Too much, too soon?

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Scan this year's Grammy nominees and the future of mainstream music looks like it belongs to a batch of under-25 female singers who write their own songs, play an instrument and, most of all, know how to sell records.

In a world where celebrity, fashion and music have become inextricably intertwined, the Grammys are loaded with new names -- Norah Jones, Avril Lavigne, Ashanti, Michelle Branch, Pink, Vanessa Carlton -- and their arrival is well-timed. With the fortunes of the pre-fab, marketing-driven teen-pop of the late '90s in decline (Britney Spears, 'N Sync and the Backstreet Boys have all taken a break from making albums after dominating the charts from 1998 to 2001), the music industry is desperately on the prowl for some fresh faces who can reverse its tumbling sales fortunes.

For the last decade, concert promoters, radio programmers and retail managers have been complaining that the major labels have stopped developing artists and bands with true staying power, the kind of performers who can sustain an industry through the whims of trends and fashion. Now the next wave is being groomed for the job at the 45th annual Grammys (to be nationally telecast Feb. 23). But on the basis of their platinum-plus albums, these young performers haven't proven themselves to be the long-term answer. They show promise not artistic accomplishment; they're trendy successes, not yet trend-resistant artists who have found their own voices.

That hasn't stopped the Grammys from going overboard, and the biggest beneficiary is likely to be Jones: A big night of awards could boost the 23-year-old pianist into the superstar class. When her five nominations were announced last month, her nearly year-old debut album, "Come Away With Me," reached the No. 1 slot on the Billboard pop album chart for the first time and surpassed 3 million sales. A few weeks later, her first major headlining tour was announced, bringing her to Ravinia on July 8.

But with Jones, as with multiple nominees Ashanti (five), Lavigne (five), Carlton (three), Pink (two) and Branch (two), it's a case of too much, too soon. The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, the 18,000-member organization that runs the Grammys, continues to pay lip service to the notion that the awards are about "artistic excellence," not chart success. Yet when it comes to honoring young artists, the academy rarely digs beyond sales to examine artistic merit. All of its major under-25 nominees sold 2 million albums or more, yet none of them made an album that ranks with last year's best.

A work in progress

Last March, I watched Jones -- already riding a wave of hype as the "new Nina Simone" -- perform in a room with a few dozen other people at the South By Southwest Music Conference in Austin, Texas. Here is what I wrote a few days later: "Jones is still too much of a work in progress to merit such lavish attention. She relies primarily on outside songwriters and impressionistic covers of standards such as Hank Williams' "Cold Cold Heart" and the old Patti Page hit "Tennessee Waltz." She strives for intimacy, but she plays at one speed: a lazy, behind-the-beat tempo that is initially refreshing but which quickly grows repetitive. Her backing duo provides solid accompaniment, particularly guitarist Adam Levy, whose counterpoint chords and solos have a pleasing tartness that offsets Jones' more conservative harmonic choices. Her touch is so light it's vaporous, but it is functional: guaranteed not to offend, easy on the ears and, most of all, perfect background the next time you're serving Chardonnay and brie. . . . She's the type of artist that the Grammy Awards will undoubtedly lavish next year. But like this year's Grammy darling, Alicia Keys, she's more style than substance at this point in her young career."

In hindsight, I wouldn't change a word. The attention showered on Jones is disconcerting, especially in light of the accomplishments of artists such as Patricia Barber, who mine the same musical terrain with far greater depth and richness. It's not that Jones is without talent, but her five nominations overstate it. Barber, on the other hand, has never won a Grammy, despite a series of recordings that have raised the bar for all piano-playing singers with even an inkling of jazz harmonics and phrasing in their music. For Jones to be so lavishly honored after releasing one pretty but derivative album says less about "artistic excellence" than it does "viewer ratings."

A 'punk Britney'

Jones' callow attempt at sophistication is matched by Lavigne's sculpted attempt at rawness. The 18-year-old Canadian singer has been labeled a "punk Britney" by some pundits, apparently because she flips her baseball cap backward and is pictured on the inner-sleeve of her debut album ("Let Go") riding a skateboard through traffic. Lavigne also brandishes a guitar, but it's more like an accessory; her album is so slickly produced that its songs feel contrived while she begs listeners to take her seriously ("In this head, my thoughts are deep"; "Take a look at me and you can see I'm for real"). There's no denying the instant catchiness of songs such as "Complicated" and "Sk8er Boi," but a landmark album worthy of five nominations this is not. 'When you call...'

Ashanti Douglas, a 22-year-old Long Island native who made her mark singing alongside rapper Ja Rule, is also credited with writing a dozen songs on her debut album, "Ashanti." But they don't say much beyond "When you call I come running baby." Nor does her mix of hip-hop groove and R&B smoothness do much to set her apart from the glut of Beyonce Knowles-style wannabe's cooing on the radio airwaves.

Branch, 19, was raised by parents who listened to the Beatles and Led Zeppelin, and her earnest guitar-strumming suggests a Sheryl Crow-like take on the classic-rock canon. She scored extra credibility points and one of her Grammy nominations by singing with Carlos Santana on the guitarist's recent hit single, "The Game of Love." But her debut album, "The Private Room," demonstrates no sense of personality or vision beyond her thirdhand interpretation of the past.

Carlton, 22, sounds like she's updating Fiona Apple via Tori Amos by way of Kate Bush, with her classical piano training, ballerina preciousness and orchestrated pop. Her songwriting is more ambitious than many of her peers, but also weighted down with more florid excess. Like Apple's unfocused 1996 debut album, "Tidal," Carlton's "Be Not Nobody" contains inklings of future greatness -- but only inklings.

Of all the key nominees, the twice-nominated Pink (22-year-old Alecia Moore) is the only one on her second album, and her "Missundaztood" is everything her debut, "Can't Take Me Home," wasn't: a personal and sometimes daring work that came out over the objections of her employer, Arista Records mogul L.A. Reid, who fretted that it was too great a departure from the debut and would derail her career. Yes, it was a great departure and, no, it didn't derail her career. On the contrary, it showed what can happen once a young singer starts finding her own voice. While no masterpiece, "Missundaztood" at least indicates that Pink is starting to develop into an artist instead of a marketing strategy.

Plenty of young talent

Unlike Pink, the Grammy voters don't seem to be in any hurry to make the distinction. They continue to lavish only best-selling artists, even though there's plenty of young talent worthy of recognition at this year's awards: Neko Case ("Blacklisted"), Sleater-Kinney ("One Beat"), the White Stripes ("White Blood Cells"), Bright Eyes ("Lifted or the Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground"), Spoon ("Kill the Moonlight"). But these artists were shut out, and it's no coincidence they record for smaller or independent labels. Meanwhile, the Grammys remain fixated on the fastest-selling product of the major labels. No wonder the future looks so bland.

Greg Kot is the Chicago Tribune rock critic.

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