I wish I could report that the debut single by Paris Hilton, "Stars Are Blind," is a dud. The fact is, I can't stop humming the damn thing. It's certainly a triumph of counterintuitive branding. Hilton spent time in the studio with producers like Scott Storch, a specialist in loud and nasty hip-hop club tracks, and it seemed a forgone conclusion that she would inaugurate her musical career with a sleazy pole-dance anthem. (The first track from her recording sessions to leak to the Internet was called "Screwed.") But "Stars Are Blind" is a sweet, sun-kissed love song with a snappy ska beat, and Hilton (with the aid, undoubtedly, of the Anteres Auto-Tune 4 Pitch Correcting Plug-In) puts it over well, cooing lyrics about her "heart and soul" in a reasonable impersonation of a human being with feelings. All in all, it's a surprisingly good start to Hilton's campaign to break into the pop diva game.
This will not be an easy task. Pop music is a high-stakes blood sport, and nowhere is the competition fiercer than among the women who crowd the upper reaches of the Top 40. In the first half of 2006, we've already seen a sold-out tour by Madonna; continued chart dominance by last year's comeback queen, Mariah Carey (whose own world tour launches later this month); fine albums by established stars Pink, Mary J. Blige, and Shakira; and strong showings by young up-and-comers—Rihanna, Ciara, Cassie—who, like all aspiring divas worth their salt, have conveniently disposed of their surnames. Two weeks ago, the No. 1 album belonged to Nelly Furtado, erstwhile earthy bohemian, who has refashioned her image in a bid for a place on the A-list. A week later, the top spot was claimed by India.Arie *, who now has the earthy-boho space all to herself. Seemingly the only major female stars sitting out the season are Britney Spears and Gwen Stefani, both on maternity leave, and Jennifer Lopez, who presumably is prowling the darkened corridors of a South Beach mansion, raving like Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard.
Things will really heat up over the next several weeks with the release of long-awaited albums by Janet Jackson, Beyoncé, Christina Aguilera, Jessica Simpson, and a couple of the second-tier stars, including the R&B singer Kelis. It's a veritable perfect storm of pop—never before has the public faced so concentrated an assault of melisma and décolletage—and it's bound to be bloody: In a market this glutted, someone's record is going to flop. But based on the slew of new songs already in heavy rotation on radio and MTV, we're in for some awfully good music, and all kinds of clever stratagems for besting the competition
Consider Furtado. On her first two CDs, she sang catchy songs spiced with the rustic sounds of her ancestral Portugal, but on the new Loose, she's embraced buzzing hip-hop beats and lots of saucy talk. Furtado is a fine singer-songwriter, but her slick, sexed-up new act is a bit of a stretch: There's a still a whiff of patchouli about her and she's inescapably cutesy, with delicate features and a chirping little voice. (Her debut hit, "I'm Like a Bird," was pretty spot-on.)
But the awkwardness is the point. Furtado is selling her good-girl-gone-bad transformation, and her slightly gauche rapping and dancing is its own charming style, setting her apart from a steely disco princess like Kelis. Her producer is the ingenious techno-hip-hop specialist Timbaland. He supplies a festive array of beats and synthesizer hooks and plays Furtado's foil in a string of duets, including the No. 1 hit "Promiscuous," which rolls out the new 2006-model Furtado with a great big postmodern wink. "I'm curious about you," Timbaland raps, "you seem so innocent."
While Furtado is milking her status as diva-pop's freshest face, Janet Jackson is strutting her veteran's bona fides. Her forthcoming CD is called 20 Years Old, a reference to her career-making Control, which came out two decades ago. Jackson has made some extraordinary records in her time and she commands one of pop's most loyal audiences. For this album, she's assembled an intergenerational production dream team, including her longtime collaborators Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis and her boyfriend, the prolific hitmaker Jermaine Dupri. But if Jackson wants to compete in 2006, she'll have to come up with something better than the first single, "Call on Me," a desultory duet with rapper Nelly. Respect for one's elders only goes so far.
In the absence of any better ideas, Jessica Simpson is leaning on two bankable commodities: her breakup with Nick Lachey, and Madonna's music. The title of Simpson's new single, "A Public Affair," alludes to her tabloid misadventures; on her Web site, she's pictured in a crowded nightclub, gazing vacantly into the middle distance: a single girl, lost in the maddening crowd. The song itself, though, is a fizzy delight, with a synthesizer refrain lifted straight out of Madonna's "Holiday." (Later, there's a snatch of "Ain't No Mountain High Enough.") Download it now, before the lawyers swoop in.
Beyoncé is also engaging in plagiarism of a sort: She's biting herself. Her new single is called "Déjà Vu," and sure enough, it's a retread of her big 2003 hit, "Crazy in Love," right down to the blaring horn fanfares and the guest rap by her beau, Jay-Z. It's not as thrilling as the earlier song; Beyoncé's singing is casually, breezily virtuoso, and the loping bass line is just this side of Muzak. It takes real confidence to launch your big new album with a single so supremely nonchalant—this is the sound of a woman who thinks, perhaps not unreasonably, she's won the game before it's started. Nice view from up there on Mt. Olympus.
At the other end of the cool-hot spectrum, there's Christina Aguilera's "Ain't No Other Man," which finds the singer belting and growling paeans to her guy above honking brass and a furious dance beat—a performance of stupendous speed and force that seems designed to frighten the daylights out everyone, especially Mariah Carey, with whom Aguilera has been trading insults in the press. Her album is called Back to Basics, and, no surprise, she's playing the retro-authenticity card—she's out to prove that she's the real musician here. The CD is filled with Broadway-style jazz ballads; she sashays through the "Ain't No Other Man" video in a 1940s outfit, looking like a very slutty Andrews Sister. She's planning a tour of jazz clubs (take that, Mariah!), and clearly hopes to cut into Norah Jones' audience of retro-infatuated boomers. But she hasn't forgotten the kids: Tucked alongside the "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" pastiches and saloon ballads is a thumping club track called "Still Dirrty."
The internecine diva battles make an engrossing spectator sport. But rivalry among these women should not obscure their larger collective victory—the widening gender gap at the top of the pops. Of course, there are chart-topping rappers and rockers, and even a couple of plain old mega-selling male pop stars. But marquee artists like Usher and Justin Timberlake seem small and niche next to Beyoncé or Shakira, whose huge voices and pretty faces dominate the mass-media dreamscape on the grandest scale. In the 21st century, the superstar pop singer—that heroic mantle once held by Sinatra and Elvis and Michael Jackson—has become almost exclusively women's work.
And for good reason. These days, the emotional range of a male performer is radically circumscribed: Rappers are slick trash-talkers and brutes, emo rockers are sensitive and aggrieved, R&B singers are lotharios. But pop's female superstars recognize no limits, playing all these roles and a dozen others, often in the course of a single torrid love song, all the while executing tricky dance steps with bared midriffs glistening beneath whirling strobe lights. (Now that's showbiz.) A hundred emo-rockers couldn't wring as much catharsis out of their self-pity as Mary J. Blige does, and the even the great Jay-Z, the biggest ego in a genre of egotists, sounds cowed in the presence of his indomitable girlfriend. In the current season, the ladies may steal some more thunder with the arrival of a figure whose malevolence rivals the most fearsome gangsta rapper's. She might not be able to sing or dance, but Paris Hilton offers diva-pop one thing it's lacked: an anti-hero.