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Growing, growing, gone

Times Staff Writer

Isn’t it amazing how quickly they grow up? Just five years ago, the Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync were still new kids on the pop block, reviving the tradition of heartthrob harmonies with a fancy dance. Then in 1999 along came teen queens Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. The music charts were crowded with Mickey Mouse Club alumni, and the future of youth pop looked as glittery as a prom dress.

That was then. Now, the whole youth pop thing seems so, like, 20th century to many of the scene’s own stars. That’s especially clear with the release of three new albums that together offer a story line that’s pitch-perfect for the WB Network: “Can our young stars -- Christina, Nick and Justin -- grow up and find happiness?”

Aguilera has just released her first English-language pop album since the 1999 debut effort that won her the Grammy for best new artist. She is resolute this time that she not be viewed as a kid. Her definition of an adult performer? The title of the album, released on Oct. 29, says it all: “Stripped.”

Aguilera’s raunchy new video, “Dirrty,” is a declaration that in 2002 what a girl wants is to be a two-fisted stripper in a nasty nightclub. The cover of the new Rolling Stone magazine, meanwhile, features Aguilera wearing, well, a guitar.

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The same week Nick Carter became the first Backstreet Boy to dance off on his own with a solo album. Justin Timberlake set the same precedent a week later for ‘N Sync. Each is the blond, blue-eyed star of his group, but their new music is hardly interchangeable. Carter trades in dancing partners for a backup band on “Now or Never,” but despite the extra guitar, the music is only an alley or two removed from the Backstreet sound. Timberlake drifts further, offering old school R&B; with a new textbook of hip-hop beats.

Who is at the front of this graduating class?

Music fans have weighed in. Aguilera’s album has sold a healthy 499,000 copies in two weeks, debuting at No. 2 on the chart and then sagging a bit to No. 4 in the second week. Those may not be spectacular numbers, but Carter’s solo project opened at No. 17 and then tumbled to No. 63. His two-week total is 90,000 sold. Timberlake, meanwhile, only needed a week to sell 439,000, debuting at No. 2.

In question is not only their solo efforts’ commercial prospects but also their impact on the singers’ pop groups. “With Nick and Justin, they’re both like Sting coming out of the Police, and that could mean, ‘See ya,’ ” says Roy Laughlin, regional vice president for Clear Channel, the national radio titan. No one, though, is likely to compare Carter or Timberlake to Sting when it comes to artistic heft, not yet and maybe never.

After performing in lock-step with others for so long, Carter and Timberlake are hungry to be seen as individuals, but the same may be said of Aguilera. Always linked to Spears by timing and Mariah Carey by approach, Aguilera yearns to define herself.

“All three of them are trying to grow up; that’s clear,” says Jeff Pollack, a leading consultant for radio, MTV and Hollywood. “Nothing is automatic for any of them. There’s no free pass for teen idols to become more adult, mainstream artists. It will be interesting to watch.”

A lot of people have been watching Aguilera with their jaws on the ground. “Sometimes, when kids want to seem like they’re grown up, they start wearing less clothes. And that looks what Christina is trying to do.”

That nugget of wisdom is delivered, with a laugh, by Jimmy Jam, the veteran music producer who, with partner Terry Lewis, has worked with Janet Jackson, Carey and many others. Jam says Aguilera is not the first diva to flash flesh, but he’s not sure she needs to be the newest one.

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“I think when you’ve got the goods and then you go in a shockingly different direction, it can be jolting for the public,” says Jam.

“Dirrty” has not cleaned up with radio programmers as well as was hoped. But the video has been the talk of the town. In it, the scantily clad Aguilera writhes, vamps and slugs her way through a gritty club.

Aguilera, 21, seems like a girl looking to dirty-dance her troubles away. Despite the advice of many at her label, RCA Records, she opted for “Dirrty” as the first single from “Stripped” instead of the more radio-friendly ballad “Beautiful,” and the album veers wildly from style to style, like a kid playing dress-up.

But Pollack says “Stripped” will be a hit because it has more than sex appeal. “It’s like with Cher or Madonna through the years -- they walk out wearing something and it’s the topic of conversation and everybody notices, but there also has to be music,” Pollack says. “And there are a lot of good songs, including the next single, ‘Beautiful.’ ”

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Jam says Timberlake, also 21, might be trying on a new persona as well, albeit a less jolting one than Aguilera’s.

“The thing I always liked about ‘N Sync and especially Justin was he never really seemed to take himself seriously,” Jam says. “That was what made them different than the Backstreet Boys. Now Justin seems a lot more serious. That can be overdone. If I was going to give him advice, I’d say, ‘Have fun.’ ”

Timberlake’s new disc, “Justified,” goes for a purer R&B; groove than the infectious froth pop crafted for ‘N Sync. Michael Jackson also guest stars -- well, not really, but Timberlake’s solo work is such an ode to his childhood hero that it sometimes feels like it.

That’s no surprise to Louis J. Pearlman, the music mogul who was the early guiding force behind the Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync.

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“Justin has to be careful not to copy Michael Jackson’s style too much, and he has to go more into his own style,” Pearlman says. “And he will.”

Pearlman parted ways with the two groups after lawsuits and accusations that he strip-mined their careers. The suits were settled, the groups went their own ways and Pearlman, quite wealthy from the ride, says he has nothing but affection for his onetime proteges.

Pearlman now predicts the groups will survive for years and that Timberlake and Carter will “become like Phil Collins with Genesis, solo but still in a group.” If not, he says, no one in the two quintets has a greater chance of solo stardom than Timberlake.

For 22-year-old Carter, the challenge of standing alone may be more difficult.

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“Nick has always been a little shy,” Pearlman says. “Nick has to remember it’s Nick Carter and his band up onstage, as opposed to Nick in a band. He has to rely on himself and make himself a front guy. And that’s going to be hard for him.”

On “Now or Never,” Carter leans toward the power ballads of pop-metal. He had tracks from his new album premiered last weekend on Radio Disney, the network that was among the chief beneficiaries of the youth pop phenomenon.

The core of the Radio Disney core audience is 3 million kids between ages 2 and 11 and their mothers, and they won’t be hearing new songs from Timberlake or Aguilera, says Robin Jones, the network’s senior director of operations. It’s an issue of growing up.

“They don’t fit in right now in lyrical content,” Jones says. “Because Radio Disney brings music to kids with lyrics that parents have told us are appropriate, when artists try and ‘grow up’ by becoming more sexual, they disappear from our playlist.”

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