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Nice Girls Finish Fast

by Carol Cooper

The $64 million question? Why, in a post-Spice Girl world, are black girl groups still forming (and falling apart) as if the Spice Girls never happened? You have to admit that the successful game plan of five self-motivated British vixens who simply hired the right lawyer to help them sell their own (TLC-inspired!) pop group with a view toward maximum profitability (and a calculated expiration date) should have inspired legions of wannabes--girls looking for culturally specific ways to take control of their own ascendance and leave the roulette table ahead of the house. Why would young, talented black women still choose the slower, less flexible, less lucrative option of a production or "development" deal, when it might be possible to model one's career on the 1964-to-1968 trajectory of the Beatles?

In America, most r&b hopefuls have gotten better at multimedia exploitation since the mid '80s. They've been forced to read the writing on embattled music-industry walls. Now it's virtually mandatory that TV and film deals, designer fashion shows, Broadway roles, clothing lines, and makeup sponsorships be pursued the minute any new act gains the slightest bit of national profile. Especially girl groups. Because most prefab contemporary girl groups seem born to get hot and die soon after entering their long-desired spotlight. Jade, the Cover Girls, Brownstone, Xscape, Total, the original En Vogue . . . where are they now? Unfortunately for music lovers, even without intragroup strife and ever shrinking sales, radio, and touring outlets (due to syndicate monopolies, digital bootlegging, and exorbitant ticket prices), rising recording stars are opting out of total loyalty to the music biz faster than you can say "Brandy."

Which brings us to Isyss, four L.A.-bred teens slated to follow Destiny's Child up the pop charts. Having entered the Arista fold after highly publicized contract restructurings won more lucrative terms for labelmates TLC and Toni Braxton, Isyss may be the first black American girl group to be launched with a hybridized approach: part strategic Spice Girl autonomy, and part benign production-deal paternalism.

Ardena Clark, LeTecia Harrison, Lamyia Good, and Quierra Davis-Martin helped devise the look and sound of Isyss together with writer-producer Billy Moss. A scrupulous Moss made sure the girls co-wrote at least four of the album's 15 songs, and he also did what Dallas Austin used to do with TLC--let the girls decide which lyrics and themes suited their core personalities. The result is The Way We Do, an album less prone to male-bashing than Destiny's Child, less sexually explicit than TLC.

Even though each member has been tagged with a singing style comparable to some pre-existing hit maker (e.g., Ardena is "Aaliyah-like," and LeTecia recalls Mary J), Isyss weren't given much copycat material. Instead producers like Kevin "She'kspere" Briggs, Tyrice Jones, and Billy Moss quote another artist's signature beat or vocal approach as a point of improvisational departure for the Isyss quartet. So when "Hater" elicits Aaliyah's dark, legato croon, or the vamps that open "Holla at Me" evoke Faith and Mary J Blige, Isyss push off from there to steer their traded leads and tight harmonies toward their own trademark sound.

But the most intriguing aspect of most Isyss material is the lyrical tug-of-war between love for the bling-bling lifestyle and the subconscious pull of less materialistic values. The title track name-checks trendy clubland cocktails and access to the "VIP room" as elite perks even as it celebrates the more egalitarian ritual of these Alpha Females sharing their weed with the male cronies who buy them drinks. The single "Day and Night" explores the moral ramifications of being seduced away from a poor lover by a rich one, so while guiltily enjoying her gilded affair the singer muses: "Never could understand/it ain't like me/to up and leave for material things." Without pounding either soapbox or pulpit, Isyss bring ethical questions to the party.

If posed with the quintessential Spice Girl query--"Tell me what you want, what you really, really want!"--Isyss remain young and sincere enough to confess they don't really know. Like the even mix of modest and immodest clothing worn on their album cover, Isyss represent conflicting adolescent impulses. For instance, in the two tunes "Uh Uh, Uh Uh" and (less convincingly) "No Na Na" the quartet opt to withhold sex from eager suitors as a matter of self-respect and self-protection. But this is an emotionally fragile and highly conditional stance. Isyss--much like their targeted multi-culti audience--are clearly still trying to determine where positive self-interest begins and selfishness ends.

Yet where career is concerned they have no confusion as to where that particular line is drawn. Aware that no black girl group has ever made a film that renders their distinct personalities as unforgettable as those of the Beatles were in A Hard Day's Night, Isyss have high hopes for a script now in the hands of Lamyia's mother, which might let them go one better than Spice World. Currently doing the radio promo circuit and guaranteed a second album because their production company stayed underbudget, this group indulges no illusions about lasting "forever." Forever is such a 20th-century concept. No, these very nice, modern, morally agnostic girls grok ephemerality. Which is why they're prepared to deploy whichever 21st-century scheme will put them first at the finish line for a big payday.

Published in: Village Voice, 26 November 2002