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?It?s important that people take me credibly?
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Popular music is littered with rivalries. Some of them, like Tupac and The Notorious B.I.G. were legit – actual arguments that turned into public grudge matches – while others were pre-fabricated tugs-of-war designed to fill tabloids and invigorate profits.

One of the silliest pop music feuds ever surely had to be Tiffany versus Debbie Gibson. Silly because one of the two (Tiffany) was obviously a puppet, held aloft by greedy producers who knew a good thing when they saw one – even if the good thing couldn’t sing or write her way out of a knapsack.

Gibson, on the other hand, always went to great pains to remind folks that she could actually play a couple of instruments. She wrote the majority of her material, and as her career progressed, took an increasingly prominent role in not only her own production, but in the packaging of her image as well.

Two decades on, Gibson continues to act and sing to acclaim. Tiffany awkwardly tries to hold onto her modicum of pop-culture status through nude layouts in Playboy and tell-all interviews.

The enduring legacy of that rivalry, however, was surely the mall concert. Although it had been done before, utilizing shopping malls as showcase venues for budding pop stars really took off after both Tiffany and Debbie criss-crossed the country belting out singles and signing autographs in front of Spencer Gifts and The County Seat.

Which brings us to Skye Sweetnam, the latest fledgling singer working hard to fill up the food courts.

Sweetnam is perhaps one of the most talented teenage recording artists to play the North American media game in a long while. At the tender age of sixteen, this ebullient songstress has already toured as an opener for both Britney Spears and Jessica Simpson, and seen Europe and Asia in the process.

She’s definitely more Debbie than Tiffany, as she writes her own songs, and seems preternaturally savvy for a girl her age. Mature and quick-witted, she measures her words carefully, but readily admits to being aware of the sacrifices she’s making in pursuit of a career that she calls “an awesome opportunity.”

At first blush, her forthcoming Capitol Records debut (Noise From The Basement, out September 21st) comes across as an utterly contemporary blend of tiny bits of Joan Jett, Pat Benatar and Debbie Harry (the album’s lone cover is the Blondie hit “Heart of Glass”), and larger chunks of Avril Lavigne and the recently re-configured Liz Phair. But a closer listen to some of the tracks reveals traces of sly, knowing winks.

She grew up in the tiny Toronto suburb of Bolton (population: 15,000), and became involved in musical theatre at an early age. She admits to still being interested in acting, but seems wary of jumping into anything like that any time soon – despite the obvious pressure to do so that comes with this territory.

"I'm so focused on my musical career right now, that I’m very picky about what roles I might get involved in,” she says.

“I don't want to be one of these cheeseball singers who try to turn into an actress! I want to have a long and serious career, and it's important that people take me credibly. A lot of singers try to cash in and make as much money as they can, but I only wanna do what I think is cool.”

So far, that has worked. After attending a “Pop Stars Camp” on Spring Break (where Skye says, “about fourteen girls went and just sang over karaoke tracks”), she was encouraged by the head of the camp to make some low-fi home demos of the original material she had been penning since age twelve.

That demo was passed around Canada and fell into the hands of James Robertson, a budding twenty-one-year old musician and engineer who took a liking to Skye’s approach. According to Sweetnam, “we did mostly the whole album for fun at his house on the computer. This was all before I got signed. Everything on the new record was produced by James, except for two tracks that I did in Capitol Records' basement instead of his parents' basement.”

As for the sonic similarities to her countrywoman Lavigne, Skye says, “I don’t care if people want to compare me to Avril, but James and I were rocking when pop was still big and nobody had ever heard of her."

It’s important to her that people know she’s much more about the rock, as opposed to the pop end of things.

For proof, ask her to name her top five “desert island discs” (the records she would take with her if marooned forever on an island). Her selections include Weezer’s “blue album,” Incubus, and Pantera’s Greatest Hits.

But for right now, Capitol is all about pushing her debut as a rocking pop record, and that shouldn’t be too hard.

The production on her first single is heavy-handed, but adheres to the rules of the cassingle generation: heavy, crunching electric guitars and twinkling retro synths; pounding drums that sound as real as they do phony; and a chorus that sticks in your head like an icepick.

Nowhere is this sort of meticulously-planned chart attack more evident, than on the the album’s follow-up single “Billy S.” (that’s 15-year-old slang for William Shakespeare, for those out of the loop). With its hammering refrains of “I wanna break out/ Let’s go!”, it’s a modern-day paean to the joys of ditching class.

Sweetnam hits all the right notes that pre-teens will respond to. She playfully decries those dreaded high-school “required reading” lists, whines about having to wake up early on, and bitches that teachers want her to sit up straight and take off her headphones.

But just when you think she’s getting a little too bratty for her own good, she counters with the equivocation “I don’t blame them/They get paid.”

In fact, by the time you notice the perfectly-delivered sotto voce overdub of “To skip, or not to skip? That is the question!” during one of the blue million choruses that make up the brunt of this two minute and fourteen second song, you’re hooked.

And that’s exactly the idea.


Skye Sweetnam headlines 97.3 KISS-FM’s “Back To School Show” in the food court at Savannah Mall on Sat., August 14th at 4 pm. Opening will be two winners of the Savannah Idol competition as well as Glennville’s Katelyn Tarver, who won Fox’s American Juniors showcase. The show is free and open to the public.