Katie Melua: She's got them dancing in the aisles at Tesco

Record companies love her across-the-board appeal to music fans who buy from supermarkets. Attempts to package the teenage Georgian as the creator of a new genre may not impress the purists but then neither did the music of the Wombles, another creation of Mike Batt

Hold the front page! Katie Melua is "shit", according to stroppy north London anti-crooner, Amy Winehouse. That Amy - what is she like! Only a few months ago she was dismissing saintly coffee-table popstrel Dido as "rubbish" and deploring the ignorance of record companies. Now she's taking chunks out of Britain's favourite 19-going-on-50-year-old, the plucky girl from the former Soviet republic of Georgia who emigrated to Belfast and now lives in Redhill, Surrey.

Hold the front page! Katie Melua is "shit", according to stroppy north London anti-crooner, Amy Winehouse. That Amy - what is she like! Only a few months ago she was dismissing saintly coffee-table popstrel Dido as "rubbish" and deploring the ignorance of record companies. Now she's taking chunks out of Britain's favourite 19-going-on-50-year-old, the plucky girl from the former Soviet republic of Georgia who emigrated to Belfast and now lives in Redhill, Surrey.

Could Amy be jealous of Melua's booming success, and her blossoming commercial prospects in the US? Probably not, even if Melua's album Call Off the Search has sold more than a million copies worldwide, and spent six months on top of the British charts. Winehouse's songs are tough, bawdy and hip, while Melua plays a brand of laminated schmaltz that would have provoked mass snoring even back in 1951. And despite being hailed as the UK's answer to Norah Jones, Melua can't claim either her musical pedigree (Norah's dad is Ravi Shankar, and she has soaked up copious amounts of jazz, country and hip hop) nor to have amassed enough experience to be in charge of her own destiny, as Jones palpably is.

What Melua can claim is to be the latest creation of Mike Batt, who spotted her at the Brit School of Performing Arts in Croydon and became her manager/producer/arranger/writer. Batt has been the guiding hand behind a list of pop and "crossover" phenomena stretching back to the Wombles in the mid-Seventies. He conceived Art Garfunkel's "Bright Eyes"; he was the mastermind behind svelte fiddler Vanessa-Mae's multimillion-selling album The Violin Player, and he helped to create the all-girl string quartet Bond, recently spotted pouting provocatively from giant casino billboards in Atlantic City. He even collaborated with Andrew Lloyd Webber on Phantom of the Opera.

Invitations to accept Melua and her music as some sort of "real thing" and the harbinger of a New Jazz Age should therefore be treated with caution, though you have to admire Batt's gift for bringing so many projects to commercial fruition. He has also done it without taking the Simon Cowell route and framing himself at the centre of the story.

Melua herself doesn't like it when critics assert that she appeals to a middle-aged audience to which, for reasons known only to executives sacked in the endless round of cullings that stalk the record companies, the labels have stopped offering any product that might interest them. "They're from all age groups - teenagers right up to grannies and grandpas," Melua insists, of her fans. "It really is incredible."

But it seems self-evident that Melua "skews older", to borrow the secret shorthand known only to marketeers. The Queen is a big fan, probably having listened to Katie's records on Terry Wogan's Radio 2 show. Wogan adopted Melua as his favourite singer when her album was released last year, and Michael Parkinson, who almost single-handedly keeps Britain's jazz musicians fed, clothed and sheltered by inviting them on to his shows, also hopped aboard.

Knowingly or not, Melua is tapping into a silent majority of listeners who have lost the habit of following musical trends, but know that Radio 1 and XFM aren't aimed at them. They're not interested in doing historical research into the golden age of popular song or West Coast cool jazz, but if an artist sporting the superficial trappings of taste and sophistication is handed to them on a plate, they'll give it a try. Once WH Smith and Safeway start picking out the likes of Melua or Jamie Cullum and displaying them prominently near the check-outs, the marketing battle is won. And since these albums are much cheaper to record than something by Radiohead or Franz Ferdinand, profitability arrives that much more quickly.

The big companies in London are kicking themselves for missing out on Melua, and allowing Batt to step in and sign her to his Dramatico Entertainment label. However, she has been picked up by Universal in the States, where she shows signs of repeating the success of the even younger British singer Joss Stone, whose album The Soul Sessions harks back to the Sixties heyday of Stax and Atlantic and wipes away at a stroke any disturbing thoughts of gangsta rap or the repulsive tuneless wailing that is now packaged as R&B.

Yet despite the rapturous reception accorded to these precocious phenomena by their audiences, it's difficult to avoid the sensation that that there's something fundamentally bogus about Teen Classicism. Hearing Stone sing "Laura Lee's Dirty Man" ("you're a dirty, dirty man / And you gotta dirty mind") doesn't give you a sense of bitter experience lived the hard way. It's more like watching a pre-pubescent Soviet gymnast performing medal-winning miracles after being pumped full of steroids, then wondering what on earth they're going to do for the rest of their lives.

Likewise, although there are those who will insist hotly that Melua "can sing", you have to have been living on a private island where Ella Fitzgerald or Dusty Springfield or Patsy Cline never existed to be convinced by her gauche pastiche of blues singing on "Learnin' the Blues", or by her embarrassingly threadbare library of vocal mannerisms in "The Closest Thing to Crazy". It makes Mariah Carey sound quite good. I would have to say that Winehouse has a point, albeit one that isn't very delicately expressed.

Still, it's fascinating to watch the way the British record industry has responded to the vertiginous fall from grace, and profitability, it has suffered in recent years. Having once subjugated the planet with The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, then Led Zeppelin, Queen and Sir Elton, the Brits were suddenly dismayed to find that they couldn't compete with the rap, nu-metal and teen-pop being pumped out with ruthless industrialised efficiency by the American record business. Our leading tastemakers put on their thinking caps, put the clocks into reverse and headed at high speed into the middle of the road. Their quest to make all listening much easier scored some unlikely successes with the mix of show tunes and pseudo-opera pioneered by Sarah Brightman, hardly a performer who has made huge deposits at the Bank of Hip, but who now appears a figure of heroic musical integrity alongside more recent arrivals such as Charlotte Church, Russell Watson and Universal Music's treacly child warbler Hayley Westenra.

Now they've done classical, probably to death judging by the pitiful sales of so-called "core repertoire" (ie classical music), so it's time for jazz to get the guts kicked out of it by harassed executives who are having their noses pressed to the bottom line by bosses in New York. But of course it isn't "jazz" in the sense of Wayne Shorter or Miles Davis, although Jamie Cullum, another popular unit-shifter in the musical sector some spin doctors shiftily refer to as "jazz-informed", could conceivably build a bridgehead into something tougher and more rigorous in years to come.

Remarkably, there is at least one record executive prepared to call it like it is. Adam Sieff, Sony Music's director of jazz for the UK and Europe, has pointed out: "Jazz is used as a marketing term. An awful lot of records that aren't really jazz records are being called that because it's an opportunity to have a loose association with something that's become slightly hip again."

Obviously "prematurely middle of the road" doesn't have quite the same allure.

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