Here Comes Natalie Imbruglia, Pop’s ‘It’ Girl, for Now

When Scott Wolf from Party of Five took the stage of Saturday Night Live on the night of March 7 and announced, with all the fake enthusiasm that guest hosts of that beleaguered program can ever muster, “Natalie Imbruglia is here!” you could almost hear the audience muttering “Who?” What those simple people failed to realize was, pop music history was being made . Natalie Imbruglia, a sprightly, blue-eyed ex-soap star from Australia, was about to become the first pop act since Devo to hit SNL ‘s stage before her debut album had even been released in the United States.

There are, of course, perfectly valid reasons for this. First, Ms. Imbruglia is a stunner, a gamine brunette babe who at 23 has already succeeded in reducing all the goggle-eyed yobs in the British press to puddles of surprisingly respectful lust. Second, the word is out on her. The powers that be at MTV, and pop culture watchdogs from Spin to Entertainment Weekly , Rolling Stone and Interview , seem convinced that Ms. Imbruglia is the fastest-rising young female pop-rock singer since Alanis Morissette grew her hair down to her butt, screeched about giving blowjobs in movie theaters and sold 25 million albums.

So why has this particular pretty girl with a passable voice and one strong single been anointed the next “It” Girl? Ms. Imbruglia’s first single, “Torn,” an uplifting, acoustic guitar-driven slice of instant familiarity, has already made the Top 10 in 10 countries. In Britain, “Torn” spent three months at No. 1 and was the most played song of 1997; her album, Left of the Middle (RCA), sold close to half a million copies in less than two months.

But European success is generally not enough to rouse jaded American print and TV types to make a young singer the next media moment. Sensing a pop juggernaut in the making, everyone jumped on the bandwagon because the music industry and its satellites are desperate to find the next Alanis.

Ms. Morissette’s breakthrough album, Jagged Little Pill , was released in 1995. The fact that she had no plans to begin recording her follow-up until sometime this year was cause for celebration for anyone with taste. But record execs don’t have a sense of taste, just a sense of smell, and they smelled a chance to make money on the angry-sensitive-groovy girl tip. Thus, they are offering up several female rock singers in the interim whom they desperately hope will fill the gap. Ms. Imbruglia’s preternatural success means that the other members of the class of ’98 might have to wait for the young Aussie’s 15 minutes to run out.

So who else is out there? The first contender-in-waiting is Billie Myers, a Jamaican-English 27-year-old whose tremulous first single, “Kiss the Rain,” is a Top 20 pop hit. The lyrics on her debut album, Growing, Pains , are the sort of sensitive “poetry” that not only read like diary entries, but sound like them.

When the marketing campaign to break Ms. Myers was gearing up last year, Universal Records sent out a small illustrated book of her lyrics to accompany the advance CD. When that gentle approach didn’t work, Kathryn Schenker Associates-the P.R. dream team responsible for controlling the ubiquitous images of Fiona Apple, the Wallflowers and Janet Jackson-was brought in to sell her as a rock vixen. Old-school hit maker Desmond Child, who has written songs for Kiss, Cher and Bon Jovi, had already been enlisted to produce her album in much the same way that Ms. Morissette was hooked up with Glen Ballard. The end result of all this strategizing is that Ms. Myers comes off like Meredith Brooks: a dubiously talented Alanis-wannabe who is going to try to parlay her dumb luck with one mediocre song into a career. Essentially, both women come off as a male idea of what a female rock singer capable of shifting major units should look and sound like.

Not so with Rebekah, an exuberant 25-year-old African-American woman who has just released a promising pop debut, Remember to Breathe (Elektra). The Cleveland-born daughter of religious parents (Dad’s a church choir director, Mom accompanies him on piano), Rebekah’s first single, “Sin So Well,” rebels against her Catholic schoolgirl upbringing by celebrating female orgasm. Another song, “Keep It a Secret,” contains the same “Just try to replace me, buddy” sentiment that sent Ms. Morissette into the stratosphere when she dressed down her ex on “You Oughta Know.” It’s this mixture of wide-eyed naïveté and sass that make her seem even younger than she is. When she indulges in sexy belly-dancing moves on stage-as she did at the Mercury Lounge on Feb. 12-you just want to throw a coat over her lower half. But then when she wiped away a tear after performing a song called “Little Black Girl,” it actually felt like a genuine moment.

A little emotion might serve the terminally laid-back Alana Davis, who performed at Mercury Lounge a few days before Rebekah. Smiling benignly as she went through the folk-pop songs from her debut Blame It on Me (Elektra), Ms. Davis had some hooks, but her bluesy, stylized alto is so full of self-conscious, jazzy riffing, it made you want to shout, “Stop mumbling and sing the song!” If Ms. Davis stopped grinning long enough, she might realize she hasn’t got much to say.

It’s not a bad thing that so many female pop-rockers are getting the recognition and healthy sales once only enjoyed by their male counterparts. Quite the contrary. If they’re writing good songs, why shouldn’t they? But it’s sad when mediocre artists are held up as good simply because they’re female. That’s as insulting to women as the idea that “Women in Rock” is a fad that’ll pass.

Whatever is causing the public to tune in to a female frequency, it’s not showing any sign of abatement. This year’s Grammy Awards were dominated by women, with Paula Cole nominated seven times (though she only took home Best New Artist) and 20-year music biz veteran Shawn Colvin winning both record and song of the year. That kind of validation will only encourage this “chick thing” in the industry. Just wait until the second Lilith Fair kicks off in June, with Erykah Badu and Missy Elliott featured along with the crop of sensitive white women for which the tour was criticized last year. If Lilith keeps the ladies at the top of the charts, the only hope male solo artists will have is to start cross-dressing.

Here Comes Natalie Imbruglia, Pop’s ‘It’ Girl, for Now