Teen Idylls

Eight years ago things were much different. In the fall of 1991, Nevermind, Nirvana's second record, was released, and in January 1992 it knocked 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 and its ilk were the polar opposite of the slick, prepackaged teen groups; they wore flannel, didn't style their hair, and sounded angst-ridden.

But by the time Kurt Cobain killed himself five years ago, the beginning of the end was already under way for grunge. For people who thought grunge was the sign that commercial and artistic success could coexist, Cobain's death was their Altamont. The pendulum of commercial taste began swinging the other way, toward nice, toward safe.

That's not to say that the same people who once bought Mudhoney records are now singing along to the Backstreet Boys. Korn, Rob Zombie, and Rage Against the Machine are still exploiting the angry teen populations, and Pearl Jam continues to make music chiefly for postadolescent listeners. The point is that teen music -- and especially teen pop -- has captured the Zeitgeist the way Lollapalooza once did.

A backlash against the current crop of teenyboppers is inevitable as well. The prefab boy bands and nubile sirens -- 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 overmerchandising kill them. The current teen retinue is already showing signs of weakening. The problem isn't just overexposure; the teen artists themselves are revolting against the confines of their packaged stardom. Last October, for instance, the Backstreet Boys sued Pearlman because their original contract stipulated that the Boys pay 43 percent of their net income to Trans-Continental Records, a Pearlman-directed company.

But it should be remembered that teen groups serve a useful purpose in the larger pop-music weave: they help inspire outrage and disgust in the young musicians who will ultimately rise up against their bland beats and homogenous sounds to forge a new popular sound. Every picture of Britney Spears wearing hot pants in Rolling Stone is, in a sense, one more bullet for the revolution.

While mindless teen-pop never completely goes away (after all, Ace of Base and Soundgarden shared the charts five years ago), its influence naturally wanes over time, giving way to more daring forms.

Insurgent rock 'n' roll -- the kind of music capable of changing the overall rock 'n' roll scene -- has always moved in fits and starts, progressing like a corkscrew; moving forward, looping back on itself, and lurching forward again. In many ways, revolutionary music is reactionary: It responds to the excesses of popular culture. And soon enough, it becomes popular culture.

Punk, for instance, was a reaction to the economics of the early '70s and the glam excesses of '70s rock as well as a continuation of what earlier insurgent bands (the Stooges and Velvet Underground) were doing at the very beginning of the decade. Punk got big, sold out, and died out, giving way to '80s hair-metal. But even bands like Guns n' Roses and Poison were clearly influenced by more ambitious acts, such as the New York Dolls and the Ramones, and hated the pin-up bands of their era. Grunge combined metal and primal punk, sludgy guitars and simple primacy. But as soon as Alice in Chains T-shirts were available at malls across the country, grunge was dead as a revolutionary -- if not economic -- force.

Either way, the current wave of teen idols will survive their time in the sun for only a little while before serving as compost for the next insurgent movement. That's why I don't begrudge Britney her success. I love hearing her breeze her way through "... Baby One More Time," because I know the next wave of musical revolutionaries are out there, listening, knowing that their time is coming soon.

Britney Spears appears Monday, June 28, 7:30 p.m., at the Pompano Beach Amphitheatre, 1801 NE Sixth St., Pompano Beach. Joey McIntyre plays the same venue Friday, July 2. Call 954-523-3309.

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