Cover Story: Sells Like Teen Spirit

How Teen Pop will eat itself and give way to the next music revolution

'N Sync

"Some people call me a Teenage Idol/Some people say they envy me/I guess they got no way of knowing/How lonesome I can be."

— "Teenage Idol," Ricky Nelson

"Teenage angst has paid off well/Now I'm bored and old."

— "Serve the Servants," Kurt Cobain.

I love Britney Spears. I cherish 'N Sync. I adore the Backstreet Boys, Boyzone, Monica, 98 Degrees, B*Witched, Divine, C-Note, Usher, Cleopatra and Five. I don't mind that they all sound a lot alike. The resemblances are comforting — it harkens back to teen idols of the early-1960s, Bubblegum Pop of the early-1970s, and especially the pre-Grunge hit machines of light, danceable Pop made for and by high schoolers. The new breed might be more concerned with their image and marketing than the actual music that they are supposed to be basing their careers on, but did that stop the New Kids on the Block or New Edition? Would that have hindered Bobby Vee, Bobby Rydell or Bobby Sherman?

Or the Banana Splits, the Archies or The Partridge Family?

Every generation has its round of mindless music that is little more than a lifestyle accessory for the pubescent set. It just seems that now more than ever the teens are highly visible in imprinting pop culture. The power of the teen dollar in pop culture is fairly evident beyond music — there's the success of the WB Network, Titanic, and the revival of adolescent films like Cruel Intentions, and the Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer franchises.

There's a reason that so much entertainment is aimed at the teen market (cheekily dubbed "Generation Y," since they follow Generation X). The target audience for teen entertainment products is comprised of 56 million people with $275 billion in disposable income. According to a January Rand poll, girls aged 13 to 15 years old had an average of $45.10 a week to spend in 1997, of which they drained $41.20. That's more than a CD, a movie and a couple of fast-food meals a week. (Or two of the 19 T-shirts 'N Sync offer on their Web site.)

The latest wave of youth scrambling for allowances is just one part of the large ebb and flow of Pop music. Teen idols are always around, but the ubiquity of packaged groups hasn't been equaled since the end of the '80s when R&B-lite groups ruled the airwaves. It's easy to make fun of the music that the mall kids love; but consider that it was teens who first squealed at Frank Sinatra, swarmed Elvis Presley, and chased The Beatles. That these artists later became respected icons and innovators shows the influence that teens and their money can have on popular culture. Could Geri Halliwell be a serious artist in 10 years? The breakthrough from puppet to credible performer is a serious jump. Older Kids On the Block Joey McIntyre and Jordan Knight's attempts to rekindle their flames and fame (with McIntyre's "Stay the Same" and Knight's self-titled record) are little more than reworking of their old stuff.

McIntyre's and Knight's roots are in the mid- to late-1980s, when the hot acts were cutesy teen performers like their New Kids on the Block as well as New Edition, Tiffany and Debbie Gibson. Puppets of Svengali Maurice Starr, the New Kids were a little bit Elvis (making black music safer and palatable for white audiences) and a little Sinatra — okay, that's stretching things — but the girls could not get enough of the Bostonians.

From their dance moves to the composition of the group's personality (the cute one, the young one, the troublemaker, Sneezy, Dopey), Starr's lite-Dance Pop formula has been followed by aviation-mogul-turned-Svengali Louis Pearlman. In his creation of the Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync, the Orlando, Fla.-based Pearlman has turned himself into a powerful player in the teen market, on par with Starr and Elvis' Colonel Parker — because he understands marketing, not music. 'N Sync and the Backstreet Boys are hardly different from each other, updating the same kind of Vanilla Pop that attract hormonal girls with New Jack beats and R&B harmonies to any number of teen idols.

Britney Spears, who shares a manager with 'N Sync, a label with the Boys and songwriters with both, owes her fame to marketing and her Lolita-like video for her "Baby One More Time" single. Before her record, Baby One More Time, was released, she toured the malls of America with two dancers and backing tapes, just like Tiffany did a decade before. She had a No. 1 one single and album the week of Baby's release, the first time a solo debut has accomplished that. The album has now sold over three million copies.

Using corporate/teen synergy, the one-time New Mickey Mouse Club star opened part of 'N Sync's tour and a hidden track on her CD is an advertisement for the next Backstreet Boys album, Millennium, released May 18. Spears' appeal is obvious on first sight, but her music is only skin-deep as well: lite-dance fare, a couple of saccharine ballads, a Sonny and Cher cover, the end.

Eight years ago things were much different. In the fall of 1991, Nevermind, Nirvana's second record, was released and in January it knocked one-time teen dream Michael Jackson's Dangerous off the top of the charts. Things were different for a while: Grunge made good on a lot of Punk's promises, smacking the Color Me Badds and Wingers of the world out of public consciousness. Nirvana was the polar opposite of the slick, prepackaged teen groups — they wore flannel, had unkempt hair and sounded like Black Sabbath meets The Beatles. Still, Grunge has made the radio safe for Candlebox, Collective Soul, Bush and a host of post-Grunge rockers who had more in common with the dull excesses of Peter Frampton than the Pop buzz of the Pixies.

When Cobain killed himself five years ago, it ended the latest revolution. For people who thought Grunge was the sign that commercial and artistic success could coexist, it was their Altamont. The pendulum began swinging the other way — towards nice and safe. Consumers can only take bummers for so long before they look for something more positive.

A backlash the other way is inevitable as well. The pre-fab boy bands and Lolita-esque girl troupes — acts that don't write music, don't play instruments and dance in choreographed routines — have a shelf life of less than five years before overexposure and over-merchandising kills them. Instead they have relied heavily on the Swedish songwriting/production team of Denniz Pop (who died last September) and Max Martin, who have worked with Ace of Base, Five, the Backstreet Boys, 'N Sync and Spears — pulling the strings like Wizards of Oz.

But the teen phenomenon is just a part of the cyclical nature of the music world, and these groups serve a useful purpose: to inspire outrage and disgust in young musicians who will ultimately rise up against the bland beats and homogenous sounds. Every picture of Britney Spears wearing hot pants in Rolling Stone is one more bullet for the revolution. Teen groups are a part the fodder that fuels the next uprising, making them a very necessary evil. And just as the raw anger and alienation of the Grunge revolution couldn't sustain itself, teen groups will go away soon, if not soon enough. Insurgent Rock & Roll has moved in fits and starts, progressing like a corkscrew; moving forward, looping back on itself and lurching forward again. That's just the nature of artistic progress in popular culture — it's pretty reactionary.

The hard part is predicting when and what the inevitable next big thing will be. The electronic element can't be discounted, the succeeding generation of musicians will never have known a time before samplers, Techno, Drum 'n Bass, Trip Hop, or Gangsta Rap. It will be something primal and direct — with actual musicians making the music they perform, rather than relying on studio musicians and professional songwriters — but pop culture may have splintered to a point where something largely unified is impossible.

And the empire of teendom is already showing signs of cracking. Overexposure and a desire for more artistic control as the adolescents grow up are usually the main sources of problems. Last October the Backstreet Boys sued Pearlman because their original contract stipulated that the boys pay 43 percent of their net income to Trans-Continental Records Inc., a Pearlman-directed company.

Either way, Teen Pop only survives a little while and then it acts as compost, igniting something new. It makes listening to "Baby One More Time" a more Zen experience realizing that the next musical revolutionary is out there hearing it too, knowing that the world deserves better.

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