A sporty punk from the Toronto suburb of Scarborough.
A Valley Girl prone to dark mood swings.
A fashion-loving homework shirker from Bolton, Ont.
And a group of young rockers from British Columbia who seem a little too mature for it all.
The wave of post-Avril Lavignes has arrived. Pegging them like that of course immediately falls into the trap of sounding like an adult who just doesn't get it, and all of them seem to bristle at the Avril comparison. But all have a guitar-pop sound and teen image, even if partly manufactured by their record companies and handlers, which nudges them into the Avril camp. And like Avril, most are Canadian.
Suddenly, no major record label can afford to be caught without a new pop-rock girl who either has an album in stores or one that's on the way. But lest anyone expose their adult ignorances, let's define what we're talking about here. Britney Spears is so not this. Nor is good-time girl Pink, nor the pre-teen-targeted actress-singer Hilary Duff. They are also far removed from older female alternative-rock bands such as Sleater-Kinney, who nevertheless find themselves getting lumped under the now catch-all "grrl" tag.
The post-Avrils are still very much enmeshed in teen life, yet they generally eschew Spears's dance beats for guitars and the please-baby-baby lyrics for songs of rain, jaded love, psychological self-diagnosis and just wanting to break out. They never descend, though, too far into rock 'n' roll mordancy. They are songwriters who still look and sound like girls, not women, even if the whole point of their image and lyrics is to challenge that point.
Lavigne kicked it all off in 2002 with her debut album Let Go, becoming the anti-Britney while vaguely channelling gender role-breaking, hypocrisy-shattering 1990s rock acts such as Liz Phair, Hole and Ottawa-born Alanis Morissette. But the singer from Napanee, Ont., with her neurotically straight-combed hair and a new album expected in May, took off internationally by adapting the rocker girl persona more to teen mores, crying out "Yeah, you need to listen!" It's the wail of suburban living, and new releases by Scarborough, Ont.-raised Fefe Dobson and Californian Katy Rose take it all a step further.
But to those who can't get beyond the Lavigne comparison, Rose insisted that "all those are closed-minded people." Just turned 17, Rose has been working on her clutch of edgy, melodic rock songs for years with her father, Kim Bullard, the veteran L.A. keyboardist, who has played with such bands as country-rockers Poco.
Rose's image is blond and brooding. In her publicity photos, she often looks the archetype of what some uncaring adults would call "at risk." A smart girl playing dumb and loitering with friends at the local Starbucks, having discovered eye makeup and second-hand Kiss T-shirts -- that's Rose's look.
"It's just very different," she asserted calmly about her music versus Lavigne's. "I mean, I don't write with the Matrix," the hit songwriting team that has worked with Lavigne. "I don't know. I'm sure Avril is a lovely girl. I'm not going to say anything mean about her. It's just very different."
A lot of Rose's music came from her own teen tribulations, she said, and she laid it all down, perhaps partly as a cathartic exercise, during her early teens in her dad's backyard recording studio at the family's house in the San Fernando Valley outside Los Angeles. Her album was practically finished a couple of years ago, when she was still 14 (and in time to compete with Lavigne). There had been a bidding war among labels to get her. But once signed with the fast-rising independent label V2 Records -- home to megastars such as Moby and the White Stripes -- Rose fell into a depressive funk.
The album "was almost finished and then I kind of spiralled downwards and I couldn't finish it," she said. "It was to the point where I don't really even remember a lot of that time in my life. That's from a great number of things" -- a rebellious childhood, what she describes as her very lenient upbringing, the ugliness of her L.A. suburb, and hints she drops about experiencing some kind of depression. "When the record's out for a while, I will come and talk about those things. But I think right now . . .," she trailed off.
Rose was speaking from her hotel room in New York, where she was recently taping promos for MTV's Total Request Live, a barometer of teen trends. That show had Rose, whose album Because I Can was released this week, while a few days earlier, the program highlighted 18-year-old Dobson, who is signed to industry heavyweight Island Def Jam and also speeding on momentum.
If Rose is blond and belligerent L.A., Dobson is Toronto suburban edge, alternating between eighties preppy punk and nineties grunge. And she has a Jamaican, Indian, Dutch and English background, which like a number of new, emerging singers, immediately cuts through tired white-equals-rock, black-equals-R&B stereotypes.
Born three years after Michael Jackson's Thriller, and only six years old when Nirvana's Nevermind came out, Dobson credits both Jackson and Kurt Cobain as influences. (That alone makes parents realize just how old they are). And while her current style could be described as Jackson's Beat It filtered through Nirvana's Lithium, Dobson hadn't yet found that sound when she initially signed a development deal two years ago with Zomba/Jive, Britney's label.
"I wanted to do pop at that time," she said on the phone after a recent performance in Glasgow opening for pop superstar Justin Timberlake. "I was still trying to find my voice. I was only 16. But through that process, I met a producer named Jay Levine [from the Toronto pop-funk band the Philosopher Kings and the studio pop duo Prozzak] who I co-wrote this album with."
But Jive didn't like the idea. "They were, like, Fefe, just make a decision between Jay and the company. And I chose Jay, so the company walked," only to see her snatched by Island Def Jam, which has the full marketing muscle of Universal Records pushing her eponymous album, already in stores.
With her tank-top T-shirts and punk accessories, however, the Avril comparison inevitably comes up. "Really? I don't really find that. Most people really see the difference between Avril and I," she said with an incredulous tone. But for a listener over 30 who may need some additional guidance to hear the difference, she can't oblige. "I can't really pinpoint what's different. It's just different because it is."
There are Dobson's tight Lacoste shirts -- which are totally not Lavigne -- and her calling-card lyric "aye-oh," along with the contrast between the pop-punk on Dobson's album and its hidden closing track, a Broadway-ready, piano-and-string ballad Rainbow, which could be the finale at a high-school musical, partly aiming to please the mom and dads in the audience. These kinds of things matter.
Also from the Toronto area is 15-year-old Skye Sweetnam, signed to Capitol Records. Emerging last year with the single Billy S., Sweetnam grew up in small town Bolton, Ont. Through pure chance -- her mother forgot to enroll her into snowboard camp one year, so she went to pop-stars camp instead -- she was discovered by the sister of a Toronto entertainment lawyer, who happened to hear her singing in a Bolton hair salon one day. She eventually found herself being co-managed by Canadian Idol judge and talent spotter Zack Werner.
Clothes are Sweetnam's thing, and she has more of a girlish, perhaps London look to her. Billy S., however, is straight, North American bubblegum-rock about simply wanting to skip school and shirk English Lit homework. Take the chorus: "I don't need to read Billy Shakespeare/Meet Juliet or Malvolio/Feel for once what it's like to rebel now/I want to break out, let's go." The lyric's brattyness lies in the fact that you'd likely have to have read Shakespeare's Twelfth Night to know of the character Malvolio.
Despite her age, Sweetnam's record company has been sitting on her album for a year, introducing her to the public in dribs and drabs -- first Billy S., then a new single recorded in L.A. with producer Eric Valentine, who also recorded the pop-punk band Good Charlotte. She describes the rest of her album, tentatively scheduled for a spring release, as more of a blend of electronica, heavy rock and film-score elements. Most of it was recorded by unknown producer James Robertson, also managed by Werner, in his parents' basement in Etobicoke, another Toronto suburb.
Billy S. managed also another key element in the post-Avril gold rush. The song got placed on the soundtrack for last year's teen drama How To Deal, a strategic move that all of the other singers' record labels have done.
In March, Sweetnam will start a month-long North American tour opening for Britney Spears. Touring, though, can have its moments for a young woman: "There's this one time I was doing a concert in, like, Saint John or something, and this one little girl came up to me and started crying. And I did not know how to respond. She just saw me. I'm not used to that."
But if one alluring Canadian face per act isn't enough, the band Lillix, signed to Madonna's Maverick Records, has four. And true to form, they have a song on the Freaky Friday soundtrack. Three of the four in the band are from Cranbrook, B.C. Two are still in their late teens. Taking turns singing lead, their music has sunnier melodies, often sung in harmony, but with smatterings of hard guitar. It leans a little more toward Michelle Branch, yet another young adult favourite also on Maverick.
Like all the acts, Lillix epitomizes what it takes for young musicians to make it. The band has been together for seven years, playing everywhere they could in Cranbrook and practising for hours every day before luckily getting noticed. They make it look effortless, but as with all the young performers, they are astonishingly professional. Still, keyboardist Lacey-Lee Evin, 20, said it's all about compromise working with their label. For instance, the video for their first single It's About Time -- which wasn't their choice for a first single -- has the group at times looking like cool, preened, bored teens.
"They never approached us with a look they wanted to give us. [But]I think they want to be safe and try to go with the Avril look or something with us. That just doesn't work because we're not that. I think labels are kind of scared, and they just want to take the safe route, just kind of be a follower. And I think they may want to try that with us."
As for what makes Lillix and the other Canadians so appealing internationally, Jody Mitchell, the director of talent of artist development at EMI Canada who helped sign Sweetnam, says he hears something distinct in their music.
"I think we are unique to the American culture. I think what it is about these artists that is standing out -- the Fefe Dobsons, upcoming artists like [Toronto-based]Graph Nobel and Skye Sweetnam -- is that they don't really fit into the typical R&B and pop genres of a lot of what's coming out of America," he said. "And I think they find the voices of Canadians to be rather refreshing musically."
Yet while Lillix may win for earnestness, Dobson for youthful self-assuredness and Sweetnam for do-it-yourself arty brashness, L.A.'s Rose wins on moodiness and hard-edged introspection. She may in fact be the one singer whose image will upset parents the most. Unlike the Canadians who seem approachable, she has that untouchable L.A. quality. She said, with a disparaging tone, that she lived the kind of self-destruction life portrayed in the movie Thirteen -- and one of her songs naturally appeared on the soundtrack.
"Yeah, yea-ah, I'm independent," she sings in the chorus of her single Overdrive. "Yeah, yeah-ah, I'm borderline/Yeah, yea-ah, I'm California/My mind's all screwed and upside down/But my heart's on overdrive." It could wind up becoming the template for the next wave of rock girls after this current one. In the video, Rose sings the words while running down a sunny pier, pumping and raising her arms from her tiny, tanned frame. It's a girl running off, determined and contentious, but still a girl.
It makes you momentarily forget any qualms you may have about her sexy image in the rest of the video. Like the artists' record companies, like their management and publicists, you want to let Rose, Dobson, Lavigne and all of them celebrate the abandon they espouse. But if you do, their teenage fans might only sneer at you and cry out, "Oh my God."
The evolution of grrrl rockets
An adults' guide to the next batch of teen-targeted, young female pop-rockers.
The original girls
Phair and company in the '90s were about gender freedom, saying what women weren't supposed to and rocking away sexual hypocrisy.
Courtney Love and Hole
Along came Avril
Lavigne translated it for teenagers, turning men into "sk8er bois," even if the prime mission was to be the anti-Britney.
The next generation
The new wave are diversifying and amping the message, saying bye-bye to boyfriends and flashing any borderline tendancies they see in themselves.
Katy rose: Moody, literate, at risk.
Fefe Dobson: Self-assured pop-punk girl.
Skye Sweetnam: Bratty, arty but a closet professional.
Lillix: Earnest, reluctant Avrils.