When I was growing up, in the era of Donny Osmond and The Partridge Family, teen idols, with their dimples and blow-dried ’70s-shag haircuts, their strategically unbuttoned hippie polyester shirts, were often the objects of ridicule, but no one ever bothered to get too hot and bothered about them (except, of course, for the 14-year-old girls who consumed every morsel of their favorite stars’ chipmunk-cheeked lives in Tiger Beat magazine). Teen idols, it was understood, served a basic cultural function, which was to gently tease out the consumer-minded romantic/erotic appetites of girls who were still virgins. As pinups, they were cuddly and safe; as pop stars, they were processed and synthetic. They were products, and therefore, in the end, disposable.
From the outset, however, their saving grace is that their images were sometimes attached to really, really catchy music. On paper, the Monkees, a group essentially concocted by Bob Rafelson and Don Kirshner,should have been a scandal: an entirely synthetic knockoff of the Beatles, delivered in a hip-schlock TV sitcom (fast motion! attitude! shaggy bowl haircuts!) that cannibalized the counterculture cheekiness of the Richard Lester Beatles movies. (And what kind of a name was Peter Tork, anyway?) Yet as everyone knows, the Monkees, led by the dandified Manchester Brit sweetness of heartthrob/mascot Davy Jones (pictured left), had some truly great songs, even if they weren’t all that involved in performing them. (To go on tour, Mickey Dolenz had to learn how to play the drums, or at least how to fake it.) They made songs aimed squarely at kids, yet songs that many adults liked and even loved. And in that way, they became the prototype for virtually all the teen pop that followed.
Just to stoke your memories, I’ve compiled a random, personalized, not-very-complete list of packaged teen and kiddie pop that is actually good:
“Sugar Sugar” by the Archies. They were cartoons, for God’s sake. But who could resist this studio-musician confection (“You are my candy girl…”), which became the biggest hit single of 1969. So much for the revolution.
“Wait Til Tomorrow” by the Banana Splits. Yes, the Banana Splits. In the late ’60s, they were the beginning of the end of Saturday morning TV — four guys in furry animal costumes who made the Monkees look like the Sex Pistols. Yet they, too, had songs, and this one is a beaut: If it had been done by the Lovin’ Spoonful, it would now be thought of as a classic. Check out this clip from the show, which haunted me when I was 10 years old:
The Jackson Five. No one disputes their greatness, but back in 1970, they weren’t just the hot new Motown superstars. They were teen pop, buffed and packaged and mega-marketed to kids, especially Michael the whirling, dancing soprano cherub. And, of course, they were the model for the marketing of the Osmond Brothers (who, let’s just say it, really did suck).
“I’ll Meet You Halfway” by the Partridge Family. David Cassidy was the original poster boy for guy-cute-enough-to-be-a-girl adorableness, but he could really sing, especially on this tangy slice of melancholy devotion.
New Edition. The prototype for all the boy bands that followed, Maurice Starr’s original crew of bubblegum R&B boppers, powered by the vocals of Ralph Tresvant and Bobby Brown, had two won’t-leave-your-head songs that helped to set the upbeat pulse of the 1980s: “Candy Girl” and “Cool It Now.”
New Kids on the Block. The other prototype for all the boy bands that followed (and still my wife’s all-time favorite group), even if Maurice Starr’s sequel to New Edition was like a case of the Osmonds getting bigger than the Jacksons. This time, though, the Caucasian knockoffs had flair, personality, moves, and blue-eyed-soul hooks, especially on the Bee Gees-esque “Please Don’t Go Girl” and the Joan Jett-esque “Hangin Tough.” (Their reunion album, by the way, is awesome, especially “Summertime.”)
“I Want It That Way” by Backstreet Boys. The most perfect teen pop song of the last 25 years. Pure, luscious, enveloping, incandescent.
Which leads me to…
Justin Bieber. The flavor of the moment. The mop-topped moppet. The wholesome androgynous teen rock-star angel. And…the new king of the world?
In many ways, Justin Bieber is a summation of all the teen pop that has come before him. His haircut, so simple and floppy yet…unique, really does make him look like one of the Beatles transfigured. (They, of course, were teen pop, too — at least, back in the shrieking-squealing Beatlemania days, when the most popular member of the group was the cuddlebug Ringo.) Bieber’s voice, which can swoop and soar, evokes the early days of Michael Jackson. His choreographed yet casual suburban-funk dance moves bring back the smooth-glide junior-Motown-in-high-tops panache of Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync. And his almost eerie professionalism — the effortless pep, the born-to-do-it comfortableness on stage — grows right out of the era of Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers, who seem to have a kind of squeaky-clean people-pleasing exhibitionism built into their DNA. These are kids who sing into their wrap-around head mics as if they’d been born wearing them.
Yet Justin Bieber, for a number of the qualities I’ve just cited above, seems to tee a great many people off. Maybe that’s because unlike with, say, the Monkees, you can’t really successfully mock him. He’s too polished and self-aware. And so a lot of adults who should know better react against him by getting annoyed, or even angry, at what they think he represents. And we all know what that is. According to this view, Justin Bieber represents the conversion of pop music into prefab, cloying, stage-managed product. He’s perceived as symbolizing the victory of the corporation, the machine that wants to turn pop into something packaged and controlled that it then jams down our throats (while indie bands, jamming away in basements, remain off the radar). He is seen as the frosty-whip tip of the iceberg of what is, in essence, a conspiracy theory: the lobotomizing of pop.
A lot of people, in other words, hate Justin Bieber because they’re scared of him. Scared of the power that teen pop now wields in our world. But I’m here to tell you that they’ve got it backwards. Justin Bieber isn’t just a product; he’s a genuine, talented, true-blue appealing star. They have pinned their fear and loathing on the wrong phenomenon.
To me, the really bad joke of hating teen pop in 2011 is that the forces that so many say they’re wary of — the forces of processed music, of corporate control, of the blandification of pop culture — already define so much of the music that is eagerly (and unangrily) consumed by adults. Take, as just one example, the ripely ironic figure of Justin Timberlake, who I think is outrageously gifted, so please don’t take any of this as me bashing him. Because he started out as a member of ‘N Sync, Timberlake, in pursuing the path of a solo career, had to prove his cred as a star musician. His singing and dancing were clearly stellar — the dazzling tremelo, the thrusting-on-air insouciance of his moves. I liked his early singles, especially “Rock Your Body” and “Cry Me a River.”
But Timberlake, hooked on the cred factor, plunged into industrial dance pop, and for him, it was like plugging into a matrix: His songs no longer had any real form or melody, any seductive Top 40 beauty. A lot of people in the music press ate this up (it proved that he wasn’t just a pretty boy spinning out pretty tunes), but to what end? Justin Timberlake, a dazzlingly talented musician, became an aggressively marketed and (to me) rather uninteresting recording artist. He was no more in control of those joyless, busy, overproduced tracks than your average teen pop star was, yet because he was sexy and cool (and, as it turns out, a born actor), he was granted the full “integrity” of his image as a self-created pop star.
To me, he’s got nothing on the other Justin, who commands a crowd, and a musical hook, the way that Timberlake once promised to. Yes, Bieber’s songs are pitched like candy to the young, but in Justin Bieber: Never Say Never, when he sings “One Less Lonely Girl” or the contempo doo-wop of “Baby” or the lovely, lilting “U Smile,” the high-school sentiments don’t come off as pandering. He makes them into an expression of what he’s feeling. That’s why he’s a genuine, self-revelatory pop star in a way that Miley Cyrus, with her calculated sexy-innocent postures and frozen-pizza Avril Lavigne licks, is not. She’s a product (not that there’s anything so wrong with that), because she has no mystery. Whereas Justin Bieber, wielding that grin of his like a sunbeam, isn’t just happy and wholesome. He’s compellingly blissed out — on his connection to the music, and to the audience. That’s why, I predict, he’s a star not just of the moment but of the future, and why anyone who cares about pop — regardless of what age they are — should go see his movie.
So who has gone to see it this weekend? And what did you think? If you’re an adult (a parent, or maybe even not), did the Bieb surprise you? Or do you dislike/resent/find yourself annoyed by him? And what about his fans? What, if anything, do you think it is about Justin Bieber that can carry him past the teen idol stage?