The Authentic Girls

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Michelle Branch's earnest tunes are a reaction to the glitter of Britney

Since The Catcher in the Rye (or perhaps Beowulf), high school kids have loved to rail against phonies. Rappers and rockers know this and sell themselves to teens by talking about how "real" they are. But recent teen-pop acts like Britney Spears made their fortunes off even younger audiences who craved fantasy figures. Authenticity be damned — stylists picked their sex-bomb outfits, choreographers gave them graceful routines, songwriters wrote their PG-13 come-ons. So it wasn't surprising that last year, when the fans of teen pop hit Holden Caulfield's age, its sales dropped about 50%.

"No disrespect to the Britneys and whatnot, but there's a backlash to that kind of music," says Beth Halper, the DreamWorks A.-and-R. executive who signed Nelly Furtado. That backlash has taken the form of three solo artists who might be termed the Authentic Girls: Michelle Branch, 19, whose CD The Spirit Room has sold close to a million copies since August, according to SoundScan; Vanessa Carlton, 21, whose first effort, Be Not Nobody, has sold 300,000 copies in its three months of release; and Avril Lavigne, 17, whose first album, Let Go, debuted at No. 8 on the Billboard 200 this month. They're young popstresses who write their own songs, play instruments, claim to wear whatever they damn well please, don't dance, and love nothing better than puncturing others' pretensions. They sing pop rock that's gentle enough for ears reared on Mandy Moore but organic and free-range enough — favoring drums and guitar over synthesizers — for Tori Amos fans. Their battle cry could be worded: "To your own self be, like, mega true."


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Lavigne's first single, Complicated, features lyrics like "You're makin' me/ Laugh out loud when you strike your pose/ Take off all your preppy clothes/ You know you're not fooling/ Anyone when you become/ Somebody else, 'round everyone else." Holden, get her number. The same goes for Branch, who kicks off her single All You Wanted with the lines "I wanted to be like you/ I wanted everything/ So I tried to be like you/ And I got swept away." Carlton's very album title — Be Not Nobody — is self-esteem-workshop poetry.

In the words of A&M Records president Ron Fair, who has produced both Carlton and teen-pop goddess Christina Aguilera, "The same kids who two years ago were buying 'N Sync and Christina Aguilera records are responding to styles of music that are more song- and artist-driven. They're two years older, and the realism of singers singing their own songs has a lot of appeal. They haven't heard that music sung by their peers before."

But if part of the appeal of the Authentics is that they write their own songs, will they be able to score hits as big as the anthems of Britney, 'N Sync and the Backstreet Boys, whose killer hooks were penned by studio wizards like the Swede Max Martin? So far, the labels have taken the middle path between ordering the artists to submit to the will of a 50-year-old songwriting coach and locking them up to write melodies in solitary confinement. "I sit down with a guitar player usually, and I come up with melody and lyrics," explains Lavigne. Branch accepted help from other songwriters on about half the songs on The Spirit Room. Carlton wrote all the originals on her album solo and worked with Fair on arrangements. Whether or not their choruses ever bore into the public's brain like that of Oops!...I Did It Again, the Authentics may grow on kids just because teen pop's trademark disrobing has grown tired. "The biggest thing I hear a lot from kids who come to my shows is, 'Oh, it's so nice to see somebody with their clothes on,'" says Branch.

Teen pop seems prepared to adapt to the more earnest climate: Aguilera has brought in the sincere rock singer Linda Perry to help write and produce her new album. Branch speculates that post-9/11 seriousness might have given her subgenre a boost but doesn't pretend that she and her Authentic colleagues are revolting against something bigger than stale music: "We aren't too scary. I'm not here cussing every other word and talking about politics." You don't have to be a rebel to join this movement — which means that soon every 105-lb. diva with glitter in her hair may be going Authentic.