Welcome to my Bubble

The new breed of pop singers loves to tell us about the burdens of stardom. Their music is better when they don't.

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When Basics is cooking, an entire minute may pass without reference to Aguilera's paparazzi-stalked life. But all too often she breaks the spell to remind us, just in case we're wondering, that she's "still got that freak" and is Still Dirrty. If we're monitoring her feud with a former producer, there's a score-settling taunt ("Looks like I didn't need you"). And anyone who finishes both discs with unanswered questions about her much publicized marriage to music executive Jordan Bratman is obviously stone deaf. Aguilera isn't singing pop on these songs; she's preaching to an imagined choir, and she saves her worst for last. Thank You (Dedication to Fans) is a maudlin montage of voice-mail messages from people--soldiers in Iraq, kids on the edge--whom her music has inspired. Its inclusion has a late--Michael Jackson vibe, as if Aguilera thinks her mission is nothing less than saving listeners' lives.

Jessica Simpson, famous newlywed turned famous divorcé, has no such ambitions for A Public Affair. Simpson owes her career to the MTV reality show she did with her ex, boy-band alum Nick Lachey, and her album is an unapologetic bit of celebrity striptease. For starters, there are the title and some Jackie Collins-- quality liner notes ("I believe in fantasy, but no longer do I believe in fairytales"). Simpson's voice is blandly likable, but she overemotes so much that you can't fail to deduce whom she's talking about on I Don't Want to Care and Let Him Fly. You half expect to see an Access Hollywood camera lingering over your shoulder. Her narcissism might have been leavened by good songs, but most are content to rip off tunes from older, better hits. (Walkin' Round in a Circle is credited as containing "interpolations from Dreams," written by Stevie Nicks. Interpolations? Between You & I--which should be Me, but never mind--is an uncredited rip of Unchained Melody.) A Public Affair is a titillating glimpse of Simpson, but it provides no evidence that she knows or cares about anyone else.

Beyoncé is also half of a much discussed couple, although her career has never been defined by her relationship with rapper and Def Jam Recordings president Jay-Z. Still, on her previous record she and her boyfriend got together and whipped up Crazy in Love, a colossal hit that rivals the Ronettes' Be My Baby in its ability to turn an innocent crush into something worthy of a wall of sound. On B'day, Beyoncé's second solo album, the power couple tries to recapture the magic on two tracks, Upgrade U and Deja Vu, and it's not the fact that they go back to the well so explicitly that lames the songs. It's the rapping. Jay-Z is the best M.C. on the planet, but like every other rapper, he has no subject other than his own glorification. Here he steps into the middle of fast-paced love songs to wink at real life: "Rumors you on the verge of a new merge/ Cause that rock on ya finger is like a tumor." It's an unwelcome distraction.

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