The genre never entirely died, but in recent years female teeny-pop has become more active than at any time since the British Invasion shut down the Spector teen-tune factory in the mid-'60s. Not only have such (chronologically) grown-up singers as Madonna and Paula Abdul exploited adolescent themes in songs such as "Papa Don't Preach" and "Straight Up," but there's a new generation of genuinely high-school-age pop stars, notably Debbie Gibson and Tiffany.
The latter is known for her introductory tour of shopping malls, the ideal circuit for establishing an audience of teenage girls, but her new challenger has an even stronger base of operations: the nation's toy stores. Yes, Barbie has finally made her musical debut, and if name recognition counts for anything in the fickle world of pop music, Deb and Tiff had better watch out. Young America's best-known clotheshorse for more than 30 years, Barbie makes the New Kids on the Block look like dropouts from Merchandising 101; according to her publicists, a Barbie doll is sold every two seconds in one of the 100-plus countries in which they're available.
Barbie: 'The Look'
Barbie's handlers have announced that she "has achieved one of the most glamorous roles of all in today's high-tech world of mass communication: a Rock' 'n' Roll Superstar," but there are still a few technicalities standing between the busty figurine and a platinum-album award. Given a choice between a new rock-star doll outfit and a copy of "The Look" (Rincon), it's not at all clear that Barbie consumers will choose the latter. The 12-song album is, not to put too fine a point on it, incredibly lame. And these days any kid who wants to buy an incredibly lame teeny-pop album has plenty of choices.
"The Look" is divided between six covers and six custom-manufactured songs, with the former including such girl anthems as Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" and Deniece Williams's "Let's Hear It for the Boy," as well as the Jackson 5's "ABC" and -- mindful of Tiff's success with an updated "I Saw Her Standing There" -- "Twist and Shout." The title tune is the Roxette hit, a rather recent (and rather second-rate) number to appropriate as a signature song.
Despite synthbeats and some scratching, the arrangements are hopelessly blanded-out and, well, plastic. So are the original songs, which establish Barbie as a sexual aggressor on the opening "Shy Boy" but mostly sing the praises of friendship, true love and world cooperation. The last message is contained in "Together We Can Do It," a "We Are the World" knockoff so vapid it might cause some to upgrade "We Are the World" in retrospect. Proceeds from a single of "Together," a debut between Shari Belafonte and Barbie's (otherwise unidentified) girlish voice, will benefit the Barbie International Children's Summit Fund. But those planning to fund their charities on the humanitarian doll's largess would be wise to ask for a piece of the royalties from her new outfits, not her new album. On the evidence of "The Look," Barbie's not in the same league as Betty or Veronica, let alone Josie and the Pussycats.
Debbie Gibson: 'Anything Is Possible'
Of this teen threesome, Debbie Gibson is the closest to being a Serious Artist. She writes and co-produces her own material and models herself on Billy Joel, that supper-club crooner in rocker's clothing. She's also the hardest to take.
Where Barbie is a perpetual teenager, Gibson is pushing for mature status, decorating her latest album, "Anything Is Possible" (Atlantic), with a portfolio of high-fashion shots that make her look perhaps 22. Divided between a side of "NRG" (that is, disco) and another of "Mood Swings" (that is, turgid ballads), this 16-song album extols spiritual positivity but really stands up for slick professionalism. By "Anything Is Possible" Gibson seems to mean for a starstruck suburban girl with a stage mother and a good accountant.
The best teen-romance songs on Gibson's 1987 debut, "Out of the Blue," sounded fresh and genuine -- though she later admitted they were all hypothetical -- but everything about her new work is labored. Collaborators Lamont Dozier and Jellybean Benitez enliven a few songs on the upbeat side, but nothing here is as buoyant as such early singles as "Shake Your Love," and Gibson's soulful patter on such tracks as "It Must've Been My Boy" is about as funky as a Barbara Bush homily.
If the dance tracks are soggy, the ballads are a tidal wave of schmaltz. Slow, long and largely hookless, such meandering songs as the 7:28 "This So-Called Miracle" are epic in their self-indulgence. Even Yes no longer tries to get away with stuff like this. Gibson may think these compositions are the ticket to grown-up credibility, but she's missed the point of her transformation. She's not prematurely adult, just prematurely tedious.
Tiffany: 'New Inside'
Although she seems only slightly more in control of her music than Barbie -- she gets two co-writing credits this time -- Tiffany comes out all right anyway. Her intermittently successful sophomore effort, "Hold an Old Friend's Hand," was much more likable than Gibson's, which arrived around the same time, and now her new-jack-swing "New Inside" (MCA) packs way more bounce than "Anything Is Possible."
"New Inside" has its contingent of drippy ballads ("Tenderly," "Here in My Heart"), and many of these songs are too long too. But Tiff has hooked up with such master pop-soul manipulators as former Prince sideman Andre Cymone and New Kids svengali Maurice Starr, and on tracks such as "Never Run My Motor Down" (Cymone) and "Tiff's Back" (Starr) her voice is at the center of a jumping, joyful synthbeat machine. (Yeah, she raps too.) No one will mistake "New Inside" for a Prince album, but Tiff's a lot closer to the real thing than when she emulated a Princely keyboard riff for her winningly cheesy "I Saw Her Standing There."
Tiffany shows no interest in following Gibson down Auteur Street. Indeed, on "New Inside" she sounds more anonymous than ever. If not for its declarations of love for "my guy," for example, Tiff could be a New Edition-style boy soprano on "Back in the Groove," which she wrote with Starr, who masterminded the Edition. The album is definitely not meant for connoisseurs of self-expression, but it works on its own formulaically sentimental and mechanically propulsive teeny-pop terms. If Barbie's looking for tips on how to be a successful music-making puppet, she would be well-advised to pick up a copy of "New Inside."