Sometimes this hurts. It really hurts.
Gosh, maybe this was an ill-conceived idea to begin with. You think? Reviewing teen pop albums, and only teen pop albums? Oh, I thought it was a fun concept at first. I did. I enjoyed it enough to turn it into something I started doing almost every week! Can you imagine that!!
Here’s the problem: a lot of teen pop is garbage. Most of it, actually. Stinky scumhole garbage crafted by Earth’s Scummiest Cretins. Evil stuff. Scary stuff. Spooky Halloween scares. Cynical, unloved anti-music pushed at teenagers by droopy old men. Everything that is rotten and morally questionable about the music industry, rolled into one neat little genre.
This shouldn’t be news to anybody. It is not news to me. I’m not America’s hugest moron. But most of the time this doesn’t bug me because I know that – most of the time, at least – the worst of teen pop never comes from the artists themselves. It really doesn’t! Even if they’ve achieved their fame through more-than-dubious means, I truly believe that teen pop artists are by and large pretty fucking talented, and that’s part of the reason why this kind of music is so exciting to me. Some of these people are so talented that they actually manage to fight back – and win – against the insidious teen pop machine that created them, like robots gaining sentience and ripping off their creator’s heads. Your Robyns and your Timberlakes and whathaveyou, biting hard on the hand that feeds them and becoming fully formed autonomous Music Beings, Kings of their World. It’s a beautiful, titanic struggle, one that makes writing about teen pop records entirely worthwhile for me.
But it doesn’t always come easy. Of course not. If you’re a teen pop kiddo starting out young in the industry, it takes a long long time for you to realize the kind of shit deal you’re getting, and the kind of garbage songs you’re being thrown like picked chicken bones, the kind of uncomfortable way your airbrushed face is being marketed to millions of people. To put it bluntly, some teen pop artists start their careers making poor, poor music.
I like Mandy Moore. Everyone should like Mandy Moore. She’s almost the perfect example of the trope I described earlier – a nondescript young teen pop idol who managed to shake off the stigma of her genre and carve out a decent career for herself. While she hasn’t had a big hit single since the late 90s, she’s still kind of a big deal as a movie star and a popular public figure, to the point where I feel like most folks nowadays don’t even think about her early teen pop days when they hear the name “Mandy Moore.” She’s not in the “where are they now?” file, is what I’m saying. Everybody knows where Mandy Moore is now. And it’s a good place!
That’s not to say that Moore has abandoned her music career outright. Shortly after her teen idol star faded she finally allowed her own interests to seep into her music, co-writing pretty much all of her own songs and working herself into more of a singer-songwriter Carole King/Todd Rundgren mold. Reserved, well-produced, personal music. Her records aren’t popular, but it kind of doesn’t matter at this point – she’s managed to find a comfortable spot in her career where she can make music she wants to make without having to worry about it selling well, which is a special and rare thing in teen pop. From what I can tell, she’s managed to maintain a reasonable level of stardom while remaining a decent, un-shitty person. You did it, Mandy! Handshake! Highfive!!
But she had to start somewhere. Gosh, don’t we all. Moore was quickly whisked into teen pop stardom after an anonymous FedEx employee heard her singing the National Anthem or something and sent her demo tape to a friend of his at Epic Records. At age 14, Ms. Moore was thrown into a recording studio with a bunch of shifty music producing people and the result was her 1999 debut record So Real, a contender for the biggest misnomer it pop album title history.
I can safely assume that Moore did not have much say in So Real‘s creation, and I’m pretty sure she’s already disowned the record by now. She was a kid, after all. A bunch of adults told her to do things, and she did them. She went with the flow. And why wouldn’t she? So Real was a decent hit, and her first tour was spent opening for the Backstreet Boys in 1999 at the absolute height of their success. She was more famous and beloved at age 14 than most of us will be in our entire lives. A dream! What could be wrong with that! I’m sure her parents were super proud of her.
So I will entirely remove any and all blame from young Mandy when I say that So Real is a hot load of bupkis stinkhole embarrassment.
WELL I GUESS WE HAVE TO TALK ABOUT THIS THING
Quick review: So Real sucks. It’s bad.
Again, it’s not Mandy’s fault. Not by a long shot. No, I am placing the blame squarely on these scumboat losers:
With the exception of sweet Howie D, I don’t even know who these people are or what other records they’ve produced. Maybe they’ve made some good work, but a quick Google search of Tony Battaglia’s name brings up this record so I have my doubts. They could all be entirely decent and nice folk, for all I know. Maybe they have families. People that love them. I don’t care. I am taking the lazy route and judging them solely on the lazy, uninspired product sitting in front of me. These are the dudes that handed nice girl Mandy a shit deal, and that makes them stinky ugly dumbos in my mind. Shame on all of you!
What do I mean by a “shit deal”? Well, gosh. Let’s take a look at a handful of So Real‘s tracks and the teen pop hits they shamelessly and pointlessly rip off:
“So Real”: It’s “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” if it were a poor, bad song.
“Quit Breaking My Heart”: Verses lifted directly from Britney Spears’ “Sometimes,” only bad and not good.
“Let Me Be The One”: Stinky butt ripoff of “You Drive Me Crazy”??
“What You Want”: Shameless ripoff of your only son dying of pancreatic cancer, then James Blunt attends the wake hops on top of the open casket and farts right in his pale face. James Blunt giggles and dives into the bushes. Only worse!?
“Lock Me In Your Heart”: Ripoff of a bad song someone wrote that stinks.
I honestly can’t bring myself to write about any other track. My heart hurts.
Here’s what I think happened. By the time So Real saw release in late 1999, the likes of the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears had already established themselves as the A-list teen pop stars of the era, with Christina and 98 Degrees fitting into the B-list and the likes of Jessica Simpson and Soul Decision sneaking their way into the C-list. All the decent pop producing talent was already taken. The well was tapped. So Mandy was forced into the D-list, paired with D-list producers who gave her D-list material, pushing her into the “pop princess” mold (a media term easily more insulting than “boy band”) and surgically removing any trace of personality she might have had. There is not a single moment on So Real that sounds like anybody involved gave one single shit. If these people saw any value in Mandy Moore as a performer, it does not show here.
And that’s without measuring the creep factor! Gosh! “What You Want.” A song about how Mandy will mold herself into whatever you like because she is the “girl of your fantasy.” Illegal and wrong?? “Lock me in your heart and throw away the key.” Titles like “Not Too Young” and “Love Shot.” There are moments where So Real steps beyond the realm of pop mediocrity and becomes morally reprehensible. Get it away from me, you yuckos!
But again, I am not blaming Mandy for any of this. For a 14 year old she’s got a strong, soulful, adult voice, which I guess would explain why these old dude producers would give her more sexually suggestive songs to sing. But with the material she’s been given, she doesn’t even sound like a human being. There’s only so much I can excuse, here.
…and here’s the one thing I can excuse.
Ah, yes. “Candy.”
“Candy” has a lot of the same problems as the other tracks I listed earlier. It’s an obvious ripoff of Robyn’s classic “Do You Know What It Takes”, for one. It’s also, urm, another strongly sexually suggestive song sung by a 14 year old girl. So, on paper, there is nothing separating it from the likes of “Love Shot” and “What You Want.”
Here is the difference: “Candy” is a ripoff that is miraculously almost better than the track it’s ripping off, a miracle that I can’t explain. No-name creeps Tony Battaglia and Shaun Fisher coming dangerously close to one-upping pop aficionados Robyn and Max Martin at their own game?? Terrifying but kind of true. It’s a simple, punchy pop song accentuated by Moore’s killer over-the-top delivery, right down to the mildly unsettling spoken word bridge. So Real‘s most embarrassing flaw is that clearly these producers poured everything they had into making “Candy” a killer single, leaving the rest to the dogs. Because a 45-minute record only needs one good song, right? Teenagers are idiots! They don’t care!!
Before I move on, I am noticing two names in “Candy”‘s songwriting credits that do not pop up anywhere else on the record: Jive Jones and Denise Rich. Clearly, they are the two geniuses of this record, and I attribute the entirety of “Candy”‘s unfuckable glory to the two of them. Congrats, you two!!
So Real is basically M2M’s Shades Of Purple, only without the sincerity and the solid songwriting and the mild traces of humanity. Both records suffer from the same dated late-90s production values and executive meddling. The difference is that M2M won the fight. Mandy didn’t.
It’s cool, Mandy. It’s cool. You just didn’t have it figured out yet. This didn’t work out for you. The Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears had pop hero Max Martin by their side. Early Westlife had Steve Mac. Robyn and M2M had, erm, themselves. You just had schlock merchants Tony Battaglia and Shaun Fisher. And Howie Dorough, for some reason. The least interesting Backstreet Boy!
Reviewing So Real is almost like reviewing your talented friend’s high school LiveJournal. A dumb, embarrassing thing that they’d like to forget. I feel guilty! It’s not fair. I can imagine Mandy Moore reading the beginning of this review, “UGHHH”ing audibly and throwing her laptop out her trailer window. Because she makes movies a lot and is probably in a trailer, waiting to continue acting in a movie. Right.
“Candy” is the only pop song on So Real. No other track on this record is one I would qualify as a pop song. No joy. No release. No giddiness. Just corporate, boring schlock. Let’s move on, folks!
(“walk me home” is pretty ok actually)