Her hair. Her music. Her future. At this moment, Christina Aguilera is on top of the teen pop world.
By now we are all aware that radio and MTV and the Billboard charts are brimming over with aggressively generic teen pop acts. At first blush, Aguilera--with her youthful charm and bare, toned midriff--appears to fit right in. But listen closely. Although some of the compositions she chooses to perform are a bit bland, her voice has range and soul and tasteful flair. Still, this Grammy win is not just about vocals--and neither is a lasting career. Aguilera's rise is a lesson in how to market a 21st century star. And the savvy promotional campaign that has taken her to the top of the charts is now being re-aligned to win her fans beyond the Backstreet Boys demographic.
Her relationship with Disney gave Aguilera an early leg up. When she was 12, she appeared on the Disney Channel's New Mickey Mouse Club. She was later signed to sing the ballad Reflection on the sound track to the animated Disney film Mulan. "What Disney provided her with was a grad school for her talent," says Rich Ross, general manager and executive vice president of programming and production for the Disney Channel. "It gave her dance, vocal and work training."
RCA moved quickly to showcase that training. Even before the label released her eponymously titled debut album last year, it set up small concerts in hotels and nightclubs in New York City, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Toronto and Minneapolis featuring Aguilera accompanied only by a pianist. The audience in each venue consisted of music critics and music-industry representatives. Most teen stars lack the talent to pull off such intimate performances and have to build audiences with mall appearances. Says Aguilera's manager, Steve Kurtz: "There's no way to fake it in a small room with these major players listening." She also turned down concert gigs with 'N Sync and the Backstreet Boys in favor of the all-female Lilith Fair. The buzz grew.
The Net was next. RCA hired Electric Artists, a New York firm that specializes in Internet marketing. It talked up Aguilera's music in news groups and on message boards. "We'd come back in a couple of days, and we'd hear people talking about the artist," says Ken Krasner, head of Electric Artists. "It's kids marketing to each other. We call it viral marketing." The company also hired Aguilera's biggest online fans to keep promoting her work on the Internet in exchange for free concert tickets and other goodies. "We didn't break Christina," says Krasner, "but we helped accelerate the process by putting the music in the hands of kids and watching them talk about it."
Aguilera is not only pioneering a different type of teen stardom but she may spark a new trend as well: reverse Latin crossover. Her father is from Ecuador and her mother is Irish American; they divorced when she was seven and, since then, she has had little contact with her dad. Lately she has grown more interested in her cultural heritage. Now that she's a mainstream star, she wants to be a Latin star too, and she's recording a Latin version of her debut CD. Says Rudy Perez, who is producing the project: "She sees Ricky [Martin] and Jennifer [Lopez] and Marc [Anthony] and in her own way, she has come to realize she wants to connect with her roots."
Perez says Aguilera, who speaks little Spanish, is working with a language coach for the new CD, which will feature Spanish versions of her hits as well as new Latin-flavored songs. "There's no one else in the Latin market who can sing like her, with that whole black R.-and-B. thing she has from growing up in the U.S. and listening to Etta James and performers like that," says Perez. "By adding in these new elements to Latin music, she'll take it to new places."
Teen pop in one form or another is here to stay. Most teen pop stars are not. They can perhaps resurface later in life as second leads in Broadway productions or radio hosts in midsize markets. In the end, their posters leave more of a mark on our walls than their music does on our lives. Say good night, Spice Girls. See you on the Great White Way, Mandy Moore. Aguilera is shooting for something that outlasts trends. "I trust my own instincts," she says. "I want to do serious stuff too, stuff that conveys maturity." O.K., maybe she hasn't completely matured yet. But she's got the rest of her career for that.