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Idol Sparks aims for all ages with 1st album

NEW YORK - When teen music stars approach the age of consent, they often test the boundaries of what's appropriate by taking on projects with adult content. "American Idol" champ Jordin Sparks took the opposite approach as she sought out material for her CD debut.

NEW YORK - When teen music stars approach the age of consent, they often test the boundaries of what's appropriate by taking on projects with adult content. "American Idol" champ Jordin Sparks took the opposite approach as she sought out material for her CD debut.

"I wasn't really sure what I wanted to sing about," Sparks said, "but I knew what I didn't want to sing about."

"I wanted to stay away from 'Oh, put your hands all over me'-type thing, because I haven't experienced that yet, so the fact that I would sing it would be really dumb - plus I don't feel comfortable singing stuff like that," Sparks, who turns 18 in December, said with a giggle.

It's that kind of wholesome charm, along with her powerhouse voice and striking good looks, that endeared her to "American Idol" audiences this year, making her the youngest winner in the TV phenomenon's six-season history after defeating semifinalist Blake Lewis. And on her Jive Records self-titled debut, record executives - and Sparks herself - wanted to make sure she retained that sweet-as-pie image.

"She's one of the most beautiful people I've ever met on this planet . . . You immediately get a sense of who she is and her values," said Jive A&R executive Jeff Fenster, who helped Sparks and her management team select songs for the album.

"You have to make a record that is representative of who the artist is. We tried to keep that in mind from the beginning of the process," he said. "I said to her from the beginning, a big part of my goal was to help her make a record that she was proud of and represented who she is, and I think she felt that way at the end of the day."

To that end, the "Jordin Sparks" CD is decidedly family-friendly - much like the talent competition that launched her career. Thanks to her "American Idol" success, and her age, Sparks' fan base has a large kid contingent, but also includes the parents and grandparents who, along with their children, watched as the Arizona teen went from a potential also-ran to the odds-on favorite to win it all.

Sparks wanted to make sure that she didn't alienate any age group with the material she chose.

"I never really thought of targeting a specific audience. I just want to make music and whoever likes it likes it," said Sparks, speaking via phone a few days prior to the CD's release.

"I do love the little girls who come up to me and they are just so excited, and I like meeting the older women who are like, 'Oh, my gosh, we love you . . . ' It's really cool," she said. "I'm kind of just making good music, so hopefully there's sort of a balance there to where adults will like it but it's not so adult that little kids won't be able to listen to it."

It looks as if she has found that balance on "Jordin Sparks," a thoroughly pop CD with a mix of romantic ballads, dance grooves and inspirational anthems. The album's first single, the guitar-infused "Tattoo," got a slow start on radio but has been steadily rising on the Billboard pop chart and is now a top 20 hit.

The CD was crafted with the help of pop's top producers, including Stargate, the team behind Beyonce's ubiquitous "Irreplaceable." But Sparks makes clear that her contribution was more than vocals, including a co-writing credit on one of the CD's 13 tracks.

"I feel very very lucky because I had a lot of say in what the album was like," she said. "There's a lot of stuff on the album I could relate to in some aspect."

That's especially true of one the more personal songs on the album, "God Loves Ugly," about overcoming insecurity about appearance. It may seem like an odd choice for the young beauty, but the song resonated with Sparks, especially after she endured some criticism from an overzealous weight watcher for her full figure after she won the "Idol" crown.

"There are days when I'm like, 'I want to put a bag over my head.' But most days I'm fine and I'm content and I like the way I look and I like my curves," she said. "It was just kind of weird, but I kind of let things roll off my back."

It's that same kind of levelheadedness that Sparks seems to apply to the whirlwind that has become her life since her "Idol" run this year. She credits her close-knit family with keeping her grounded: Sparks (the daughter of former NFL player Phillippi Sparks) always has one of her parents or family members by her side, and relies on their guidance when things start to get unwieldy: "I have my mom or my nana come with me anywhere I go . . . It's cool because I have them there if something is thrown at me."

The next few months will be particularly grueling for Sparks as she promotes her new CD. It will also represent the biggest test of her young career: Will she follow the multiplatinum path of "Idol" winners Carrie Underwood and Kelly Clarkson, or suffer a Taylor Hicks fate and fade from the pop spotlight?

Even Sparks admitted that the whole thing "is a little bit scary." But she thinks her youth has given her an advantage.

"That's the point of this career for me. I'm excited because of my age - I can grow." *