Neverland?

At 19, Jesse McCartney has had a more successful career than most young pop stars — or most young people in general. First reaching platinum at 13 with peach fuzz boy band, Dream Street, McCartney continued to put out solo singles which landed in Disney flicks and Disney-related shows. In 2004 he put out his first solo record, Beautiful Soul, a precisely manufactured slab of teen pop with just enough sex appeal to give teens of many persuasions a little tingle, and lyrics neutered against parental outrage.

To promote his new album, Right Where You Want Me, Jesse’s teamed up with ABC Family Channel for a strange show (“Schooled”) wherein adults punk kids (who totally deserve it) then toss them a concert. I guess this is the side of punking Jesse prefers. I’m sure there’s more to it, but from the Google Video promo page, that’s all I can gather. Also exclusively hosted on the site is the vid for the new single. Where similarities to Justin Timberlake were merely glancing before, they’re almost undeniable now: His voice has found a steady, slightly deepened trail to stick to; his drawn out notes have the same nasal pang; his lips form words with the same near twang (opening line: “Giiiirrrrll-agh”), and most of all, his desires are adult. Now we won’t hear him suggest his chick whip him or call other boys motherfuckers (on this record), but someone very carefully ushered JM in this direction. In lieu of punky neu-vintage tees and shaggy boy hair, Jesse has been groomed to grow up — cropped spiked hair, button down shirt and dance steps. There’s a band behind him, a mic for him to rock casually. Even the girl he’s chasing after in the constantly shifting setting is older, about 20-22 from my guesstimate. The tune itself is a mesh of Rob Thomas’s pointedly obvious lyrics and melodies, JT’s vocal meandering and guitar strums, and the blandness of Maroon 5 on instrumental duty — nothing thrilling, but a new step for Jesse. It’s also his least Radio Disney-sounding single to date.

What keeps McCartney in Kiddieland is his association with all things Disney — a safe bet with limits. And it makes sense to stay there, with a nearly guaranteed audience, unlimited promotion and tie-ins (so long as the kids still like him) and probably lots of money. At the same time, a pair of constraining mouse ears could keep him harmless and, well, playing for kids. I suppose it’s not fair to guess what his ambitions are, or to speculate that he’d rather be doing something else. But as a boy becomes a man, entertaining children may be less and less comfortable or exciting.

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