To be a superstar singer nowadays, talent is an asset, but hardly a necessity. A recent Billboard cover story detailed the ways in which recording technology is now routinely used to clean up singers’ flawed vocals, rendering them pitch perfect. The piece argued that ”image” and ”videogenic appeal” are perhaps more essential than singing ability for today’s breed of comely female thrushes and their male counterparts. It’s a depressing turn of events for anyone who cares about music, but as Petula Clark, a presumably organic vocalist, once sang, it’s a sign of the times.
There’s no way to know if Jennifer Lopez’s voice is mechanically altered or not, but on the recorded evidence of her sophomore album, J.Lo, her singing seems to be in key. She sounds at least as competent as, say, Paula Abdul (a clear stylistic predecessor). She’s clearly no Aretha – heck, she’s barely a Vitamin C – but she’s hardly the first singer to get over largely on looks, moxie, and sex appeal as much as vocal skills. ”I’m real,” she proclaims on a chirpy little synth pop number of the same name, so let’s give her the benefit of the doubt.
That said, there’s no denying that Lopez’s musical move smacks of careerism at its most cynical. Naysayers contend she’s the latest in a long line of double dipping actress celebs convinced they can excel at showbiz in any of its permutations, and that assessment would seem to be on the money. Our gal consistently aims for the lowest common denominator, shamelessly spouting disco era banalities (”Party till the sun comes up!”; ”Keep dancin’ all night long!”) on several dance tracks, and cooing about L U V and S E X everywhere else. ”Come to my room for a little game.? I’ll do very erotic things,” she breathes on ”Come Over” – a slow jam coproduced by her (ex?) beau, Sean ”Puffy” Combs – the most embarrassing satin sheet anthem since, oh, Sylvia’s ”Pillow Talk.”
There are some minor surprises, chiefly the Puffy produced (and cowritten) ”Walking on Sunshine,” which shatters expectations by not sampling the Katrina & the Waves song of that title (clear evidence of Puff’s artistic growth, anyway). Lopez deserves props for two credible Spanish language numbers (”Dame,” a duet with Puerto Rican heartthrob Chayanne, and the flamenco tinged ”Si Ya Se Acabó”). And recasting Cuban percussion great Mongo Santamaria’s ”Sofrito” as ”Cariño” at least demonstrates her good taste in Latin roots music. (Hats off to R&B sound sculptor Rodney Jerkins for contributing the most ambitious track, ”That’s the Way,” which is graced with a bass from space ambiance that makes it seem miles removed from the uninspired offerings elsewhere.)
Though she’s credited (with Cory Rooney) as ”J.Lo”’s executive producer, Lopez seems lost amid the cluttered, high gloss arrangements. A glance at the CD booklet offers amusing confirmation that there were plenty of cooks in the kitchen. The upbeat ”I’m Gonna Be Alright,” for instance – which is based on the Sugarhill Gang’s ”8th Wonder” – is attributed to Lopez and eight other writers (presumably making Jen the ninth wonder).
As a testament to ”J.Lo”’s impact, I offer up another confession: Leaving the Epic offices, the hook from ”Love Don’t Cost a Thing” kept spinning in my head. The odd thing was, it wasn’t her version I was hearing, but a slightly different take on the tune, one that I could imagine ”Weird Al” Yankovic doing someday. The chorus went: ”My songs don’t mean a thing?”