Teen pop moves as fast as the late-nineties nasdaq, complete with irrational exuberance and an endless stream of broken sales records. Just like the dot-com run-up, it’s transformed an industry in its wake: As surely as tech fever changed Morgan Stanley Dean Witter into khakis, teen pop has elevated sellable singles over albums, star-making Svengalis over music-minded A&R men, marketable personalities over artists. Now everyone’s worried about getting left behind – Eminem’s new single, “The Real Slim Shady,” even disses Christina Aguilera rather than rival emcees.
If this is the future, it looks an awful lot like the fifties. Lou Pearlman’s Trans Continental Records, which manufactured both the Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync, is a triumph of the pre-rock music-business model, in which promo gigs, autograph sessions, and fan-club photos trump actual concerts. Indeed, watching members of ‘N Sync toil away as judges on MTV’s Say What? Karaoke is as depressing as reading about Colonel Parker’s draining personal-appearance schedules for Elvis Presley in Peter Guralnick’s Careless Love (though at least ‘N Sync have no artistry to lose). Like Presley, ‘N Sync mine black music, specifically the hip-hop-flavored-R&B “New Jack Swing” sound of the late eighties, and No Strings Attached (Jive) is such an overt homage, the group even enlisted the genre’s creator, Teddy Riley, to produce their cover of Johnny Kemp’s New Jack classic “Just Got Paid.” Unlike Presley’s, their appropriation lacks risk or sexuality. Even when they’re singing about cybersex on “Digital Get Down,” ‘N Sync evoke the well-groomed rebel pose of fifties stars like Fabian and Frankie Valli.
Britney Spears has all the trappings of a distinctly Generation Y Lolita – breast-implant rumors, Catholic schoolgirl outfits, a naughty photo spread in Rolling Stone – but she ultimately owes more to Sandra Dee than to Madonna. She recently said she’s a committed virgin who wears half-shirts only because “it’s too hot to wear full-length T-shirts when I’m dancin’,” and on her new album, Oops! … I Did It Again (Jive), Spears proves that she really has a lot in common with fifties-style “good girls” who write diary entries (“Dear Diary”), eagerly anticipate their first kiss (“One Kiss From You”), and bar disrespectful exes ("Don’t Go Knockin’ on My Door”). As with ‘N Sync, the secret to Spears’s musical success lies in a factory-built groove – in her case provided by Max Martin, who combines the canine pants and shuffling beats of George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog” with the plastic pop he styled for Ace of Base.
Only the self-taught musicians of Hanson are up-front about their embrace of the past. The trio’s 1997 debut, Middle of Nowhere, foreshadowed MTV’s Total Request Live revolution, but its sound owed more to Stax and Motown than to the synthesized pop of the eighties. (They were forward-looking, too: Hanson embraced kitschy, Beck-style hip-hop with the production team the Dust Brothers.) Not surprisingly, the follow-up, This Time Around (Island), is billed as more mature – perhaps for the teenager whose tastes have grown up – but Hanson 2.0 isn’t all that different from the original release, with sentimental keyboards and reams of vague love songs. Their songs are still catchy and their (decidedly deeper) voices are even more harmonious, but the album lacks any sense of who they are. Growing up should mean getting personal, not just new songs and new equipment to record them. Hanson may be the classicists of teen pop – they’ve said they started a band after hearing the Time/Life collection of fifties rock – but This Time Around is mostly an airless, impersonal affair.