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The Hit Parade Marches Toward a Kind of Reality

Pop hitmakers of 2002 gathered at Madison Square Garden on Thursday night to pay obeisance to a powerful radio station, WHTZ, in its annual Z100 Jingle Ball. As they did, it was possible to see the pop pendulum swinging: away from the fantasy confections of the late 1990's and toward a calculated approximation of realism.

First of all, there were no simpering boy bands on the bill. Justin Timberlake of 'N Sync opened the show on his own, dancing despite a broken foot. The only vocal group on hand was Destiny's Child, singing its hard-nosed songs about independent women and untrustworthy men.

The rest of the performers were solo acts, and nearly all were determined to convey unmediated sincerity. Avril Lavigne, 18, wore a punky black T-shirt and strummed her own guitar as she performed tunes in MTV-ready formats from pop-punk to power ballads. She sang about the acutely felt slights of adolescence a boyfriend who tries to act too cool in public, a friend who's shut her out with a neatly fashioned straightforwardness. In her best song, the catchy, punk-pop "Sk8er Boi," a girl who rejects a lower-class guy regrets it when he becomes a rock star; it's a welcome step away from self-pity.

Nelly, Ja Rule and Ashanti the show's hip-hop contingent get their realism by keeping their raps and tunes simple, inviting singalongs. Nelly and half a dozen associates rapped in uncomplicated, singsong cadences about lust, parties, their native St. Louis and a dance floor so hot that women take their clothes off. Ja Rule, who has lately become the roughneck for hire among pop-R&B singers, took his shirt off and recited his low, raspy come-ons; fans eagerly sang Jennifer Lopez's parts around his rap in "I'm Real." Ashanti, whose tangy voice supplied hooks for hip-hop songs before she made her own album, sang about devoted love in short, sharp phrases that the whole crowd could join.

John Mayer strummed jazzy, virtuosic chords on an acoustic guitar, parading his tender feelings about women. Kelly Clarkson, who won the "American Idol" competition, sang two Mariah Carey-style ballads about love, putting ripples into her rich, creamy voice before growling in the homestretch of each song.

Kylie Minogue, the Australian singer who had an American hit this year, "Can't Get You Out of My Head," after a long career in Britain, was the exception. She harked back to 1980's Madonna, singing in a thin voice over percolating electronics. Dressed in a minimal black stretch garment, gesturing with languid arms and surrounded by campy dancers the men wore silver hot pants or, in a quasi-Latin number, flouncy black skirts she projected an android cool that was decidedly out of place.
John Pareles, New York Times