There’s an easy test for great summer pop music: If it makes you feel like you’re driving down the highway on a sunny day — even if you’re stuck in the middle of the city — it’s a keeper. Every time I hear TLC’s “No Scrubs” or Ricky Martin’s “Livin’ la Vida Loca,” as far as I’m concerned it’s a dry 85 degrees with no traffic jams in sight. We haven’t even reached the Fourth of July and already it’s hard to imagine any single dominating the summer the way those two already have. In terms of approach, the songs are absolute opposites. TLC take their own sweet time. Their delivery is both sinuous and insinuating. By the end, you’d be happy for that chorus to keep repeating itself for hours. Ricky Martin’s “Livin’ la Vida Loca” doesn’t aim to seduce you in the same way. It wants to pull you into a whirlwind for four minutes and then toss you out, spent. The horns that open the song spring out at you as if they were leaping off a hot griddle. Everything about the production and Martin’s performance sounds as if it’s ready to jump out of its skin.
“No Scrubs” and “Livin’ la Vida Loca” have gotten enough airplay by now for you to start getting sick of them. So far, they suggest the kind of durability that characterizes the best pop singles: They haven’t yet given up their mystery or exhausted the pleasure they hold out. And the longer they stick around, the deeper they seem to be taking root in your head. But summer pop doesn’t have to suggest that kind of durability to be fun. Maybe because summer is about surface pleasures, a season that seems to both stretch out forever and vanish overnight, we’re more open to the pleasures of pop that doesn’t go as deep. Right now it seems utterly beside the point to wonder about the staying power of Jennifer Lopez’s album, “On the 6,” or “Hawaii,” the lead track off of Bijou Phillips’ debut, “I’d Rather Eat Glass” (best album title so far this year). Phillips (the daughter of Mamas and the Papas founder John Phillips) struts her famously decadent rock ‘n’ roll heritage by playing the role of teen scenester drama queen. I’m not sure what it is that’s got her so worked up on “Hawaii”: The combination of mundane and weird details that build up over the course of the first few verses paint a relationship that’s likely in trouble — but it also sounds as if the couple enjoys the turmoil. By the end, Phillips’ voice is breaking with teenage petulance. She seems to be making impossible demands, and that’s what’s thrilling about it. (Rock ‘n’ roll should demand the unreasonable.) There’s no telling what she intends the central metaphor (“Like Hawaii in the winter/like Hawaii in the fall”) to mean, only that her delivery makes it sound as if she’s imparting crucial information. When she slips away at the end with a coyly drawn-out “A-lo-ha” she takes the solution to the mystery with her. She’s zoomed into the room, tossed the furniture upside down and slipped out a side door before we’re even sure why she came. Half the time, I find myself starting the song over to look for clues.
Lopez’s debut, a cunningly selected mixture of dance pop and Latin pop, isn’t that perplexing. The pleasure of “On the 6″ is the pleasure of handsome production that balances professionalism with energy. It may contradict what I said about the fleeting pleasures of summer pop, but part of the reason you surrender to this album is that it’s been made by people who’ve taken care not to make it sound like a rush job, and to make sure that Lopez remains a warm presence at the center of every song. “On the 6″ has just the right amount of polish.
That polish winds up feeling like shellac on “Schizophonic,” the debut from Geri Halliwell, the former Ginger Spice. When the Spice Girls first appeared, there was plenty to resent them for: the shallow and wholly opportunistic platitudes about “Girl Power” and their comment about how it had been exhibited by Margaret Thatcher (though British journalist Julie Burchill beat them to that particular piece of idiocy). But at some point it just became too easy to hate them, too much the thing you did to show your superiority, either to a younger generation of pop fans or to the notion of pop itself. Maybe you have to remember when the only pop idols marketed to girls were fey, puppy-dog crooners, but I was starting to get a kick out of seeing little girls done up in “Girl Power” T-shirts. I liked that kids so young could listen to a piece of pop and feel, “This was made for me.” And while I’d hesitate to make a case for the Spice Girls as good, a couple of the singles, particularly “Say You’ll Be There,” won me over; I perked up when they came on the radio.
I think you’d have to be particularly mean-spirited to want Geri Halliwell’s solo album to be bad. When someone becomes the object of ridicule that she did, when they seem custom-made fodder for a culture where there’s more pleasure taken in proclaiming someone’s career over than started, you’d have to be very cynical not to want someone like that to prove herself. Halliwell doesn’t disgrace herself on “Schizophonic.” It’s listenable, will probably spawn a couple of hits, and she’ll get by with it. The record hits its highlight on the opening track (also the first single, “Look at Me”), a brassy there’s-more-to-me-than-meets-the-eye declaration that has a Vegasy, showgirl boastfulness. Despite a few stray tracks, like the Indian-flavored “Let Me Love You,” the rest of the record isn’t much fun. Part of the problem is that the producers have tried so hard to make each song sound distinct — there’s the Latin number, the cabaret number, the hip-hop number — that the record ends up sounding the same, stuck in mid-tempo.
But the biggest problem is that the record has been conceived as Geri Halliwell’s proclamation of her own reinvention. It’s understandable that, after playing the role of Ginger Spice, Halliwell wants to talk in a normal tone of voice and slip out of the Union Jack drag-queen glad rags. She’s been all over the glossies in her new role as roving goodwill ambassador for the United Nations, and all over the women’s mags showing off her makeover. The trouble is that musically she’s chosen to express this with the kind of inspirational numbers that pop music seems to be drowning in right now. Lyrics like “Walk away this time/with my head held high” are, of course, direct references to leaving the Spice Girls and finding herself a public joke. No doubt it’s important to her, but this is pop music as “Oprah” appearance. I’m genuinely glad for Halliwell that she’s landed on her feet, but she needs to learn to have as much trashy fun in loafers as she did in those red platform boots.
The sort of cheesy fun that’s missing from “Schizophonic” can be found on “Honey to the B,” the attempt to out-Britney Britney that is the debut from British teen singer Billie. It’s an indefensible piece of teenage pop — as calculated and plastic as they come. I rather enjoyed it. One thing Billie has going for her is producers who don’t seem to have a lot of patience with ballads. They’re careful to keep a dance beat behind the numbers, even the slower ones; nobody’s out to make a statement here. The one absolutely irresistible piece of candy is “Honey to the Bee,” the most shameless piece of Lolita-pop imaginable, and one of the most lascivious pop metaphors since Sheena Easton wiggled her way through Prince’s “Sugar Walls” (at one point, I swear Billie sings the lyric “I need that honey drip every hour” as “I need that horny drip every hour” Oh, behave!). There’s no subtlety in a song that begins with a teenage girl whispering, “C’mon, buzz me up to heaven, baby,” but it does remind you that the season’s pleasures aren’t all reputable. It’s the best compliment you can pay Billie that when you hear “Honey to the Bee,” you wonder, “Does her mother know about this?”