When the music industry conducts its annual tribute to mediocrity tonight, senior citizen Carlos Santana will probably pocket the most Grammy statuettes. But everyone knows the evening really belongs to the Boys and the Girls. The five Backstreet Boys, who may be wearing their horrific signature outfits—white, pajamalike suits—are competing for four awards, including Record of the Year for “I Want It That Way,” the most popular song of 1999, and Album of the Year for Millennium, the best-selling album of 1999. Backstreet Boys’ clones ‘N Sync are up for two awards. Britney Spears, the sexy schoolgirl blonde who had the second-best-selling album of 1999, could win Best New Artist, but she’s facing a tough challenge from the other sexy schoolgirl blonde, Christina Aguilera. MSN is predicting a “Grammy Cat Fight.”
The tyromania that has corrupted television (Dawson’s Creek, etc.) and film (She’s All That, etc.) is now infecting pop music. Generation Y preteens and early teens have ungodly amounts of money to spend—$100 billion a year—and they’re fanatical. Record executives are harnessing this Oxy-10 power to glorify boy bands and girl vixens. Backstreet Boys (hereinafter, BSB) moved 11 million copies of Millennium in the United States this year and sold all 750,000 tickets for their 53-show tour in one hour. ‘N Sync’s debut album sold 7 million copies. Other pretenders to the boy band throne such as 98 Degrees, C Note, and Lyte Funky Ones are hopping up the Billboard charts. (On the horizon lurks a boy quartet called The Moffatts, 15-year-old Canadian triplets and their older brother. Canadian triplets—God help us!) This week MTV premiered its made-for-TV movie 2Gether, a mockumentary about a fake boy band. 2Gether’s fake video has become a real MTV hit. And ABC is planning a reality-TV series about the creation of a boy band.
The girl pop stars, who come single rather than in five packs, are also faring well. Britney sold 10 million copies of her debut … Baby One More Time. Christina has scored two monster hits in a row. Mandy Moore, a 15-year-old with the same baby blond look as Britney and Christina, is being hyped as the next big thing. Jessica Simpson, another angelic blonde, is being marketed as the sweeter, Christian Britney. The girl-craziness has gotten so bad that even established diva Mariah Carey has dyed her hair Britney-blond and donned Britneyesque nympho outfits.
The music industry has been manufacturing teen idols as long as there have been teens. The long and unglorious history of boy bands stretches from New Kids on the Block and Color Me Badd back to New Edition back to The Monkees. Boy bands were scarce after the New Kids flameout in 1993, but they have returned en masse thanks to an Orlando, Fla., businessman named Louis Pearlman, who owns a pizza chain, a small airline, and the Chippendales dancers. Pearlman created Backsteet Boys in 1992, developed ‘N Sync a few years later, and now backs Lyte Funky Ones. (BSB were popular in Europe for years before they hit big in the States in 1997.)
Pearlman has perfected the formula. He located in Orlando so that he could tap the young talent working at Disney’s parks. He casts his acts carefully: one boy for every kind of girl. Each band, Pearlman says, needs a sexy hunk, a rebel, a young cutie, a nice guy, and a trusty older brother. An angelic blond is essential, one goatee is permissible. A Latino or two is OK, but blacks are iffy. Pearlman teaches the boys to dance and sing, dresses them in matching outfits—shiny silver suits, firemen’s uniforms, and the like—hires a Swedish pop maestro named Max Martin to write songs for them, and unleashes them on the world’s preteen girls.
The boy bands are targeted not at real teen-agers, who are exploring their darker selves, but at aspiring teen-agers, the 8- to 14-year-olds who are looking forward to boys, crushes, and dates. The boy bands are a safe way station between childhood and the angst of adolescence. To 12-year-old girls, the twentysomething “Boys” are old enough to seem like real men (unlike, say, the infantile Hanson kids) without being so old they’re creepy.
BackstreetBoys The boy bands sing songs designed to melt the hearts of 12-year-olds—not a difficult task. They favor goopy ballads. (In the case of the Backstreet Boys, this is not as bad as it sounds, because the guys can actually sing.) You can get a sense of BSB’s lush sound from their megahit “I Want It That Way.” The moist music reinforces a key marketing theme: These boys are sweet and soft as cotton candy. In the Backstreet Boys Gold Collectors Series Entertainment magazine, for example, the guys tell their fans, “I was always a shy guy” and “I cry in movies all the time” and “I’m sort of shy about making the first move.” Girls go gaga over this wooziness. Nick is SO sensitive! Needless to say, no self-respecting boy would be caught dead listening to the boy bands.
(Click for a jaw-droppingly weird aspect of BSB worship.)
The girl singers are a tonic by comparison. They too are prefab, the 21st-century updates on ‘80s girls Tiffany and Debbie Gibson. Both Britney and Christina have been planning pop stardom since before they were 10. By 12, both were starring on The New Mickey Mouse Club, a proving ground for teen talent. (Two ‘N Syncers were cast members as well.) Their rise has been orchestrated much as the boys’ rise has. They were given songs by Max Martin and other pop hit-makers. Spears was sent on a mall tour to prove herself.
Britany The girls are younger than the boys—Christina is 19, Britney 18—but they lack most of the ickiness of the boy bands. They are sassier and much sexier. Their audience is not simply aspiring teen-age girls. Britney, in particular, appeals to the pedophilic instinct of men. She sings her megahit “… Baby One More Time” in a dirty, throaty voice. Click here to hear it. The video is pure Lolita-porn, with Britney gyrating in a much-attenuated schoolgirl outfit. (Her new video director was, in fact, a pornographer.) Britney’s appeal to the crotch may be so blatant because she has so little else going for her. She certainly can’t sing. Listen to this excruciating passage from “E-Mail My Heart.”
The tabs have a field day with Britney. Her nonexistent romance with Prince William—they have never met—has been front-page news. Her (possibly) nonexistent breast implants have also been much discussed.
Christina Though she also bares her midriff at a moment’s notice, Christina is a more modest vixen. Compare Britney’s triple-X moans on “… Baby One More Time” to the milder sexiness of Christina’s “What a Girl Wants.” Christina can afford a little restraint, because she is the real talent of the kid music scene. She has a huge voice and decent taste. She’s already touted as the next Celine Dion (as if the world needs such a thing).
There are two guarantees about the girls and the boys. First, they will feud terribly with the people who control them. Spears, ‘N Sync, and BSB have already sued and/or been sued by their managers. The boys and girls are so exploited by the folks who invent them that they naturally rebel. BSB, calling themselves Pearlman’s “indentured servants,” claimed he kept $10 million and left them $300,000 to split. Pearlman’s contracts with ‘N Sync reportedly gave him more than 60 percent of royalties. (Pearlman called himself the “sixth member” of BSB and ‘N Sync. The media took this to mean that he was very close to his protégés. In fact, it meant that after taking his other royalties, he counted himself as a band member and dealt himself a band share, too.)
On the liner notes to Millennium, Backstreet Boy Howie (the nice one) predicts that BSB will “be heard a thousand years to come, God willing.” Which brings us to the other guarantee. BSB will not be heard for 1,000 years to come, or even for 1,000 days to come. Aspiring teens become real teens. Their childish pep will darken. They will be embarrassed by their old, babyish enthusiasm. Their younger sisters will find some new star to worship. Tiffany disappeared. New Kids on the Block finished its career, its manager once said, as “the most hated band on the planet.” So rest easy, parents. It will all end badly for the boys and Britney. Then something just as awful will replace them.