I’ll admit that even before I heard a single ostinato from her, I was inclined to dislike Leona Lewis. I pride myself on being able to tell the difference between crass calculation and outright evil, but Simon Cowell and Clive Davis blur the lines a bit, and these two smug svengalis have joined forces to navigate Lewis’s career.

Cowell is self-loving and proudly close-minded, while Davis is the mercenary hustler, a man who would put a mustache on the Mona Lisa if it made him an extra five bucks (remember, he vetoed the original cover for Whitney Houston’s debut album because it made her look “too black”). The saddest story I’ve ever heard about Janis Joplin’s sad life is that she demanded that Davis, a squinty-eyed human prune, sleep with her before she agreed to sign with his label. Oh, the depths of her masochism knew no bounds!

The creative presence of Cowell and Davis bathes Lewis’s much-hyped debut album in a skunky aroma that reminds me of a weekend drive by the Valero oil refinery in Three Rivers. Even the album title, Spirit, feels so bland and test-marketed it could just as easily be the name of a toilet-paper brand as the title of a pop album.

Truth be told, however, the 23-year-old Lewis needs plenty of A&R help. On the plus side, she seems like a nice, self-effacing person who hasn’t yet learned to browbeat her associates for handing her a lukewarm Red Bull. Her exotic features and lion’s mane of dirty blond hair play well on VH1, but as a singer, she’s strictly a cut-rate generic brand.

Her smash single, “Bleeding Love,” illustrates her shortcomings. First off, the song is a crappy, you-hurt-me-but-I-can’t-quit-you whiner. But, like too many contemporary pop singers, Lewis can’t even focus on that simple sentiment well enough to stay in character for four minutes. Her coos and trills show off her major-label pipes, but they’re completely incongruous with the song. She’s supposed to convey heartbreak, but the only message that cuts through is: “Listen to me nail this note! I’m a trained singer! Please buy my record!”

The tune’s video is just as confused, in a post-modern sort of way. While she tells her lover that he cut her heart open, she’s busy striking seductive poses. At one point, she illustrates the lyric by coyly running her finger across her chest, apparently equating a knife wound with fetish foreplay.

The rise of Lewis only reminds us that pop not only eats itself, it also endlessly repeats itself. She’s simply the 2008 answer to Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, and Celine Dion, slavishly aping their trademarks. Her album is proof that every few years, the industry needs some fresh, youthful naivete to sell a cynical svengali’s plan.

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