It’s Different for Girls

I kind of flipped out when I opened my Girl Authority package. My initial email conversation about the new group with my editor quickly deteriorated into my repeating “OMG!” over and over, a mantra prompted by glee and disbelief. What had initially appeared to be an interesting combination of girl artists, corporate packaging, and some sure-to-please songs had turned out to be an even more compelling intersection of cultural threads, both anticipated and expected.

This hits me first: each girl has a special name within the group, such as Rock ‘N’ Roll Girl, Glamour Girl, or All-Star Girl. These names make it really convenient for me, because now I’ve immediately got a grip on who each of them are (and this will be reinforced by song selection, too, like when Rock ‘N’ Roll Girl takes the lead on Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” or Country Girl handles that role on Shedaisy’s “Don’t Worry ‘Bout a Thing”). In case you don’t have your liner notes handy, the one (of nine) who might be a person of color is named Urban Girl. That’s the most curious nomenclature since the black Spice Girl went by Scary Spice.

Wait, wait, I’ve got a take a deep breath — I’m prattling. See, the liner notes and press kit are insistent that we know that these girls have “distinct personalities”. The inside cover of the liner notes mentions this fact twice, and also points out that they’ve been blessed with “engaging personalities”. So engaging, in fact, that you can pin them down precisely with a simple name. All-Star Girl’s favorite school subject is gym; Glamour Girl never leaves home without her cell phone. These girls just happen to fit perfectly inside their descriptive boxes (and their album cover boxes), and this makes it easy for Rounder Records to market them. There’s someone anyone can identify with! (For the record, like Party Girl, English is my favorite subject and I, too, love Chinese food, but she might like Pink more than me — she’s singing “Get the Party Started”, of course.)

Again: wait. This is on Rounder Records? That label so well-respected for its work with roots music, guardian of the Alan Lomax collection, and home to artists like Buckwheat Zydeco and Béla Fleck? See why I’m losing it here? What could be a painful piece of pop pap set to cash in on Kidz Bop and the slick marketing of young girls is coming from Rounder? So do I need to take a less flippant, overly-excited look at what’s going on here? Well, yes, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to find the new music of the people.

Forget the ethnomusicology excavation and assessment; this record isn’t meant to be anything more than an album by girls for girls. The real question is what potential effects this release will have on its audience. It’s one thing for a 20-something (who’s getting close to losing that status) to have his head explode with a bunch of half-considered theoretical objections; it’s another for a 12-year-old girl to pick this up. The culture-studies grad student finds built-in dissertation, but young music fans find fun tunes to sing along to. What’s most important isn’t the 300 pages of self-satisfied jargon that could be reamed off on this, but the response of that kid singing along from the back seat.

The bad news first. The packaging of identity here, while not at all uncommon, should be struck. Admittedly there’s no Madonna Girl or Whore Girl, but the names, bio pages (on completely grody pink pages), and overall presentation suggest not the liberation of the female artist (and I’m not saying “But, crap, they’re kids”), but the necessity of limiting the personality. Each girl becomes one very specific identity, and our need to be able to quickly identify and categorize trumps the importance of personal flexibility and actual personality. Boho Girl is a mini-Lindsay, forget rocking or scoring a goal — your job is to make sure we know how cool it is to spend too much money on a thrift-store look.

The upshot is that a listener, probably of the age where identity is far more fluid than it will be later on, gets to play with characters for herself. One minute you can put on a leather jacket and rock, but you can indulge your fashionista side minutes later. Grab your boots and take in a rodeo or collect your cell and head to a business meeting; you can test all these identities out without ever changing your CD.

The packaging itself — the thick, pink booklet full of photos and bio snippets — as well as the choice of 15 covers (some as predictable as ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” and Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”) represent female art as commodity. To join this world you have to be part of a mold; to succeed, you need a male patron to discover you and set you up (in this case, Rounder and its VP of A&R Scott Billington, who produced the album). Under such a structure, a female musician has neither the girl authority nor the girl power that this release signifies, but, arguably, doesn’t contain. It’s hard to hold these kids up against an act like Smoosh and not make a quick decision which group’s CD I’d rather give to my daughter.

All that said, maybe it’s possible that the very notion of girls making music under any circumstances is inspiring. I remember singing along to Kids Incorporated, and their influence didn’t keep me from finding my own sense of self or searching out my own tastes. Girl Authority’s bound to have some haters, but it’s also likely to get plenty of tween girls singing and having fun, which isn’t as easy as it should be.

Everyone on this record, importantly, sounds like a kid; there are no prodigies, no Charlotte Churches. Girl Authority sounds like the stereotype of a girl’s first slumber party, and, often, not the party itself. On a track like “Hollaback Girl”, the children become simply indicators rather than representatives of youth. When the singers employ exaggerated avoidances of “shit”, they sound like kids playing a grown-up game. Those elisions may be giggle-inducing moments, but they might also be reasons to just sing along with Gwen Stefani instead (as long as parents aren’t present). “Shop Around” offers a similar problem. Smokey Robinson’s self-consciously quaint cut about trying out a variety of women before settling down sounds absurd when delivered by an eight-year-old. It’s hard to experience this as anything but an adult depiction of play.

For one track at least, it changes a song. Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful” takes on a whole new dimension when sung with the childish simplicity of Urban Girl Gina. What was once a vocal acrobatic by a questionable role model suddenly becomes a more powerful statement, especially as the full chorus of voices joins in. At this moment, the girls sound like girls in a way that’s powerful and moving, a way that reminds us more about childhood than we might want to remember, of how dangerous it is, how short, and, despite that, how much strength it can contain.

I can’t be against Girl Authority, no matter how much I want to freak out over the packaging of both these girls and the music. For all the troubling aspects surrounding this release, it comes down to the enthusiasm and joy of children and, maybe I’m soft, but that should have its rewards in real homes. And the back of the packaging has this phrase at the top: “Do the Math”. It’s so not Barbie!