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Breathing lessons 

Look at her. Michelle Branch is singing, and she looks like such a perfect shiny pop star. She can do pouty. She can do sexy. She can do demure. She plays guitar with Sheryl Crow's swagger. She's got a sweet, innocent voice Jewel should get royalties for.

But look carefully. Look at Branch's mouth, her lungs. If you watch closely when she sings, you'll see her strain slightly, as if she's figuring out how to breathe properly. She's a little ungainly, a little out of place, which is pretty much how any normal person-turned-superstar should be. And perhaps the most endearing part about Michelle Branch is just how normal she is.

The back-story here is that there's not much of a back-story, and that in itself is compelling. Branch didn't live in a van or write music in response to some deep personal tragedy. She's not from Canada or somewhere else where it gets really cold. She wasn't a Mouseketeer. You get the feeling she won't ever show up in a video riding a unicorn or dipped in chocolate.

Branch is just an All-American gal, who as a teen-ager wrote catchy songs about emotions she was still beginning to understand, about circumstances she hadn't yet encountered, about stories she hoped would and wouldn't come true in the future. In interviews about her second album, "Hotel Paper" (released June 24), Branch half-joked that one difference between this record and her last, "The Spirit Room," is that she now actually has life experiences to write about.

But everything was fine when she was making stuff up, because "The Spirit Room" was full of lovely songs that were simultaneously heartfelt and vague enough to seem universal. Even as her music sounded more mature than everything else being passed off as teen pop, Branch tapped into perhaps the two greatest teen-age desires: to be loved and to escape. And she found a way to tap into it in, like, 15 seconds while her voice soared in a way that seriously messes with neurons. ("The New Yorker" recently reported that Dartmouth researchers found that "the brain responds physiologically to dramatic swoops in range and pitch"; this could account for some people's reaction to hearing Branch for the first time.)

In "All You Wanted," Branch sings, "If you want to/ I can save you/ I can take you away from herrrrre!/ So lonely inside/ So busy out there/ And all you wanted/ was somebody who cares." You can just hear kids in every mall in America sighing, cooing, singing along.

Branch has expressed some frustration in the past about being mistaken for Vanessa Carlton, and it's probably true that she'll be lumped in with Vanessa and Avril Lavigne when 25th-century historians study antiquated two-dimensional websites to make sense of the she-mo sweepstakes at the beginning of the millennium. But the differences are easy to parse: Michelle doesn't play piano or write total non-sequitur lyrics like Vanessa. Unlike Avril, Branch broke through by writing her own music, which held up well enough that it didn't need rewriting.

Branch has no gimmick. Carlton has to move on from traveling the world on a piano, and Lavigne's teen-rebellion act won't work when she's old enough to drink (or vote, for that matter). Branch can look forward to a longer career arc that doesn't require a massive "transformation." This is fortunate for her, given that when the pop audience adores someone, they don't want him or her to change. After Alanis went to India and Jewel went to another planet, fans balked. We want to hold on to the stars we fell in love with, but almost all of them made such extreme decisions in the beginning that they had to react with something even more extreme. (Hi, Christina!) Branch has no such challenge.

On Branch's new single, "Are You Happy Now?" she sounds serious, as if somebody has broken her heart: "Would you tell it to my face or have I been erased/ Are you happy now?" The song's video is filmed in such a way that you wonder if the director fears sunlight and bright colors. For once, Branch doesn't look shiny. It's dark and dreary as she sings, but there are soft smiles, as if Branch, not even 21, knows that everything's going to be fine. Because no one can take away the fact she has more staying power than her peers, that she's propelled herself to the top of the charts, awkwardly, confidently.

This may not be all she wanted, but it's probably close, so I hope she is indeed happy now. It's OK to relax, girl, because you've made it. Relax. Breathe.

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