly as possible, and if the original recipe hasn't failed yet, there's no reason to switch to something extra crispy.

Trying something new on for size, however, has its perks. Just ask Shaggy, the wild card on this bill. He was totally unknown when he earned a modest club hit with his 1993 reworking of "Oh Carolina," but it really wasn't until he abandoned his fairly straightforward dance-hall approach and teamed up with producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis that he broke out. They cooked up 2000's Hot Shot, a playful, inventive mix of reggae and R&B pop. Nowhere is that blend more stylish than in Shaggy's surprise hit, "It Wasn't Me." A good-humored tale about a guy caught with his pants down by his girlfriend and trying to talk his way out of it, "It Wasn't Me" skips along with a reggae pulse riddled with R&B hooks. Its best feature, however, is Shaggy's boyishly charismatic delivery. This guy sounds so charming, you suspect he actually could smile his way out of a verbal beatdown if his woman caught him in another gal's goodies. And its runaway success showed that today's teens were realizing something that their baby boomer parents learned back in the 1960s: If you like blue-eyed soul, then you're going to love the genuine article.

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Bret Mccabe