Into the Mouths of Babes

How graying scribes are turning teen pop ballads into songs of experience

"We were just trying to be clever around what the show was about: this teenaged girl who's always ready to save the world at the beep of her cell phone," says Lerios, who's racked up a successful second career scoring TV movies and shows (including all 12 years of the Baywatch franchise).

Nevertheless, Lerios admits, the ditty, "Call Me, Beep Me (If You Want to Reach Me)," which has also become a surprise hit single for singer Christina Milian, is propelled by some fast-flowing word play in the chorus that just begs to be twisted around by both pre-adolescent boys and middle-aged sadomasochists.

"There is a gray area there," he says of the lyrics. "When we were doing the recording, we had to make sure Christina really enunciated the p' in beep.' 'Cause it does sound a lot like beat me.'"

Songs of innocence: Does the emergence of young singer-songwriters like Michelle Branch signal the end of the hit-factory approach to teen pop?
Songs of innocence: Does the emergence of young singer-songwriters like Michelle Branch signal the end of the hit-factory approach to teen pop?

Wikström, too, insists he doesn't try to put any words in his young artists' mouths that they don't quite "get" themselves.

"Sometimes an artist doesn't care," he explains from his own studio in Stockholm. "They already buy the song as is. But sometimes an artist doesn't really feel the song, and react like it's kind of being forced upon them. And then we have to sit down and discuss what's wrong. We know that if an artist records one of our songs, it's gonna be their song. They're going to have to live with it."

Wikström feels the mere presence of so many aspiring boy bands and girl groups around Sweden — a hotbed of teen pop since ABBA in the '70s and, more recently, the string of hits produced at Midas-touched Cheiron Studios for the Backstreet Boys, *N SYNC and Britney — gives him and Thomander some first-person insight into the thoughts and feelings of the young artists they work with.

"We don't just write for these young acts," he says. "We meet up with them and record vocals and do all these things together. So it's real easy to see if an artist likes a song or not, or whether or not they can relate to the lyrics."

Still, Disney's Jones, who probably listens on a daily basis to more bubblepop fodder than anybody, is creeped out by a lot of the songs that get submitted to her network for consideration.

"The funny thing is, you've got all these adult A&R guys giving these teen and tween bands these lyrics," she says. "And these singers are very young; they're not used to thinking about what they're singing. They're just thrilled to be making a record.

"But it's creepy sometimes," she adds, "the lyrics these older guys give them to sing."


For Michelle Branch, one of a handful of new young singer-songwriters determined to bring self-penned songs back into fashion, it's about time for the songbirds of her generation to start speaking for themselves.

"It's funny, because here are all these 16-to-18-year-old girls who are buying these records where there's an 18-year-old girl singing, but the songs are written by these 40-year-old guys from Sweden!" she says, laughing. "And they're writing about how it feels to be an 18-year-old girl.

"But here I am, a real 18-year-old girl, and I can write songs about that. And I guess it just sounds more realistic."

The Sedona, Arizona, native, chatting on a recent stop in Phoenix, finds it curious that she's managed to become a bit of an "It" girl by simply taking the stage armed with an acoustic guitar and a batch of original songs.

"That's just what being a rock star has always meant to me: somebody who writes their own songs and plays an instrument," she says, shrugging. "But it seems like we've been so saturated in the past couple of years with young singers who don't write their own music that now real singer-songwriters stick out more than they ever have."

Indeed, the success of Branch's debut Maverick album, The Spirit Room, has already turned some heads around at the major labels, who now appear bent on discovering more poetry-penning girls with a couple years of guitar or piano lessons behind them. Vanessa Carlton's personal twist on all those Aaron Copland classics she apparently studied, "A Thousand Miles," is positive proof Branch's example is already being followed by others.

"When you write your own songs, you can perform it with the most genuine emotion," she explains. "Because when you write a song that you're going to sing, you know the emotion you want to convey because you know what you wrote it around. Instead of going, Okay, how am I supposed to sing this guy's song? Was he happy? Does he want me to sing it sad?' And so on. It's so much easier to get it right when you know personally where the song came from."

Does the emergence of young do-it-yourselfers like Branch, Nelly Furtado, Alicia Keys and Carlton signal an end to the hit factory approach that's dominated teen pop for the past few years? Hired pens like Anders Wikström, understandably, hope not.

"I think it's a good thing to see young people taking the approach of writing themselves," he allows. "But there's always gonna be a lot of artists needing help from outside. Because it's very hard to write an album of good songs if you're gonna tour in between and do all the promotional work that you have to do. It's very hard to take the time to do the hard work of writing and producing."

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