"A girl in trouble is a t...

"A girl in trouble is a temporary thing," once surmised little-heard '80s punk-poppers Romeo Void, and nowhere is said wisdom more prevalent than at the top of last week's Billboard 200. Three women of first-name notoriety, clearly representing no fewer than three tenets of the feminine mystique, bum-rushed the top 10 in varying shades of comeback regalia. Alanis, Kylie and (ladies and gentlemen ... ) Cher took the tatters of their individual histories back into some grand concurrent relevance.

Surprise? Maybe. But given the whole pop-psychology machine at work here, one that is certainly more fascinating than any of the music coming out of it, even the coincidence feels oddly planned.

The similarities are striking. Each of our divas comes from an embarrassing television background. Each has suffered from industry overexposure. And, perhaps most important, each has come back in full force representing a type of music -- or, moreover, a type of woman -- to seal her place in the global collective consciousness. Advertising is a bitch, no?

Well, Alanis Morissette is. Sort of. Having survived antibiotics and black flies in her chardonnay, the banshee who once wailed about going down on you in the theater leaps into a smoothed over resolve on her new No. 1, "Under Rug Swept (Maverick)" . Gone is the melody-free murk of Miss Morissette's tabla-tinged, infatuation junkie in favor of the production swirls and guitar riffs of a more immediate, accessible lady in waiting.

Still, it's a sneaky move -- as the title might suggest. Previously under the thumb of Mr. Obvious, producer Glen Ballard, the new self-produced Alanis has stepped forward in her appearance of artistic realization, employing an anger-management ethic in the face of the same sorts of atrocities that won her mass acclaim in the first place: cheating boyfriends, codependence, um, her thesaurus.

("I liked it at first," said one close friend upon purchasing "Swept," "but then it just sounded like taking the GRE.")

"What part of our history's reinvented under rug swept? What part of your memory's so selective, it tends to forget?" obliques Morissette on her current older girl/younger boy radio winner, "Hands Clean." Although, all levity (assumed or not) is quickly brushed away with coy mentions of his "firm body." It's welcome whimsy in the face of by-the-numbers metaphoria like "transparent dangling carrots" and the syllable play of "disillusionMENT." Our Alanis still cares a bit too much, but at least she's growing up.

Courting the devil-may-care attitude of somebody five years further on, reborn chanteuse Kylie Minogue is taking a surprise stab at American fame with her global smash, "Fever (Capitol)". This on the heels of previous scrunch-haired notoriety with a late-'80s novelty hit cover of "The Locomotion." Not necessarily a recipe for success, you might say. But factor in that Kylie has enjoyed a steady career of 32 hit singles overseas, and that even Madonna very publicly sported a Kylie Minogue T-shirt at the MTV Europe Awards last year, and the signs are there. In rhinestones.

First step, a descriptively catchy single titled "Can't Get You Out of My Head," replete with a space-age, scantily clad video campaign. Oozing with pure pop indulgence, yet still buoyed by experimental dance blippery (reminiscent of Daft Punk), the song topped the charts in nearly every territory it was released. It now, belatedly, rests in our own top 10.

What's great about Kylie is that she's a huge superstar everywhere BUT here, eliciting the kind of press scrutiny only Madonna earns stateside. She publicly speaks of how it affects her, how sometimes just walking down the street she'll start to cry in the face of it all. But that doesn't stop the machine from turning. People still come up to her and ask her to sign things. The horror.

Anyway, "Fever" is a slap-tastic opus of lipgloss and failed ambitions. It comes off as assembly-line disco but with occasional signs that little Kylie is just trapped in the middle of it all, dancing to set herself free. Mechanical, but with a warm heart at the center.

More mechanical -- and with a significantly more frigid heart -- is the immortal Cher, who continues the surprise vocoded success of her 1999 release, "Believe," with the almost apologetically titled, "Living Proof (Warner Bros.)". It's as if we're merely charting platitudes in Cher's career-suspension: Nothing sounds perfect(ed), and nothing really says anything. Still, hers is an acquired indulgence of menopausal resignation: "We all forgive, we all forget, and all keep believing," she offers, somewhat tellingly, on her single (cleverly dedicated to the New York firefighters), "Song for the Lonely."

So what if Cher's now making the kind of demonstrative pop that characterized David Hasselhoff's German pop peak in the late '80s? She still looks so good. She's not aging, but neither is she progressing. It's not every artist who could get away with the first two songs on her record beginning with directions ("This is a song for the lonely ..." and then, "This is a different kind of love song ..."). Rinse. Then Repeat.

But perhaps Cher's is the most valid realization of where all of this post-pertinence pop-positioning can go. There will always be independent, viable forces pulling up the musical end, but who, we beg, will be the pop stars? Those who stick around and stay thin, more than likely.

In the case of Cher, her career becomes a sort of post-modern sandwich with her name rising above the passing of trends, and her actual output sloshing around in them -- distorted almost beyond recognition. Given the right technology, you can live forever.

Just ask her.

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