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The current crop of teen pop phenoms is larger than ever, and music-industry players are frantically trying to find the next one before a competitor does. Or they're creating them, Monkees- and Partridge Family-style, as a product to serve an already-eager market. The group O-Town actually was formed and honed as the subject of an ABC/MTV television show, "Making the Band."
The independent label Jive Records, the nucleus of the teen pop universe, has Britney Spears, 'N Sync, and the Backstreet Boys. Each had discs on last year's Top 10 best-selling albums list, and Spears intends to do it again with Tuesday's release of "Britney," her third album in three years. "Everyone's expecting it to [sell] well into seven figures," says Ray Cooper, co-president of Virgin Records of America and the man who discovered the Spice Girls. That's 1 million-plus copies - in one week.
The big question is: How long can this go on? Will Spears - or her rival, Christina Aguilera - grow into an artist as durable as Madonna, or will she go the way of the '90s boy band Hanson? "A lot of these artists are going to be gone and forgotten very, very quickly," says the man who signed Madonna, Sire Records head Seymour Stein. "But it's not a good thing to write these people off, either."
Mr. Stein, who is also president of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation, adds, "If you look at who the biggest artists have been from the dawn of rock 'n' roll, a lot of them, when they started out, were teen idols. Elvis Presley, the Beatles ... the Rolling Stones, certainly Pat Boone, Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5, Ricky Nelson ... Madonna."
Says Virgin's Mr. Cooper: "I don't think any record company goes into the pop market with expectations that an act cannot live on beyond its initial audience."
Virgin underestimated the Spice Girls as a teen act; it soon discovered both pre- and post-teen listeners loved the girls' sassiness and positive messages.
"You always have hopes and senses and expectations that they will develop further, and that's usually due to the quality of music that you're making," Cooper says. "There's a great difference between pop that's made for the moment and that's made in terms of the music having the ability to live on." Critics aside, he says he believes the Spice Girls would have had enough girl power to stick around, had they not decided to disband.
Taylor Hanson, middle brother of the sibling trio that "MMM-bopped" to fame in 1997, knows something about being a 15-minute favorite.
"Music is powered by young people," Hanson says. Older brother Isaac says Hanson proudly embraces the teen-pop label. He doesn't understand why pop acts get less respect than other artists.
It could have something to do with their audiences.
Mike Kappus, founder of the Rosebud Agency, an artist-management company in San Francisco, notes the youngest buyers are the most active buyers, with an interest in building their record collections, short attention spans, and a tendency to follow their pals' or older siblings' tastes.
"So we end up with trends, and quickly moving trends in a lot of cases," he says. Though he avoids fad acts, Mr. Kappus adds, "Record labels are in business to make money and will pursue most enthusiastically the projects which have the largest [and fastest] return."
Unlike their predecessors, today's teen idols expect to have multilayered careers, notes David Browne, an Entertainment Weekly magazine music critic.
They see themselves as actors, or even talk-show hosts; they've been Mickey Mouse Club-trained pros since about 8, he observes. Already the teen queen of MTV videos and Pepsi spots, Spears makes her film debut in "Crossroads" next year (critics say they're hoping she's a better actress than Madonna). 'N Sync's Lance Bass just released his film "On the Line," and bandmate Justin Timberlake has his own clothing line.
Terry Stewart, president and CEO of Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame & Museum, notes that today's young stars also have fast-food tie-ins, TV and film soundtracks, and infomercials.
"It's not coming out of that 'let's form a band in the garage' kind of aspect," music critic Browne explains, observing that today's teen artists are more savvy about packaging and marketing themselves and about how the "more polished and much better oiled" music industry of today works.
The biggest challenge facing these superstars is how to age with their audiences. All three Jive acts have considerably changed their images, from clean and pure to sexy and alluring. While RCA artist Aguilera always looked tarty, Spears went from Lolita-like to skin-baring and suggestive. Their songs' lyrics also reflect "older" themes now.
Aguilera told Time magazine she doesn't want to sing about genies in bottles anymore.
"Getting older, you just don't want to sing fluffy," she said. "You just have more things to say about real life and real people, and the bitterness that you get from people."
That, Browne says, is the attitude that could fast-forward the demise of this teen-pop wave. "I think what's gonna end this genre isn't getting old," he says. It's the superstars' tendency to complain musically about the hardships of fame. Fans don't like hearing sob stories from people who seem to be on top of the world, Browne notes, adding, "Stardom angst ... has never really gone over well."
Downswings happen because music is cyclical, Cooper says. Adds Kappus: "Great quality music will always have an audience, but ... it's very hard for any artist to maintain a high rate of sales over decades, or continue to top great successes." He thinks boy band members will start splitting off once they decide they can do it on their own and don't need to slice everything five ways.
"If they keep going as groups, they risk turning into some sort of parody of themselves," Browne says. "They're not getting any younger, and if they keep doing those dance steps at 35, it might seem a little silly."
The attention-span issue is also significant. Kids relate to artists their own age, Kappus observes. Stein still hasn't forgotten the impact 13-year-old doo-wopper Frankie Lymon had on him when he was 13.
But if those artists don't evolve, or their listeners move on to metal-rap and other genres they deem cooler, it's bye, bye, bye to their former faves.
Browne says young teens now are talking about aggressive pop-punk bands Blink 182, Fenix*TX and their clones - the antithesis of sugar-pop. He also notes, "The success of people like David Gray and Dido indicates that there's an audience that's either outgrowing teen music or that is searching for something new and sensitive and thoughtful."
Dido's recruitment to co-write a tune for Spears is a signal that Jive is trying to address that audience.
Stewart also notes that teen pop and hip-hop dominate the news, but in the last year, "everyone from Madonna to Eminem to the Backstreet Boys and the Beatles have been at the top of the charts."
Stein insists artists should not be judged by categories at all. According to him, "There's only two kinds of music: good music and bad music."