The hottest accessory for young starlets this year isn't a piece of jewelry or a pair of shoes. The must-have perk is something a bit harder to come by — a recording contract.
When it was announced earlier this month that actress Lindsay Lohan (search) had signed a multi-album deal with Tommy Mottola's Casablanca Records, experts noted that it was indicative of a trend in the recording industry. In an attempt to attract the increasingly lucrative demographic of 'tween girls, ages 9-12, record companies are turning to stars who have already established themselves in film or television — singing ability be damned.
In signing with Mottola, Lohan, who recently turned 18, follows in the footsteps of Hilary Duff (search), 16, and Ashlee Simpson (search), 19, established actresses who released albums last August and last Tuesday, respectively.
"You don't actually have to be that great a singer to be a music star anymore," said Zena Burns, music editor for Teen People. "If you assemble a good team around you, if you get good songwriters, the right producers and smart label executives, it doesn’t really matter what [your voice] sounds like. They will make you sound good and they will make your material hot.”
Of course actors trying their hand in the music world isn’t new: From Kevin Bacon (search) to David Hasselhoff (search), big- and small-screen stars have long used their fame to further their singing aspirations. But what separates this latest crop of pop tarts from their predecessors is their astounding success.
Duff's "Metamorphosis" hit No. 1 on Billboard charts last September, while the album's single, "So Yesterday," topped Billboard's Hot 100 list. Simpson's "Autobiography" sold more than 300,000 copies in its first week and debuted at No. 1 on Billboard's Top 200. Both albums got lukewarm critical reception but benefited from catchy singles that got heavy airplay on Top 40 radio and MTV.
Burns said she expects similar success for the latest entry into the pop world.
"Lindsay Lohan has become a phenomenon in her own right," said Burns. "Her people have been very smart in positioning her as far as her acting career goes, and I think that those smarts will carry over into her recording career."
One thing teen starlets have that is music to recording execs' ears is a built-in fan base. Legions of ‘tween girls idolized these young actresses before they even stepped up to the microphone.
Duff gained popularity as the title character on the Disney Channel series "Lizzie McGuire." Lohan has had several successful films, including "The Parent Trap," "Freaky Friday" and "Mean Girls." Simpson started on the WB's wholesome drama "7th Heaven," then followed her big sister Jessica of "Newlyweds" fame into the world of reality television with "The Ashlee Simpson Show," which is about her aspirations to become a singing star.
Having gained popularity as actors, the next logical step for this new generation is to expand into other mediums, bringing their fans with them. This is a change from years past when actors trying to become singers were more likely to be met with ridicule than record sales. For every Jennifer Lopez album that gets sold, there are hundreds of William Shatner, Billy Bob Thornton and Jennifer Love Hewitt records that gather dust on the racks.
"Not only is it acceptable, but it's almost become expected that these starlets master several crafts," said Burns. "They get very popular because their fans know them from movies and they like their personalities."
Schuyler Brown, a youth and urban trendspotter for marketing firm Euro RSCG, agrees. She said that 'tweens and teens view their favorite celebs as a brand, and they’ll embrace any product the celeb releases, whether it’s a movie, an album, a clothing line or even beauty products.
"These kids are more marketing savvy than any previous generation," said Brown. "Of course we're all marketing savvy nowadays, but whereas Gen X is very marketing savvy and very cynical about it, kids today are very marketing savvy but also accept that that's just the way it is. It's part of their lives."
Whether Lohan will be as musically successful as her peers remains to be seen. But her audience is certainly receptive. Visiting the Virgin Records Megastore in Times Square with her mother, Anne Marie D'Amico, 11, of Brooklyn, N.Y., was buying the Ashlee Simpson album.
D'Amico said Ashlee's MTV show is one of her favorite programs, and while she doesn't own the Hilary Duff album, she’s listened to it at a friend's house and liked it. Plus, she "really liked [Lohan's movie] 'Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen,'" she said.
When asked if she would buy Lohan’s album, expected out next year, D'Amico said, "Probably." And then she giggled, "But I'd have to hear it first."