I've got a confession to make. While listening to Jennifer Lopez's sophomore album, J.Lo, up at the Epic offices where I had to go to hear it, since the label wasn't releasing any advance review copies I began to drift into a diverting daydream. I envisioned myself as a sleazy record-label A&R man in search of budding divas, especially those who were young, gifted, and had back. Hey, baby, I imagined saying, I like your style. How'd you like to be a pop star? It takes commitment, sure, but the payoff is huge. You've got to do the work, though: Get to the gym and tone that fine bod until your butt's firm enough to bounce a quarter off. While you're at it, you may want to consider some minor cosmetic surgery, a major dental overhaul, and a really expensive wardrobe of sexy designer outfits. If you like, you might even consider taking some singing lessons, but that's entirely up to you ...
Such a scenario is probably more common than you think. 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 Lopez's voice is mechanically altered or not, but on the recorded evidence of 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 ... '' C-
''Even when I was pregnant with you it was very hard for me. The 72 hours of torture was worth every minute of it when I looked into those big blue eyes.'' Debbie Mathers, Eminem's mom (from ''Dear Marshall,'' Set the Record Straight)