Teen Idylls

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.

-- Ricky Nelson, "Teenage Idol"

Teenage angst has paid off well/Now I'm bored and old.
-- Kurt Cobain, "Serve the Servants"

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 alike. The resemblances are comforting; they harken back to teen idols of the early '60s, the bubble-gum pop of the early '70s, 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 image and marketing than music, 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, and the Partridge Family?

Every generation has its rash of music that is little more than a lifestyle accessory for the pubescent set; it's just one part of the larger ebb and flow of pop music. Still, the current ubiquity of packaged teen acts hasn't been seen since the end of the '80s, when R&B-lite groups ruled the airwaves.

One need look no further than the local concert calendar, which features upcoming shows by chart-topper Britney Spears and former New Kid on the Block Joey McIntyre. McIntyre's appearance is especially telling, as it seems even over-the-hill teenyboppers are trying to cash in on the craze. Current albums from McIntyre and Jordan Knight find the Old Kids Who Have Been Around the Block working the teeny-pop sound to little avail, a far cry from the late '80s when the NKOTB ruled the earth under the guidance of their Svengali, Maurice Starr. NKOTB had merchandise -- dolls, backpacks -- and they had hits -- "Step by Step," "You Got It (The Right Stuff)," "I'll Be Loving You (Forever)" -- and teen girls ate up their R&B-lite tunes during their short reign.

From the synchronized dance moves to the one-of-each composition of the group's personality (the cute one, the young one, the troublemaker, Sneezy, Dopey...), Starr's pop formula has been adopted by aviation-mogul-turned-Svengali Louis Pearlman. In his creation of the B Boys and 'N Sync, the Orlando-based Pearlman has turned himself into the latest king of the teen market, on par with Starr and Elvis' Colonel Parker.

Like his predecessors, Pearlman understands marketing more than music. Pearlman originally rented planes to NKOTB; but he wanted to get closer to the source of income. Not only has he made a fortune with the Backstreet Boys by spicing vanilla pop with New Jack beats and R&B harmonies, he has created his own competition with the little-different 'N Sync.

Of course we find it easy to make fun of the music that the mall kids love. But consider that teens were the first to squeal at Frank Sinatra, swarm Elvis Presley, and chase the Beatles. That these artists later became respected icons and innovators demonstrates the influence teens and their money can have on popular culture. The breakthrough from puppet to credible performer is a serious jump, though. The formula seems to be that genuine talents will out.

It's just that now most promoters and entertainment companies, such as Pearlman, are not interested in helping performers break through by taking chances creatively. They're interested in cashing in.

And the power of the teen dollar in pop culture has never been more evident. Consider the success of the WB Network, Titanic, and the revival of teen scream films such as the Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer franchises. That's the reason so much of today's popular entertainment is aimed at the teen market, cheekily dubbed "Generation Y."

The target audience for teen entertainment products is comprised of 56 million people with $275 billion in disposable income. According to a Rand poll last January, girls 13 to 15 years old had an average of $50.90 a week to spend in 1997, of which they drained $45.10. That's a CD, a movie, a couple of fast-food meals, and then some per week. (Or it could cover 2 of the 24 T-shirts 'N Sync offers on its Website.)

Britney Spears, camped out in the upper regions of the charts with her debut album, ... Baby One More Time, has been seeing a lot of that allowance money. 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, which shows the teen flaunting her burgeoning physical assets -- much as Elvis used his pelvis -- to the delight of older viewers as well as the teen target audience.

Before her disc was released, Spears toured the malls of America with two dancers and backing tapes, just like Tiffany did a decade ago. Unlike Tiffany, her economic clout now travels well beyond the mall. She had a number-one single and album the week of Baby's release, the first time a solo debut has accomplished that. The album has now sold more than three million copies. Using corporate/teen synergy, the onetime New Mickey Mouse Club star opened part of 'N Sync's tour, and a hidden track on her CD is an advertisement for the Backstreet Boys' album, Millennium, which sold more than a million copies in its first week, a new sales record. Spears' appeal is primarily aesthetic -- pouty lips, allegedly augmented breasts -- and her album offers little of substance; lite-dance fare, a couple of saccharine ballads, a Sonny and Cher cover, the end.

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