Once heralded as the new millennium’s Annette Funicello, 19-year-old Hilary Duff remains the last of the squeaky-clean Disney Divas, or at least the Disney Diva Voted Least Likely To Give You An S.T.D. In a world filled with troubled pop stars and child stars with no less than three stints in rehab under their belts, Hilary Duff is a seemingly well-adjusted rarity, boasting a supportive family and a hand in nearly every aspect of the media in such a short time.
Performing since she was six years of age in some capacity or another, Hilary Duff rose to notoriety on Lizzie McGuire portraying the title character of the same name. She branched out into motion pictures and ironically, was rewarded with both the prestigious Young Artist Award and several not-so-prestigious Razzie nominations. In 2003, Duff ventured into pop music, achieving at least platinum status with all of her studio albums to date. Now she is launching her own fashion line. Impressive stuff for someone who hasn’t hit the double decade mark yet. It does help that she’s affiliated with the Disney mafia, which like Cinderella’s fairy godmother, seems to make the dreams of all its alumni come true.
Although her ventures have met with varying degrees of success, Duff’s attempts at becoming a Renaissance woman at such a young age merit applause, particularly since she comes off as rather likeable and down-to-earth, as attested to by her latest album, Dignity. Built mostly around a break-up, Dignity reflects a sensibility that is about as normal and apple-pie as you can get, even if the breakup many of the songs may refer to is Duff’s dissolved courtship with Good Charlotte’s Joel Madden. Still, as far as rock stars go, a member of Good Charlotte hardly registers on the debauch-o-meter as much as say, a member of Mötley Crüe would.
More electronic dance than straight-forward pop, Dignity contains some surprisingly mature lyrics for what would initially be perceived as bubblegum. Duff has upped the ante as far as songwriting goes, possessing a co-writing credit on every song on the album. Many of the tracks contain subject matter that teeters on the edge of edgy for an ingénue pop princess. The title cut is a catchy pop-sickle that slashes at the scads of celebutards who make the news for nothing of substance or merit, but rather for leaving their mansions without panties. The frustration with the media’s fascination with extension-sporting human train wrecks, and the system that rewards them with exposure for publicly boozing it up is understandable, particularly while girls like Hilary bust their Duffs making an earnest attempt at trying to create art. While the quality or longevity of that art is highly debatable, you have to give a girl credit for trying and not using her undergarments (or lack thereof) to sell the product.
“Dreamer” is the sweetest little “leave me alone” to stalkers you will ever hear, a shout out to Duff’s stalker, Maksim Miakovsky, a man who came to the United States with the express purpose of hoping to hook up with the former Lizzie McGuire before being arrested for not only stalking, but threatening to kill her.
Although there is nothing particularly deep or Dylanesque on Dignity, there is definite growth in the level of maturity by way of lyrical content. As for the musical end of things, Duff (or at least her wisely-chosen production team) creates a variety of different soundscapes to avoid the pitfall of monotony usually present on teen pop albums. Several tracks make use of Middle Eastern-style beats, attempting to lend an exotic feel to many of the songs. Both “Gypsy Woman” and “Stranger” are built around synthesized Arabic grooves.
“No Work All Play” is reminiscent of ‘70s vibe disco, while other more traditional pop tracks play with tempo in an interesting way, even if they do sound rather familiar. “Never Stop” sounds very ‘80s girl-pop, like a lost b-side from the Bangles or Bow Wow Wow, throwing in surprise breaks à la Amii Stewart’s version of “Knock On Wood”, before chiming in with a bouncy, bubblegum chorus. Similarities to more familiar female forbears abound once again on “I Wish”, with Duff channeling Janet Jackson’s “Black Cat”, emulating the song’s creeping guitar and bass lines, as well as Miss Jackson’s (Janet, if you’re nasty) breathy vocals.
Perhaps why much of the material on the disc sounds so familiar can be owed to the host of cooks hovering around the pot. Duff collaborated heavily with Kara DioGuardi (who also helped produce Dignity, along with long-time hit-maker Rhett Lawrence, among others) in terms of songwriting on this album. DioGuardi has written songs with nearly every female pop artist on the charts, as well as several former American Idol winners and finalists.
While the songs are undoubtedly catchy, there is little to really give Dignity and Hilary Duff a defined sound of their own. Turn on nearly any radio station and most of the play list would get lost amid the sea of indistinguishable dance tracks that flow endlessly from one end of the dial to the other.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle Hilary Duff has yet to clear is the fact that her vocals aren’t on par with contemporaries like Kelly Clarkson and Mandy Moore. “With Love”, the album’s second single, exacerbates this flaw with Duff’s vocals lost amid a sea of synthesized beeps and noise that fail to camouflage that she talk-sings rather than sings on many of the tracks.
Nevertheless, thanks to the miracle of processing, reverb effects, and multi-tracking tricks to beef up her vocals, Duff’s voice is still sweetly candy-coated enough to make the medicine go down.
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// Notes from the Road
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