It's easy for a girl to get a reputation these days. Ashlee Simpson has one, and now, inexplicably, Hilary Duff has one, too.
Pretty teen queens who want reputations as rockers need only apply their voices -- which are, it's charitable to say, not fully developed -- to the kind of simpering pop lyrics that audiences expect them to sing. Concerned producers then arrange these songs to propulsive instrumentation involving guitars and insistent drumbeats.
And voila -- Duff, actress, TV star and pop idol, "rocks" on her second album, the self-titled follow-up to the serviceable bubblegum debutante ball that was last year's "Metamorphosis." The fluffy "Metamorphosis" was a deserved hit -- it cleverly introduced fans to Hilary's growth process, which is the function of record albums for pint-size multimillionairesses who scatter their visibility across many media, and it served her sweet, breathy voice.
Right out of the box, "Hilary Duff" declares its independence. "Fly" is all meaningless uplift about dreams and shining and not giving up, and it eases into Guitarville with an incessant chime that recalls radio-friendly '80s new wave. She ages a little on the spiky, mid-tempo "Do You Want Me?" ("Everyone knows I'm a little insane"); "Weird" is sung to a complicated boy with a "scar above [his] lip" and features gonzo drumming and whoo-hoo background vocals.
On "Rock This World," she even announces her intent slowly and loudly so everyone will understand: She wants to rock this world, and is humble about it but raring to go as she plots her intent from Venice, of all glamorous places.
Duff doesn't have to be a bad girl to be charming. In fact, when she's yelling at some poseur ("Mr. James Dean"), her disgust with processed cool sounds genuine, even as her voice lurches into a shriek in the high-powered chorus. And "Haters," the anti-"Mean Girls" anthem written by Hilary and sister Haylie, is sure to become a favorite of every female miserably attending public school.
There's a disconnect between the persona and the execution -- it's clear that Duff's weak voice is unequal to the demands of rock passion and intent. She has no vocal versatility; everything is sung breathily, out of her head or through her nose, and on the arena-size choruses, she just gives up and yells. If the intent of "Hilary Duff" is to spin off a handful of hit singles, it will succeed -- there are few duds in the bunch -- but listening to Duff song after song gets samey quickly.
The lite-rock music is polished and easy on the ears, but the level of manipulation is exasperating. Each of the 17 songs on "Hilary Duff" has ulterior motives, and most of them have the same ones -- to ingratiate the star with the adult world in which her brand will soon be competing and to soothe her tween fans with the news that their idol is human, complicated, difficult and still lousy with self-esteem, especially on the centerpiece "I Am," so that they can grow along with her. Oh, and she doesn't take guff from guys, unless they're really cute.
Despite the guitars, "Hilary Duff" is a trick, one pulled off with consummate expertise and zero passion -- it manages to sound challenging while actually flattering the listener and the singer. But it does what it set out to do -- set the stage for Duff's next world-beating project, whatever that may be.