Flipping the Bird 

Nelly Furtado soars over the teen-pop pack.

The teen-pop craze hasn't died; it's only died down.

Post-9/11 scuttlebutt was that the nation and its kids would turn to more substantial, more serious music to help them cope with such a tremendous tragedy. And yes, sales for Britney and 'NSync have decreased noticeably, as have music sales in general -- for the first time in 20 years. Consumers didn't turn away from teen pop; they just stopped spending their money on music.

If teen pop isn't burning out but fading away, so too will many of its stars. Already, second- and third-tier acts such as Jessica Simpson, Mandy Moore, O-Town, C-Note, Fresh Step, Dream, Eden's Crush, M2M, LFO, and 98 Degrees are steadily migrating to has-been status. Which raises the question: Who will survive the teen-pop trend? Who will outlast the fad and stick around for another decade? Who will be teen pop's Bon Jovi, its Stone Temple Pilots?

Britney Spears is an obvious choice. Her movie, Crossroads, didn't shatter any box-office records, but it did sell more tickets than Mariah Carey's abominable Glitter. And her third album, Britney, may not have outsold her two previous releases, but its sales were still as modest as her python dance at last year's MTV Music Awards -- which is to say not modest at all. But as a product, Spears is popular enough to be intrinsically linked to the fad, and her career will likely die for teen pop's sins.

Another possibility is Christina Aguilera, but she played the slut card early in the horrendous "Lady Marmalade" remake -- in the video, she looks like Dee Snider playing Dr. Frankenfurter -- so she has fewer options these days. The Backstreet Boys and 'NSync? Together, doubtfully; individually, maybe. Pink has probably reached her creative peak with "Get the Party Started," and no one can prove conclusively that Michelle Branch isn't Jewel.

So, almost by process of elimination, the best hope for longevity looks to be Canadian boho club girl Nelly Furtado by virtue of the fact that she was never strongly associated with teen pop in the first place. She's got something none of the other kids have but all of them want: credibility. Already, she's scored a critically acclaimed, strong-selling debut album (Whoa, Nelly!), two diverse hits (the ballad "I'm Like a Bird" and the propulsive "Turn Off the Light"), a Grammy for Best Female Vocal Pop Performance, and a high-profile cameo on the Tomb Raider remix of Missy Elliott's single-of-the-year "Get Ur Freak On." Not only does she write her own songs and play guitar and piano, she also has a producer credit on Whoa, Nelly!, and her live shows have been garnering praise for their energy and intensity.

It helps that she doesn't look like a teen-pop star. With her Iberian features and loose-fitting club clothes, she's more flygirl than pin-up girl. Her dark hair, pixie face, easy smile, and penetrating eyes don't fit the teen-pop-princess mold, and she eschews skin-tight nude suits and Moulin Rouge undies in favor of baggy jeans, sporty tops, and Adidas sneaks. She manages to be simultaneously exotic and casual, an ethnic variation on the all-American pop-singer image.

But her physical qualities are much less interesting than her music, which boasts splashes of international flavor, bubbly pop hooks, and churning dance beats. While the Latin pop sensation has gone the way of swing music, Furtado invigorates her songs with Portuguese instruments and rhythms, not to mention British trip hop and American hip hop. Whoa, Nelly! has a lively sense of adventure and discovery that Ricky Martin and Shakira never approach.

Furtado comes by such eclecticism naturally. The daughter of working-class, Portuguese-immigrant parents, she grew up in Victoria, British Columbia, singing traditional fado songs with her mother and playing ukulele and trombone in school. She set out on her own when she was 16, moving to Toronto and absorbing as much urban music as possible, from hip hop and drum-and-bass to folk and rock. She even fronted her own trip-hop band called Nelstar.

All these influences, whether from family tradition or her own musical curiosity, lend Whoa, Nelly! its crackle and pop. Some of the best moments straddle genres and cultures: "Legend" lays a subdued bossa-nova groove over a jazzy piano line that heightens the song's loneliness, and "My Love Grows Deeper, Part 1" lifts the chorus of Portishead's "Wandering Star" as its bridge. It shows taste and daring to seamlessly incorporate an album track (not a single) by a semiobscure band into a dance song, especially when other singers are performing half-baked covers of obvious hits.

But Furtado's big moment is "Scared of You," an emotionally scarred love song (worthy of Fiona Apple at her most vulnerable) which Furtado sings in English and Portuguese, accompanied by a stark fado-style guitar. "Maybe that's why I was/Scared of you/And I know you were scared of me too," she sings then switches tongues: "Desculpa me se eu te deixi." Furtado doesn't showboat her bilingual lyrics; instead, she understates them to create a dreamy, damaged, devastating song.

But idiosyncrasy of this nature doesn't necessarily ensure a lengthy career. What truly makes Furtado a viable artist isn't her good looks or her musical adventurousness; it's her unscripted persona, the sense that she is the same offstage as she is onstage. With so many young singers filtering through marketers and handlers, Furtado is more direct, more unguarded. She has true poise and personality, which ultimately give her music personal meaning beyond its global sound.

"There are two sides of me," Furtado told Canadian magazine MacLean's in October 2000, before the release of Whoa, Nelly!, "the urban, street-smart English singer, and then the Portuguese singer." The challenge facing her is to balance these two poles -- American vs. European, modern vs. traditional, electronic vs. organic -- without losing her youthful exuberance and musical restlessness. If she can manage that, she'll be a relevant and important artist long after teen pop has faded away.

Nelly Furtado

The New Daisy Theatre

Saturday, March 23rd, 8 p.m.


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