ack in The Year 2000, Metal Mike Saunders predicted that the reign of teenpop (during the zenith of the Britney/Backstreet era) would continue through 2010, prompting me to posit five years later, “by 2010, perhaps Radio Disney’s catch phrase ‘we’re all ears’ will signify something more insidious or exciting, depending on your taste in music.”
Metal Mike was right, and I wasn’t really joking: Disney’s effective monopolization of production and distribution of child and preteen-marketed music has made it difficult for unexpected successes to break out with any significant major label support, while a disturbing and perpetually intensifying vilification of former teenpop stars (all women) discourages the kind of provocation—sexual, materialistic, “adult”—that makes a lot of the music on this rough guide to post-2000 teenpop so fascinating.
The end result of these developments is that Disney-originating “teenpop”—once a descriptor that applied to lots of music aimed at general audiences, occasionally hitting MTV’s Total Request Live and VH1’s demographic groups simultaneously—has wrecked the curve, removing teenpop from mainstream Top 40 and aggressively focusing on a younger niche market.
By catering exclusively to children and preteens, Disney has not only shut off an audience bracket, but also limited its aesthetic and content: most Disney music is, in a word, inoffensive. It borrows from show tunes but ditches the burlesque (High School Musical), from pop and R&B but ditches the sex (boy group B5, girl group the Cheetah Girls), from British pop-punk but ditches the (plastic) fangs (the Jonas Brothers). Disney incessantly promotes spotty imitations of former cross-promotional successes, typified by Hilary Duff clone and Billy Ray Cyrus’s daughter Miley Cyrus, who stars in the Disney Channel’s Hannah Montana.
Still, this is my reverent celebration of teenpop, as serious or frivolous as it wanted to get in the past seven years. I ended up making five CDs, or a hundred songs, worth of the stuff, broken down into five categories: LAUGH, LOVE, CRY, THINK, and FUCK (Radio Disney/Orange Bowl edit: FLIRT). These categories are fairly fluid, but they encompass a lot of material and seem obsessive-compulsively satisfying in their irreducibility. Two quick clarifications: (1) CRY isn’t simply synonymous with weeping—I’m also using it in the sense of “crying out,” often in anger (spite- and angst-rock falls into this category), and (2) inclusion in THINK doesn’t actually require great thinking, though it often exhibits it—it also includes existential, pretentious, and otherwise self-aware topics that don’t quite fit in the other categories.
Teenpop entered the 00’s largely as novelty and otherwise silly pop music (laugh tracks) for children and young teens, with the influence of Europop by way of Swedish producer Max Martin and the Cheiron studio (in the 90’s they were responsible for a blend of bubblegum Europop and hip-hop that produced both Robyn and Britney Spears’s first singles) holding about as much sway on the general aesthetic as the 90’s R&B by TLC, Destiny’s Child, Aaliyah, and others, whose spiritual progeny would dominate the landscape in subsequent years.
In the late 90’s, Radio Disney, a fairly accurate gauge of the tenor of the times, was playing Brandy and Britney about equally. The rock confessional sound wouldn’t emerge in earnest for another year, though there were already precursors like M2M gaining modest popularity. And perhaps most significantly, Disney had no real claims to controlling teenpop production or distribution yet, save for fledgling efforts with Hollywood Records—their first, failed pop star launch was Mexican-American pop singer Myra in 2001—and various film soundtracks. In a few years, the company would essentially control nearly all teenpop production and distribution through its media outlets and record label subsidiaries, Hollywood and Walt Disney Records.
The LAUGH mix opens with a veritable time warp: the unstoppable “Oops! …I Did It Again,” a bridge between the relatively innocent first teenpop wave of the Spice Girls, B*Witched, and early Britney singles and the 00’s. “Innocence” would, for the most part, dissipate in a matter of years—right up until 2006’s Disney Channel phenomenon High School Musical, which reasserted innocence with a multi-platinum album heard ‘round the world. But “Oops” is pretty innocent, despite a Radio Disney edit that excised the line “I’m not that innocent,” and cuter still are 2000 kiddie favorites like kid-rap classic “Aaron’s Party (Come and Get It)” by the youngest Carter sibling Aaron, sickly-sheen paean to mell-o-dee “…To the Music” by very Swedish ABBA cover band A*Teens, and bratty cheerleader-pop staple “U.G.L.Y.” by Daphne and Celeste, who also give an idea of a target audience at the time: “You say you’re 14? You look a hundred years old!” In fact, 14 was a bit older than the estimated demographic over at Radio Disney, which didn’t exceed 12 until the golden 6-14 demographic was locked in a year or two into the decade.
At the beginning of the 00’s, Radio Disney was somewhat indiscriminately importing all of its novelty hits just as it had since its inception in 1996. Goofballs like Danish Aqua clones Toy-Box struck RD gold with “Tarzan and Jane” (their even more saccharine “Best Friend” is included on the LOVE mix—sugar shock!). The A*Teens offered a steady drip of secular Eurodance, while Christian poppers Jump5 provided generally secular American Eurodance with decidedly non-secular roots. Until the success of Hilary Duff and Hollywood Records in 2003, Jump5 was the band with the most singles eligible for airplay on Radio Disney, and were typical of Disney’s ongoing practice of borrowing ebullient, parent-approved pop from Christian outlets.
Teenpop was still going strong outside of Disney at the beginning of the 00’s; even MTV’s boyband backlash parody 2Ge+her was a success, though they pointed to the end of an era. Less sarcastic boyband institutions and wannabe institutions still had several hits left in them, from dopey tween heartthrobs Dream Street, whose Jesse McCartney would later find solo fame through Hollywood Records, to “realer-than-the-rest” British boyband BB Mak (distributed by Hollywood). And there was L.F.O.’s ambiguously sarcastic breakthrough, “Summer Girls,” a demo recorded in a former New Kid’s basement that became a summer blockbuster in 1999 (and it’s still funny).
Groups like Ruby Blue and Josie and the Pussycats suggested a harder-edged girls-with-guitars rock revolution as early as 2001, but their material could still be as dumb as anyone else’s. Ruby Blue, notable for proto-confessional songs scattered throughout their first and only self-titled album, did the original version of “That’s What Girls Do,” later made more popular by Radio Disney favorites No Secrets (whose biggest hit was one of about six thousand covers of “Kids in America”). Josie and the Pussycats’ rival, Dujour, had a song called “Back Door Lover” that’s about as obvious and as funny as it sounds.
Post-Avril Lavigne teenpop had fewer novelties to offer, though even Avril offered the unabashedly silly "Sk8er Boi" (my friend Nia, one of the few people who hates Avril as much as I do while still listening to everything she releases, says, “Oh, it was abashed. Or would have been, if she realized just how fucking silly it was—she was dead serious”). Avril wouldn’t really return to bubblegum for another six years with her first number one hit, “Girlfriend,” which works so hard for its laughs that it makes my heart hurt a little.
When she finally went cheerleader, Avril wound up sounding an awful lot like Skye Sweetnam, self-proclaimed “Avril-lite.” Skye has several enduring novelties to her credit, including the best teenpop Christmas novelty of the decade (“Why Doesn’t Santa Like Me?”) and several Disney contributions. She’s at least as indie as Tom Waits (big in Japan), and, accordingly, gave away one of her best songs as a gift to her Japanese fans for supporting her when the US didn’t know quite what to do with her: “Sugar Guitar” from the Love for NANA soundtrack. I still don’t know exactly what that is.
Several novelties between 2002 and 2005 came from artists doing one-off kid radio crossovers: Nashville singer Rose Falcon’s lightweight country debut didn’t go anywhere, but her “Up Up Up” single was a minor hit (as minor as the Inspector Gadget 2 OST). Nikki Cleary, whose Jive Records contract was the result of what might be the first (and only?) AOL Instant Messenger pop novelty, “I.M. Me” (as “Brittney Cleary”; her name was changed because they already had a Britney), has had soundtrack success with “Summertime Guys,” but her self-titled 2003 pop album was basically a flop. New York hipsters Cooler Kids inexplicably ingratiated themselves with Disney audiences (via the Lizzie McGuire movie soundtrack) with “All Around the World,” which still gets a little bit of airplay on Radio Disney.
British pop-punkers Busted unwittingly paved the way for current American teenpop superstars the Jonas Brothers with their marginally risqué “Year 3000,” one of the biggest Radio Disney successes of the past year in its markedly less (that is, not) risqué Jonas version: no naked triple-breasted women, no lewd comments about your great-great-great-granddaughter, no reference whatsoever to Michael Jackson—instead, the Jonases outsell Kelly Clarkson. And, ironically (appropriately?), they actually outsold her this year.
In the past two years, teenpop novelties have begun to resurface outside of the Disney umbrella. Producers Max Martin and Dr. Luke Gottwald have supplied several variations on their “Since U Been Gone” template with Megan McCauley (“Tap That”), the Veronicas (“4Ever”), and P!nk (“U and Ur Hand”). Some of the hands-down best kid novelties of recent memory, though, come from hip-hop: The Pack’s “Vans,” Young B and Webstar’s “Chicken Noodle Soup,” (the only dance I’ve mastered since I was in the teenpop age bracket myself) and Lil’ Mama’s “Lip Gloss” stand out, not to mention just about everything the Black Eyed Peas have done since Fergie-Ferg unleashed herself upon an unsuspecting world. Amazingly, most of their singles exist as Radio Disney edits (except “My Humps,” although I’m sure will.i.am would be heroically shameless enough to do the “My Heffalumps” remix if commissioned).
Enduring novelties can also seem to come out of nowhere—former Lookout! Records artists (now on Joan Jett’s Blackheart Records) the Dollyrots, whom I only knew about from MySpace before this year, are getting Disney coverage and commercial opportunities in 2007 with their Nerf-padded boast-rock (boast-padded Nerf-rock?) single “Because I’m Awesome,” which is decidedly more awesome than Lookout!’s only other (tangential) foray into teenpop, Ted Leo’s live, fun-in-quotation-marks “Since U Been Gone” cover. The Bratz toy line has put out a prolific four (or five, hard to keep count) albums in two years, but they’ve only produced one or two good songs in the whole batch—their best is “So Good,” written by verifiable Swede and former Cheiron contributor Andreas Carlsson. Bratz get bonus points in my book for being legitimately manufactured: I’m guessing that the back-up singers in the liner notes are actually the leads, because the credited leads are made of plastic.
Various child cover song groups can offer some weird-ass, and sometimes improved, takes on popular favorites: Most notable are Kidz Bop, Girl Authority, and the Reggaeton Niños, all represented here. Meanwhile, I’ve been rooting for the new children’s show Yo Gabba Gabba! to be a success on its new Nickelodeon home since falling in love with Baltimore-club-track-with-training-wheels “Party in My Tummy” last year. The show features Biz Markie and Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo, who himself spearheaded Disney’s all-kid cover band Devo 2.0. And I hope beyond hope that 100% novelty (and proud of it) acts like Polish duo Blog 27 and Boston goof-rapper Dahv won’t fade into (further) obscurity.
DISC ONE: LAUGH
01. Britney Spears – Oops! …I Did It Again
02. The A*Teens – …To the Music
03. Nikki Cleary – Summertime Guys
04. Rose Falcon – Up Up Up
05. The Dollyrots – Because I’m Awesome
06. Aaron Carter – Aaron’s Party (Come and Get It)
07. Girl Authority – Hollaback Girl
08. Daphne & Celeste – U.G.L.Y.
09. Blog 27 – Hey Boy
10. Ruby Blue – That’s What Girls Do
11. Busted – Year 3000
12. Black Eyed Peas – Pump It
13. Skye Sweetnam – Sugar Guitar
14. Bratz – So Good
15. Dahv – Pass the Shirley Temple
16. Jessica Simpson – These Boots Are Made for Walkin’
17. The Cooler Kids – All Around the World
18. Webstar & Young B – Chicken Noodle Soup
19. Reggaeton Niños – Oye Mi Canto
20. Kidz Bop – Crazy Frog (Axel F)
I fell in love for the first time when I was fifteen, but before that it was all hopeless puppy crushes (and after that, I realize, it’s not the same love it used to be—it’s deeper, richer, but there’s also more compromise, more banality, more putting-up-with, more dishes). Teenpop, then, is an awkward place to explore the subject; its stars, when they aren’t children themselves, are often singing to them, and kids hate doing dishes. You can make a cartoon out of love (Toy-Box, Sara Paxton, the Jonas Brothers), or you can pull out meaningless chestnuts like paradise and sunshine and hearts and heaven.
Love in pre-2000 teenpop mostly fell within the terrain of boybands, whose love ballads tended to be a lot dumber than their dumb stuff—*NSync sounded better breaking up (“Bye Bye Bye”) than professing love, and the Backstreet Boys’ best love song ever was written in 2005, well after they’d ceased to be relevant, with their second comeback single, “I Just Want You to Know.” Like Daniel Bedingfield’s “Gotta Get Thru This,” it’s about loving someone after they’ve already left you, but I kept both away from CRY because lovesickness is as important to love as happiness is.
Some teenpoppers have managed to make their own unique commentaries on incipient love—middle Carter sibling Leslie’s single “Like Wow!” reduces a crush to a series of giggling, giddy exhortations: “Ooh!/ Hey!/ What?/ It’s like, wow!” That’s right up there with “She loves you/ Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!” and it feels a hell of a lot truer to crush-love than eternity, which is a concept I would love to see banished from all pop music for all…well, eternity.
Yet, as much as I usually hate them, the clichés can work in teenpop songs whose premise is that love is being tested out for the first time. Ashlee Simpson’s worst metaphor is from “In Another Life,” in which she gets all new-age on her boyfriend with romantic talk of past lives and fate, but when Miley Cyrus (a.k.a. Hannah Montana) uses “in another life” in her best song, “See You Again,” it makes me smile every time. The difference is that Miley wraps the cliché in dead-on trivial details—the hallmark of a great Ashlee Simpson song—st-st-stuttering to him in the presence of her best friend Lesley, who tells him, “oh, she’s just being Miley.”
Teenpop almost always distinguishes love from sex, which usually maintains its own category at a (parent-)safe distance. There are obvious reasons for the split, Radio Disney censors being a representative example, but other factors come into play. The late 90’s boyband aesthetic generally divides love song ballads from harder dance tracks musically so as not to compromise clean love with a dirty beat, seemingly for reasons of generic categorization (easily identifiable “love songs” and “dance songs”) rather than self-censorship. So the Backstreet Boys ask, “Am I sexual?” in “Backstreet’s Back,” but they don’t also ask, “Do you love me?”
Throughout the decade, though, a surge of confessional angst-rockers started to ask tougher questions: Avril asks why her boyfriend makes things complicated (in both “Complicated” and its even more lyrically-impaired cousin “My Happy Ending”), but doesn’t really complicate matters with sex until “Don’t Tell Me.” She wonders aloud, characteristically unafraid of imminent public humiliation (which is brave, I guess, but she’s also not the sharpest tack in the stack), why her boyfriend, whom she says she loves, is always trying to get in her pants. Avril’s words, not mine.
But I’ll save that discussion for the last mix, when Aly and AJ do “Don’t Tell Me” justice. Avril can certainly be pretty obtuse; she doesn’t really get sex or love, which makes her sort of relatable—neither do most people, I’d bet. Which is a shame because pop songs aren’t doing them any favors in finding out (cf. John Cusack’s opening spiel in High Fidelity). Ashlee Simpson, on the other hand, seems to understand love, that special kind of love when a guy uses your toothpaste after three days and now you want him to get the fuck out of your house already. The kind of love where you “hit the bottom—crash” and he’s all you have.
Ashlee understands what Britney never did, what Christina and Mandy and the boybands never did: Love is toothpaste. Love is dishes. Love is in your head and your guts more than it’s in your heart. Love makes the world go ‘round, has you crawling on the ground. But, for the most part, teenpop only believes in the promise ring, believes in eternity, believes in heaven. I don’t believe in any of it, and I also don’t really understand how anyone else does—I’m cool with “like wow!” and “yeah yeah yeah” and “tickles in my tummy” and LMNT singing about homeroom and even a whole high school musical on the subject, but I don’t really understand anything about the words in, say, Kaci’s romantic “Paradise,” even though I do love the gorgeous Spanish guitar and dreamy dance-pop production (maybe I should have opted for the equally lovely Spanish-language version so it’d be a non-issue for me).
I do, however, understand stuff like Hilary Duff’s math puns, and Lindsay Lohan’s double-entendres, and Cassie’s response to “I love you” with a heartfelt but technically noncommittal “ditto,” and Sara Paxton’s weird obsession with presumably loveless automatons stuck inside their cars in her song about finding love on foot (can you at least get to second base if you drive a Prius?), and the anonymous lead singer in Disney soundtrack construction Zetta Bytes pining for and/or flirting with a guy to get him to notice her—which is funny, because she doesn’t actually exist (in the movie, Pixel Perfect, she was a hologram, and in real life she was an uncredited studio singer). I don’t fully understand but still love the entirety of the A*Teens’ ultra-idiotic opposites-attract dance single, “Perfect Match,” especially when they deliver what might be the most sublime English-as-second-language howler of the decade: “You love Grease, baby, I love Snatch / But that would make us a perfect match!”
There are a few artists who get it right now and then. Despite my general aversion, emo-leaning groups can stumble onto love in all its messiness, though usually the music is more about the mess than the love (which is why most of it’s on the CRY disc). I’ve included a track from Tegan and Sara’s new album The Con as the LOVE representative: “Nineteen” is probably the second-best song in recent years, after Broken Social Scene’s “Anthems for a 17-Year-Old Girl,” to really hammer home the teenage yearning/phone call connection: “I was nineteen / Call me!” The song opens with one of the best teenage love lines of the year, right up there with “oh, she’s just being Miley”: “I felt you in my legs / before I even met you.” (Amended: love comes from the head, guts, and legs.) Brazilian sister duo K-sis sidestep lyrical awkwardness altogether by doing it all in Portuguese except when it really counts (“baby, I love you”). Which is fortunate for non-Portuguese-speaking me, because apparently there’s a line in there about “your train pulling into my station.”
Concluding the LOVE mix: t.A.T.u.’s “Cosmos (Outer Space)” is a hazy, cosmic extrapolation of their first hit “All the Things She Said”—they sing about a forbidden love that can only be indulged privately in outer space, although I’m sure they’ll send a telescope up there to invite voyeurism and help them get a few more songs out of the conceit. And along similar lines, Margaret breaks my heart every time (and she’s done it many, many times) with her bouncing electropop sci-fi tale of a love that her society simply won’t allow. What else is there to do when you’ve fallen in love with a robot but wait to be resuscitated after the stars die, when people are finally more rational and accepting (because they’re all dead) and your robo-beau is still ticking away? Maybe I’ll give “eternity” a few more years.
DISC TWO: LOVE
01. LMNT – Juliet
02. Daniel Bedingfield – Gotta Get Thru This
03. The Backstreet Boys – I Just Want You to Know
04. Miley Cyrus – See You Again
05. Sara Paxton – Take a Walk
06. Toy-Box – Best Friend
07. Hilary Duff – The Math
08. Leslie Carter – Like Wow!
09. Cassie – Ditto
10. Lindsay Lohan – Who Loves You
11. The A*Teens – Perfect Match
12. The Jonas Brothers – Mandy
13. Zetta Bytes – Notice Me
14. Zac Efron & Vanessa Anne Hudgens – Breaking Free
15. Tik N’ Tak – I Will Always Be in Your Heart
16. K-sis – Beijos, Blues, e Poesa
17. Kaci – Paradise
18. Tegan and Sara – Nineteen
19. t.A.T.u. – Cosmos (Outer Space)
20. Margaret Berger – Robot Song
If there’s a word for post-2000 teenpop that bullies its way to the front of the stage, it’s angst. Everyone’s got it, but not everyone flaunted it until 2002 when aspiring country star turned uber-authentic songwriting super-teen Avril Lavigne pursued shades of angst in teenpop by M2M, Britney Spears and, more importantly, Michelle Branch’s early confessional single “Everywhere” and P!nk’s landmark from-the-heart overhaul M!ssaundaztood in 2001. Avril brought in loud, ugly, awesome guitars (courtesy Clif Magness), the Matrix production team to help guide the hooks, and a battering ram of a voice only slightly less opulent than Kelly Clarkson’s. It was a sea change, all right, ushering in plenty of second-wavers—many, if not most, of whom I prefer to Avril even if they never really escaped the copycat tag (two of my favorite aftershocks featured on these mixes are Katy Rose and Amy Studt, “the British Avril”).
Angst-rock transcended its “fad” status to unquestionably dominate the decade in teenpop when it capitalized on existing celebrity. The everyday-gal-catapult-to-stardom narrative that typified confessional rock even pre-dating Avril was replaced with Christina Aguilera trying to remake herself with the help of Linda Perry on 2002’s Stripped, P!nk re-remaking herself with Linda Perry on 2003’s Try This, and Mandy Moore kind of remaking herself with no Linda Perry whatsoever on 2003 covers album Coverage. (Side note: along with CRY mix track “Fighter,” the Stripped album includes the Perry co-written “I’m OK,” a ballad more fucked up, though not a fraction as affecting, than Kelly Clarkson’s agonizing karaoke-catharsis “Because of You.” Yes, Xtina really did just say: “Hurt me to see the pain across my mother’s face / Every time my father’s fist would put her in her place”).
A new crop of pre-established celebrities did Avril-angst for themselves: Hilary Duff, Lindsay Lohan, Kelly Osbourne on the heels of The Osbournes, Kelly Clarkson on the heels of American Idol, and Jessica Simpson’s little sister Ashlee on the heels of The Ashlee Simpson Show. Plenty of them, with the help of many of the same songwriters, expanded and improved upon their angst-rock progenitors.
Frank Kogan had this to say about the 00’s angst wave in his Las Vegas Weekly column, The Rules of the Game:
I think that this collaboration—teen and adult, youngster and pro—worked in the ’00s in a way that it wouldn’t have in the mid-’60s because a certain confidence of the ’60s is gone. Pete Townshend, creating new territory, wouldn’t have needed someone older to help him to his sensibility, whereas today’s pop girls want reconciliation—they still have an urge to break free, but feel their alienation as a disaster more than an opportunity.
Josie and the Pussycats
A sense of that irredeemable, inevitable disaster applies even to the beginning of the decade, when novelty-angst was in vogue, including Hoku’s irrepressible, bitter woman-scorned anthem “Another Dumb Blonde” (which works fine for men scorned, too) and Josie and the Pussycats’ pop-punk scorcher “3 Small Words” from the underrated (but still gaining cred) 2001 Josie and the Pussycats soundtrack.
The line between novelty and disaster can be blurred, particularly when the angst is coming from Disney: opening the mix is teenpop nonstarter Huckapoo’s contribution to the Pixel Perfect soundtrack, “Perfectly,” which sounds a bit less sappy and more poignant as performed by songwriter, and now Michelle Branch’s right-hand Wrecker in her new country duo, Jessica Harp.
I usually enjoy Disney’s confectionary confessional attempts with its cross-promotional hopefuls, like “Over It” by That’s So Raven’s Annaliese Van Der Pol and “Your New Girlfriend” by Heroes co-star and sometime Disney film actress Hayden Panettiere. But I generally prefer less tongue-in-cheek confessional music, some of which also comes from Disney. Hollywood Records artist Jordan Pruitt’s “Outside Looking In,” which is admittedly a bit lacking in the lyrics department (I know I’m a jerk, but “you don’t know what it’s like to be your own best friend” makes me feel like one of the kids pointing at Jeremy in the Pearl Jam video), is still touching. JoJo’s “Leave (Get Out)” was such a success on Radio Disney that they kept playing the 2006 sequel single “Too Little Too Late,” despite its lukewarm initial reception, until it finally caught hold with the audience. And the song didn’t even originate from one of Disney’s own subsidiaries—a truly benevolent bunch.
I’ve left a lot of room in the CRY category for what some people (including me, I guess) call “shemo,” starting from the first track off the first Avril album, “Losing Grip,” to Kelly Clarkson working with Avril’s awesome-guitar supplier Clif Magness on “Hear Me,” to Flyleaf getting into a sick Nirvana-soundin’ grime-groove on “Perfect,” and finally to “Screaming Infidelities,” the original Dashboard Confessional version of which I can’t stand, done up real pretty-like by Joanna.
Ashley Parker Angel
A great voice goes a long way; I don’t dislike all hemo (?), but the typically limited vocal range tends not to appeal to me. So, maybe for that reason, there aren’t many guys on CRY. The two male inclusions here can whine and mope and agonize with the best of them: Ashley Parker Angel, formerly of boyband O-Town, offers one of a select few successful male takes on the “Since U Been Gone” formula with Martin/Gottwald’s “Let U Go.” *NSync throw a sleek, dirrrty hissy fit complaining about people who, uh, complain about them. And toss some random beatboxing in there, too, which may or may not have prepared America for Blake Lewis. (Thanks.)
Back to the women. Though it lacks her usual depth and evocatively mundane, situational lyrics, Ashlee Simpson still tears the roof off with “I Am Me,” one of my favorite spite-rock teenpop tracks. Hope Partlow’s “Sick Inside” totally nails the details of a minor transgression with someone else’s boyfriend, made more heartbreaking with a slight twist ending I won’t give away (Skye Sweetnam’s “It Sucks” is a great pop-punk variation on this theme). And, possibly an answer track of sorts for just such a transgression, Lacey-Lee Evin’s response to a hockey-playing bastard that mistreated her, “Doughnut,” might be my personal favorite Lillix song—it’s the only song I know of where the singer gives up chastising her ex for his abuses and just yells at the guy, “Asshole! Asshole! Asshole!”
To round out the mix, a possible future for angst: Taylor Swift continues in the footsteps of Hope Partlow by bridging the confessional rock and standard country ballad gap with a mere chord progression (from Kelly Clarkson’s “Behind These Hazel Eyes”) in “A Place in This World.” And it’s never too late to start sorting through self-distributed chaff for occasional gold: the MySpace teenpop contingent, sure to linger long after the dust settles on the major label collapse, is represented by Katie Neil with “You’re Not the Only One,” which takes a theme commonly botched in feel-good empowerment teenpop (life is hard now but it’ll get better) and makes it legitimately empowering. Key phrase is “yes, I’ve been there,” a pretty obvious trust-building device, but should still make empowerment-poppers smack their heads (usually it’s all “you can do it!” but no “I did it, too!”). Someone should write the angst-rock song about not being able to write a decent empowerment song.
DISC THREE: CRY
01. Huckapoo – Perfectly
02. Hoku – Another Dumb Blonde
03. Josie and the Pussycats – 3 Small Words
04. Hayden Panettiere – Your New Girlfriend
05. Jordan Pruitt – Outside Looking In
06. JoJo – Leave (Get Out)
07. *NSync – Pop
08. Ashlee Simpson – I Am Me
09. Ashley Parker Angel – Let U Go
10. Amy Studt – Just a Little Girl
11. Hope Partlow – Sick Inside
12. Avril Lavigne – Losing Grip
13. Kelly Clarkson – Hear Me
14. Flyleaf – Perfect
15. Joanna – Screaming Infidelities
16. Taylor Swift – A Place in This World
17. Christina Aguilera – Fighter
18. Marion Raven – End of Me
19. Lillix – Doughnut
20. Katie Neil – You’re Not the Only One
It’s telling that only a few of the tracks on THINK come from the first years of the decade. One of them, Play’s “Cinderella” (most recently covered by perennially mediocre Radio Disney faves the Cheetah Girls), is from 2002 and doesn’t exactly exude deep thought, but I like its weirdly faceless assertion of (girl)power-sharing, and it feels typical of early 00’s Disney-pop with some semblance of a brain. The others—Aaliyah, M2M, and Melissa Lefton—sound pretty far ahead of their time, though. Aaliyah’s deceptively complex series of dares to a potential lover in “Try Again” is less notable than its influential Timbaland production, but the lyrics are worth paying attention to: “Can you handle me if I don’t want to be handled?”
M2M are like the teenpop confessional Rosetta Stone, and today they sound not so much ahead of their time but outside of their time, like a meteor fallen to earth containing the unstable element “M2M” ready to split. Marit Larsen makes an appearance at the end of the mix responding with full-blown paranoia to the Marion Raven-heavy M2M song “Jennifer,” about not trusting the innocence of your boyfriend’s new girl “friend” (my theory is that he was cheating on Marion with Marit, who kind of hangs out nonchalantly in the background on this song). (“Marion Raven” and “heavy” also sum up Marion’s solo contribution “End of Me” on the CRY mix, which one online hater unintentionally endorsed by likening the experience to “listening to Avril Lavigne being drowned in the Baltic Ocean with a piano.”)
Melissa Lefton, an aborted parody act of sorts on Jive Records’ 2001 roster, displayed an astute pop savvy—if not exactly the sharpest satire—in her first and last single “My Hit Song,” in which she simply labeled the song’s constituent parts: chorus, instrumental breakdown, and maniacally-repeating hook. After her album was shelved, Lefton didn’t have much of a chance to actively differentiate herself from her fellow pop stars, but she might have been a little too close to her object of critique anyway; there was no buffer zone of Britney/Backstreet-era nostalgia yet for Lefton to comfortably indulge in her meta-teenpop experimentation. It’s impossible to know whether or not her co-author credit and explicit understanding of production would have ultimately distanced her from label mate Britney Spears—then at the peak of her career—who was still an inescapable reference point.
Of course, Britney and the BSBs (both produced in the late 90’s by Max Martin) could be plenty self-aware or self-absorbed. However, though they undoubtedly made crucial choices in the creative process, credited co-authorship was never really expected of them, even if its relative absence was frequently invoked as a reason for their dismissal. The evolution of personal crises and self-awareness in teenpop coincides with the genre’s changing relationship between producer and performing artist, from an uncredited and ambiguous contribution and authorship role on the part of performing artists (the Max Martin/Cheiron studios method) to one of fluid co-authorship. The now-standard practice of teenpop performing artists sharing authorship credits with professional songwriters is still widely met with incredulity and cynicism.
But many of the most thoughtful teenpop songs rely on co-authorship between performing artists and professional songwriters, who are seemingly crucial to the emergence of unique voices and ideas in teenpop through the 00’s. One can track the contributions of established songwriters and producers like John Shanks, Kara DioGuardi, Shelly Peiken, Linda Perry, Raine Maida, Antonina Armato, Tim James, Max Martin, Dr. Luke Gottwald, and several others across a wide range of artists to get a sense of how the artists themselves may have contributed. Max Martin’s post-Europop/Britney development, particularly through disciple Luke Gottwald (both in collaboration with Max and solo), can be tracked through seven songs on these mixes, which demonstrate a mostly uncredited, marginal authorship role from performing artists, from 2000-era Britney to the Veronicas. You can even track Max and Dr. Luke mathematically, as they increase Kelly Clarkson’s four climactic high notes in the chorus of “Since U Been Gone” (2004) to five in BSB’s “I Just Want You to Know” (2005) to nine in the Veronicas’ “4Ever” (2006).
Linda Perry’s quality, on the other hand, is hugely variable depending on whom she’s working with (and unlike Martin/Gottwald, many of her best songs include the performing artist’s co-writing credit). She was best known as lead singer of 4 Non Blondes until P!nk enlisted her to co-write songs on M!ssundaztood in 2001. Perry then built her reputation writing songs for a diverse range of artists: Christina Aguilera (Christina’s melisma is at the center of even her most personal Perry-penned songs, which are about as bold as her voice but contain comparatively little of P!nk’s contradictory angst), Courtney Love (whose America’s Sweetheart sometimes sounds like a missing link between Hole and Hole-derived teenpop) and Ozzy spawn Kelly Osbourne. Kelly’s best album, Sleeping in the Nothing, suggests an ambiguous author relationship between Osbourne and Perry, with Kelly both finding her voice—in all its blunt, Avril-like awkwardness—on tracks like The Osbournes-referencing “Secret Lover,” and also seeming to lose it completely, like on Eurotrashy dance single “One Word.”
Perry’s role in the transformation of P!nk’s image specifically, though, was clearly—and pretty much uncontroversially—dependent on P!nk’s input as author. P!nk wrote “I’ve Got Money Now” from 2006’s I’m Not Dead with Mike Elizondo (most of whose credits come from hip-hop, including lots of Eminem tracks), but it’s as complex as anything she’s ever written with Perry. In it she attempts to rationalize her newfound financial success (one of P!nk’s recurring issues on the album is the virtue of “hard work,” which Paris Hilton, Jessica Simpson, and George Bush—according to P!nk, anyway—have no conception of), but she sounds alienated and sad. Regardless of the people who helped her write and produce the song, she sure sounds alone on the track.
Brie Larson, star of kid-flicks Sleepover and Hoot, is involved in the writing and production of her newest material. “Stilts and the Titanic” is a sophisticated departure from the material on her 2004 album Finally Out of P.E., and—in true indie teenpop fashion—the demo was only made available on her MySpace page for a short period of time in 2006. Hollwood Records’ Aly and AJ write their own material: their ode to seasonal depression “Not This Year,” a veritable dirty bomb at the end of an otherwise upbeat Christmas album, was co-written with production team Armato and James (as was the majority of their second album, Insomniatic), while another song included on these mixes, “Blush,” was written solo.
The standard-bearer for THINK in terms of writing/production, as opposed to pro/singer teams, has to be Skye Sweetnam, whose hyper-referential cheerleader chant “Hypocrite” was composed and recorded in the basement of inexperienced 21-year-old Canadian producer James Robertson. It was essentially released by Capitol Records as a demo, along with the vast majority of songs on her 2004 debut album, Noise from the Basement. The D-U-M lyrics to her self-proclaimed rebellion song parody, “Billy S”—“Teachers treat us all like clones / Sit up straight take off your headphones / I don’t blame them, they get paid / Money money woo! Lots of money money woo!”—were allegedly scribbled onto notebook paper while Skye was in eighth grade. In “Hypocrite,” she casts herself first as a “bubblegum brainiac,” then as “Avril-lite,” a self-deprecating (if inaccurate) epithet that nicely sums up the confessional-rock post-boom period (2003-2004) that granted Skye her unlikely bid for superstardom.
As for songwriting with the traditional blessing of a major label footing the studio bills, Kara DioGuardi has contributed to some of Lindsay Lohan and Ashlee Simpson’s best material and also takes lead in Platinum Weird, co-founded by Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics and co-produced by frequent teenpop collaborator John Shanks. The band’s post-grunge-derived alt-rock sound, similar to the production on Ashlee Simpson’s two albums (both produced and co-written by Shanks and DioGuardi), suggests what some of her songs with the teenpop starlets might have sounded like in demo form. But Platinum Weird still seems to lack whatever the hell was in the water that helped produce Ashlee’s indispensable debut album Autobiography, the apex of 00’s confessional teenpop. (To use another cliché, it’s missing whatever elephant was in the room, namely Ashlee herself.)
I’ve included “Better Off” from that album, which is about that age-old pop trope, Starting a Relationship with a Guy Who Makes You Feel Pretty Good Even Though Your Life Has Otherwise Been a Mess and Truthfully Isn’t That Much Better with This Guy, Plus You’re Worried You Might Screw Something Up Early On, So You Refuse to Introduce Him to Your Friends and Instead Take Comfort in Wearing His Shirt to Bed but Still Toss It Out When You Spill Coffee On It.
Ashlee even gets sparks from non-Kara DioGuardi songwriters, including Shelly Peiken (“Love Me for Me”), whose prior credits include the good-not-great “Is This Hollywood?” by proto-Ashlee Shanks-produced artist Lucy Woodward (Lucy’s thoughtfulness is limited, but she does hint at what Ashlee might have sounded like without anything to say). Some of Ashlee’s A-team also worked on the 2006 debut album of America’s Most Talented Idol Kids Got Talent star Cheyenne Kimball. Her “One Original Thing” isn’t so much thoughtful as it is a common pop placeholder meant to evoke actual human thought: the complaint that no one else is keepin’ it real. Which, one might argue, is a strange thing to complain about from the Aquamarine soundtrack.
Smarts, like novelties, can come out of nowhere, too. I can’t tell if ex-A*Teen Marie Serneholt’s “I Need a House” is true to her own simultaneous yearning and hesitation toward domesticity, but it’s pretty close to my own. I can’t tell if Swedish child star Amy Diamond’s downright terrifying “Welcome to the City,” which is like the New York Dolls’ “Frankenstein” in a moonbounce, was calculated by the shadowy, cynical Swedes who write her lyrics or merely came out as a happy accident in some kind of lyric-generator. I can’t tell if former S Club 7 member Rachel Stevens is, like Hilary Duff, a brilliant cipher for her songwriters or just plain brilliant (not that being a cipher and being brilliant are mutually exclusive).
I still can’t tell if Hilary Duff herself is even real; her “authentic” makeover for her 2007 Dignity album betrays a striking resemblance to Maria, the robot from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. The DioGuardi-penned/Shanks-produced “Come Clean,” from second album Metamorphosis (2003), is a personal favorite that unthinkably manages to squeeze something interesting out of its rain metaphor (“Let the rain fall down and wake my dreams / Let it wash away my sanity”) while letting Hilary’s malleable voice melt into the surrounding rush, from sanity to oblivion.
I don’t even begrudge teenpop stars their easy brainiacal shortcuts, because those usually turn out sounding pretty good, too. Mandy Moore started her eventual disowning of her teenpop roots by covering lots of credible artists in 2003, including her wonderful take on XTC’s “Senses Working Overtime,” which I might prefer to the original. Katy Rose sells her alternately whimsical and overwrought poetry with utter conviction—which doesn’t make it any less bizarre, but does make it more endearing. Kelly Osbourne and Meg & Dia let the pretensions fly, offering cryptic futurist verses (in English and French) and allusions to George Sand, respectively.
Generally I don’t need teenpop stars to bend over backwards to convince me that they’re great thinkers themselves—I need them to stimulate my own intellect. In fact, self-consciously displayed “intellect” tends to shut down my ability to dig into the content of a song, forcing me to settle for musical pleasures instead, like Kelly Osbourne’s beats and Meg & Dia’s melodies (which are much harder for me to write about, and I think I secretly resent them for it). The really smart ones blindside me with their insights and emotions and make me, at least temporarily, feel dumb, dumb, dumb for not getting them sooner.
DISC FOUR: THINK
01. Melissa Lefton – My Hit Song
02. Skye Sweetnam – Hypocrite
03. Hilary Duff – Come Clean (Remix 2005)
04. Marie Serneholt – I Need a House
05. Kelly Osbourne – One Word
06. Amy Diamond – Welcome to the City
07. Play – Cinderella
08. Aaliyah – Try Again
09. Mandy Moore – Senses Working Overtime
10. M2M – Jennifer
11. Ashlee Simpson – Better Off
12. Brie Larson – Stilts and the Titanic
13. Cheyenne Kimball – One Original Thing
14. Meg & Dia – Indiana
15. Lucy Woodward – Is This Hollywood?
16. Katy Rose – Watching the Rain
17. P!nk – I Got Money Now
18. Marit Larsen – Under the Surface
19. Aly and AJ – Not This Year
20. Rachel Stevens – Dumb Dumb
The average age on this disc is well over 18, even if I did bump it up a bit by including two established acts in their teenpop test drive. I mention it because sex is an enormously sensitive issue in discussing music marketed to younger listeners. Depending on how someone wants to make his or her (ad hoc) critique, sex in pop is harmful because it teaches young girls to be submissive and slutty (it doesn’t teach boys much of anything, apparently); or it distracts from geopolitical issues of greater significance (in her recent expression of anger and sadness over the conflict in Darfur, and power to her for expressing something, JoJo couldn’t help but make a reference to rampant celebrity pantylessness); or it implicates pop-loving straight men in lecherous pedophilia.
One important counter-idea to note here is that teenpop is actually one of the few areas in popular music where sex can be discussed within the music itself, sometimes explicitly, as something other than an assumed inevitability—for the most part, past a certain age it’s just not OK to say “no” to sex in most pop music. But in teenpop, not only can you say “no,” you can also figure out what kind of sex it is you’re interested in.
Which is to say, you can also say yes. At sixteen, Chris Brown is trying to convince the ladies that he might be young, but he’s still got what they want. British Gene Simmons protégé Lil’ Chris, also sixteen, barely graduated from the UK reality show Rock School by the time he was ready to pick the cherry from his lady’s apple tree. And No Secrets—last seen on the Disney Channel with ages prominently displayed next to their names to tout their demographical authenticity—have a song about cruising for guys and looking for a party, which is strange because I don’t think any of them were old enough to drive yet when they recorded the song.
Aly and AJ
But for Bow Wow (nee Lil’) in “Puppy Love” and Aly and AJ in “Blush”—and artists not featured here, like Tiffany Evans (“Promise Ring”) and Disney prude-rapper Lil’ Josh, who says he’s too young for just about anything but playing video games—it’s not time yet. Refusing sex doesn’t mean refusing desire; in fact, it can mean the opposite. Aly and AJ’s boundaries, which they spell out carefully in “Blush” (Disney kept the song off select editions of their second album, including the iTunes version), help to give voice to their sexual desire. Their denial of sex itself lends poignancy to the desire, because its meaning hasn’t already been decided for them.
Desire is central in more uncommon but fairly true-to-life commentary on sexuality: Britney Spears (“Touch of My Hand”), unlike the Divinyls (“when I think about you I touch myself”), sings about masturbation with relative seriousness and in a way that’s, uh, masturbatory, as opposed to using it as a mere come-on; she doesn’t have a lover, and she never says she wants one, either. In “La La,” Ashlee Simpson sings about getting thrown like a boomerang and tackled like a lineman and dressing up like a French maid, but the most important line in the whole song tends to get overlooked for obvious and misguided “think of the children (who listen to this sleaze)!”-style dismissals: “I feel safe with you / I can be myself tonight / It’s all right with you / ‘Cuz you hold my secrets tight.” She’s not simply exploiting kinky role-playing for yuks (though yuks it’s got); this song is about role-playing as it actually works in the world—sometimes you need to give a little power to get a little (and let’s not forget that when you throw a boomerang, it comes back and beats you up).
Jewel and Liz Phair’s makeovers in 2003 into teenpop wannabes were largely about the ways in which they chose to present their sexuality to the public, but both of them have much more interesting non-sexual insights to make in their selected FUCK tracks. Turns out Jewel sounds a lot better being an idiot on purpose with lines like “Old Spice is nice but sweat is better / E-mail is cool but romance lives in a letter” in 2ge+her-esque “U & Me = Love.” And Liz Phair’s most interesting line in infamous May-December (more like April-August?) fling chronicle and Xbox-rocker “Rock Me” isn’t about borrowing the kid’s cigarettes or screwing him in his dorm room. It’s this part: “Your record collection don’t exist / You don’t even know who Liz Phair is.” As in, “thank god!”
So teenpop gives Jewel and Liz Phair a potential venue to get outside of themselves, to leave their respective circle-jerk genres, littered with their own sorts of circumscribed ideas of empowerment and intelligence and beauty and sexuality, for a fresher demographic who won’t judge them for their sheen or hooks, or for fucking in a way that isn’t so goddamn literary or bohemian. Not that they won’t be judged afterwards—quite the opposite, in fact, since the young folks didn’t really notice them and the older folks called for their heads on a pike—but hey, as Ashlee Simpson can attest, that’s role-playing for you. A pop paradox, I guess: in order to figure out the most private aspects of your fantasies and desires, be it dressing up as a French maid or fucking someone who doesn’t even know who you are, you still have to tell everybody.
You get the sense that these artists, Ashlee and Aly & AJ and even Liz Phair, are figuring sex out as they go along, which seems a lot closer to the sex I’m familiar with than, say, Megan McCauley’s Martin/Gottwald-produced “Tap That,” which comes across as merely an inventive genre game (Salt ‘n’ Pepa meets Evanescence). The Veronicas open the mix with one of the best of several “Since U Been Gone” derivatives that hits with its harmonies and its mischief more than its insights into sex, while Paris Hilton’s “Nothing In This World” is another of the best “SUBG” derivatives—and maybe the least derivative one, relying on smooth, insistent guitar-spiked dance-pop instead of the precisely executed highs and lows of a typical Dr. Luke track. Tata Young, “the Thai Britney,” is smart enough to know how to sell a done-to-death sort of stupid in “Sexy Naughty Bitchy.”
Elsewhere, boyband parody 2ge+her fools around in the Mr. Big-style acoustic ballad “Before We Say Goodbye,” whose blatancy makes for a good punchline. The obvious joke is that Mr. Big-style acoustic ballads aren’t usually allowed to be about sex. The Veronicas bring in a similar acoustic ensemble to talk about how their “soul is shining through” in “Speechless,” which kinda makes you wish they’d just stick to fucking—although one of their so-what acoustic love songs, “I Could Get Used to This,” is implicitly about sex: the new boyfriend brings her (them?) breakfast in bed. Ironic, then, that it’s also the only Veronicas song allowed on Radio Disney, via Christian rock trio Everlife’s carbon copy cover version. Rihanna uses a slightly deranged take on the acoustic ballad to match her seriously deranged sexual relationship—she’ll blow her poor boyfriend’s brains out before she’d even dream of (1) ending her affair, (2) breaking up with her boyfriend, or (3) figuring out that if he hasn’t left her yet, maybe he’s not exactly dying inside (maybe he’s got a few things going on the side, too).
But in these cases sex isn’t just about sex, it’s about pop, too, about hitting the marks and extending the dance. The best of them don’t hesitate to hit those marks, and hard, but they also tell me more about how to enjoy a killer harmony or a riff or a beat or a song construction than about sex—which, frankly, is all I’m asking for most of the time anyway. And I certainly don’t want to sell the Veronicas or Paris or 2ge+her’s humor short; there are visceral lessons to be learned from a pop song, too, related to how it makes you laugh and gasp and dance. How it FLIRTS.
Here’s the ever-visceral Burt Reynolds as porn director Jack Horner in Boogie Nights:
I understand they have to make films—I’ve made them myself—that are a few laughs...everybody fucks their brains out, and that’s fine. But it’s my dream to make a film that is true…and right…and dramatic.What seems most important here is that pop music by and large can be about fucking, or it can be “true and right and dramatic,” but only rarely can it do both at the same time. Instead, sexuality is projected onto the dance beat or a vocal phrasing, but the lyrics are randomly assembled clichés, or there are come-ons with no story (“don’t’cha wish your girlfriend was hot like me”—um, probably not, my girlfriend is awesome…who are you again?). Heck, come-ons with no story work sometimes, too: Christina Milian promises to be “that woman” without providing much of a job description, but the song itself hits one perfect note and repeats ad infinitum (so she can provide everything you need without ever telling you what it is).
And sometimes there’s drama in a broader context: when Lindsay Lohan says she wants to “come first,” she’s making the double entendre intentionally (she does it twice over the course of these mixes), even if she’s not sure who in her audience is going to laugh along. Fefe Dobson “initiates” with pop-metal crunch and a Cars synth line, but as Matt Cibula has noted, some material on her unreleased 2006 album Sunday Love suggests a struggle with her sexuality: imagining life as a boy, as a blonde, wondering what things would be like if only “Miss Vicious” would return her calls.
In other words, there are stories to be told here, both in and between the lines. Everyone can [flirt] their brains out, and that’s fine. But teenpop can also be true, and right, and dramatic. And it isn’t afraid to fuck—even if it’s not quite ready yet.
DISC FIVE: FUCK
01. Veronicas – 4Ever
02. Lindsay Lohan – First
03. Fefe Dobson – The Initiator
04. Megan McCauley – Tap That
05. Ashlee Simpson – La La
06. Christina Milian – I Can Be That Woman
07. Paris Hilton – Nothing in This World
08. No Secrets – Hot
09. Tata Young – Sexy, Naughty, Bitchy
10. Lil’ Bow Wow – Puppy Love
11. Destiny’s Child – Bootylicious
12. Jewel – U & Me = Love
13. Liz Phair – Rock Me
14. Chris Brown – Run It
15. Lil’ Chris – Checkin’ It Out
16. Devo 2.0 – Boy U Want
17. Britney Spears – Touch of My Hand
18. Rihanna – Unfaithful
19. 2ge+her – Before We Say Goodbye
20. Aly & AJ – Blush
It’s a Saturday night and instead of going out, I’m looking at the Radio Disney playlist without listening to it—I don’t have the right web browser for their online station, so I haven’t heard a note coming from Radio Disney in at least two months. I see two High School Musical songs, one single from Raven-Symone (once Olivia on The Cosby Show, now one of the Disney Channel’s most successful TV and music stars), one from Hannah Montana (“Pumpin’ Up the Party,” which I still hate), and then Tashbed (“Unwritten”—“I Want to Have Your Babies” hasn’t gotten past the censors yet), the Jonas Brothers, wedding/bar mitzvah staple “The Cha-Cha Slide,” “Who Let the Dogs Out,” an edited version of Ashlee’s “L.O.V.E.,” and—the only non-Disney track also released in the past year—“Umbrella,” which isn’t exactly hard to come by these days.
I find myself doing this for a few minutes every so often, just staring at the screen waiting for a song I don’t recognize to surprise me. I saw Cooler Kids’ “All Around the World” on there once, even seem to remember seeing Leslie Carter’s “Like Wow!,” which I didn’t realize was still eligible for rotation. I glance up at the fan mail ticker: “I wanna shout out to Corbin Bleu he’s awsome (sic) I hope he makes more albums.” A Hannah Montana request. Another Corbin shout-out. Next song on the playlist, more Hannah. The only thing even remotely interesting on the page in ten minutes is a shout-out to someone named “Amithyst.”
I’ve heard all of this stuff before, except the new Jonas Brothers, which I listen to for the first time on YouTube. S’alright, “My Sharona”-type riff and bad lyrics (“better believe I bled”?) and no sign of former boy-who-sings-like-a-girl Nick Jonas, who at age fourteen probably can’t sing like a girl anymore. When the songs aren’t boring to begin with, they get pretty boring pretty quickly.
I think back to Metal Mike’s breathless description of a bonkers Radio Disney sequence from 2000, which careened from the Contours to the Vengaboys’ Vengabus to Toy-Box to BSBs’ “I Want It That Way” to the Archies to “My Boyfriend’s Back” to James Brown, followed up with *NSync, the Jetsons theme, “Tutti Frutti,” and later on Joan Jett and a TV theme written by a Go-Go. Meanwhile, I was shocked earlier this year when I noticed that someone slipped the Raconteurs “Steady As She Goes” into the Top 30 voting pool, not that they’ve ever played it.
New song, Crazy Frog, “We Are the Champions” (guess I would have enjoyed that). More High School Musical. The sequel premiered recently but I didn’t see it (don’t have cable); bought the first HSM, the 2-disc Deluxe Karaoke Edition, from a crackhead for three bucks in Philly’s Suburban Station after turning down AAA batteries I actually kind of needed for my insulin pump.
I wonder whether or not one of the other children’s monoliths is going to step up and try to win over a slightly older slice of the Disney demographic—all of Nickelodeon’s cross-promotional stars (Emma Roberts, the Naked Brothers Band, Britney’s sister Jamie Spears) have so far had little to no success outside the channel, and Nickelodeon itself doesn’t operate a record label that could stand up to Disney’s Hollywood Records. The Bratz movie soundtrack—featuring lots of launch-pad-level teenpop hopefuls—has a couple of good songs on it, but it’s not worth more than a glance.
Maybe there’s no gray area left between kid and teenager. There wasn’t much of a teenpop umbrella for kids my age between New Kids on the Block and the Backstreet Boys, either. I remember listening to oldies until I was about ten, then rap and metal in the mid-90’s, then rap-metal until I was old enough for the Shins to change my life (I imagine that by now you can graduate from Radio Disney to the Shins directly).
Gym Class Heroes, whose “Scandalous Scholastics” someone just shared on the Poptimists LiveJournal community page, might be about as close to teenpop outside of Disney you can get at the moment. The song is raunchy as hell—it’s about a student sleeping with his teacher to get better grades, and here’s a preview: “the way she praised my balls was vicious / now that’s what I like to call sacrilegious.” It’s definitely teenpop, reminds me a little of LMNT, even, but without the harmonies. Hip-hop has been offering all sorts of great novelties—my girlfriend just bought her first tube of M*A*C lip gloss on Lil’ Mama’s recommendation. Even Hyphy Hitz makes for better teenpop than most of what I’m pretending to listen to right now on Radio Disney.
Two new songs, more Hannah, more Jonas Brothers.
Maybe Kara DioGuardi’s career path offers a way out: she started off co-writing Kylie Minogue’s “Spinning Around” in 1999, made her name with angst-rock, and recently helped to transform Hilary into “Hylarie” on her new, decidedly confessional dance-pop album Dignity. The Veronicas’ new single “Hook Me Up” just skirts blank club-ennui and hits a flat-out existential crisis; neither of them want to be in the club, but if that’s where they end up, so be it. But neither the Veronicas nor Hylarie have really caught on—and Hil’s still being promoted and distributed by Disney.
Instead Disney’s putting its energies into promoting High School Musical alums like Vanessa Hudgens’ weak R&B-pop, Ashley Tisdale’s sporadically excellent (and somewhat confessional) dance-pop, and Corbin Bleu, who sounds kind of like one guy doing “Motown Philly” at a talent competition. Which isn’t bad, don’t get me wrong, but there’s gotta be something else out there…
I’m looking over this playlist and I’m seeing some big non-Disney names: Gwen Stefani, Kelly Clarkson, Ashlee Simpson. But no songs past 2005. Ashlee—whom I can hardly even recognize post-nosejob—is in the studio with Timbaland. I’m wondering what he can accomplish with her, whether or not she’ll magically be able to turn a Timbaland production into Ashlee-rock like she has in the past with, say, disco (“Burnin’ Up”). Just got a supposedly-legit list of ASCAP titles for Britney’s new album (including “Freak Show,” “Ouch,” and “Who Can She Trust?”), which presumably won’t be shopped to her former Disney audience—they haven’t had a Britney song thrown their way in six years. Lindsay says she’s making a new album, and that she’ll tour with it, but who can believe her? Paris says she’s making a new album, but who’s even going to listen to it?
New song. More Hannah.
Maybe I’ll start listening to more country music. I still hardly know anything about it, except that I like the Taylor Swift and Dixie Chicks albums from last year and Miranda Lambert’s album from this year and the Ashley Monroe album that might count toward this year or last year (it hasn’t been released yet). All of them can channel teenpop themes and capture a younger audience; none of them needed Radio Disney.
The RD playlist, which displays the ten most current songs, is bookended by the same HSM2 track, “I Don’t Dance” by Corbin Bleu and Lucas Grabeel (“Chad” and “Ryan”). By my count they’ve played it three times in the last forty-five minutes.
I know there are kids and teenagers and other people out there who like the stuff on these mixes, and I know that they don’t all pledge loyalty to Disney (I’d hope not; I despise Disney’s business methods and observe their corporate maneuvers with a kind of morbid curiosity). But at this point I’ll settle for Skye Sweetnam’s (as of now Canada-release-only) second album—which she’s been making since the first time I ever even listened to Radio Disney—to make an appearance somewhere outside of her MySpace page. I keep hoping that things are about to change; I’ll even put up with another Avril Lavigne to get to the next wave. Teenpop is feeling stagnant, and I’m wondering if I’ll make it to 2010.
Carl Hiaasen, Team Rodent: How Disney Devours the World (1998).
Metal Mike Saunders, “Dear Diary,” Village Voice (2000).
Tom Junod, “The Devil in Greg Dark,” Esquire (2001).
Jimmy Magahern, “Small World,” Cleveland Scene/Houston Press (2001).
Jimmy Draper, “Pop Is Hell,” San Fransisco Bay Guardian (2002).
“The Ashlee Simpson Show,” Season One, MTV (2004).
Skye Sweetnam, Song Meanings, Skye Sweetnam Message Board (2004).
Various, Ashlee Simpson: Emo or Oh No?, I Love Music (2004-2005).
Jane Dark, “26 singles of the year/‘melodic range,’” jane dark’s sugarhigh! (2006).
Mikael Wood, “Beyond the Status Quo,” Village Voice (2006).
“Tweenage Riot,” Blender (2006).
Various, Rolling Teenpop 2006 Thread, I Love Music (2006).
Ayala Ben-Yehuda, “The Write Stuff: A Day in the Life of Hit Songwriter Kara DioGuardi,” Billboard (2007).
Jonathan Dee, “Tween on the Screen,” New York Times Magazine (2007).
Various, Rolling Teenpop 2007 Thread, I Love Music (2007).
Frank Kogan, Rules of the Game, Las Vegas Weekly (ongoing).
Brie Larson, MySpace Blog (ongoing).
(Limit one album per artist, five albums per year.)
Toy-Box: Fantastic (1999, Europe)
Daphne and Celeste: We Didn’t Say That! (2000)
M2M: Shades of Purple (2000)
*NSync: Celebrity (2001)
A*Teens: Teen Spirit (2001)
P!nk: M!ssundaztood (2001)
Britney Spears: Britney (2001)
Various: Josie and the Pussycats OST (2001)
Christina Aguilera: Stripped (2002)
Avril Lavigne: Let Go (2002)
Triple Image: Celebrate (2002)
Fefe Dobson: Fefe Dobson (2003)
Jewel: 0304 (2003)
Liz Phair: Liz Phair (2003)
Various: Freaky Friday OST (2003)
Kelly Clarkson: Breakaway (2004)
Lindsay Lohan: Speak (2004)
Christina Milian: It’s About Time (+ bonus tracks) (2004)
Ashlee Simpson: Autobiography (2004)
Skye Sweetnam: Noise from the Basement (2004)
Aly and AJ: Into the Rush (Special Edition) (2005)
Black Eyed Peas: Monkey Business (2005)
Amy Diamond: This Is Me Now (2005)
Hope Partlow: Who We Are (2005)
Rachel Stevens: Come and Get It (2005)
Cassie: Cassie (2006)
Marit Larsen: Under the Surface (2006)
Lillix: Inside the Hollow (2006)
Taylor Swift: Taylor Swift (2006)
The Veronicas: Secret Life of… (2006)
Rihanna: Good Girl Gone Bad (2007)
Tegan and Sara: The Con (2007)
Aaliyah: Ultimate Aaliyah (1994-2005)
Backstreet Boys: The Hits, Chapter One (1997-2001)
Aaron Carter: Most Requested Hits (2000-2003)
Miley Cyrus/Hannah Montana: Mostly Wanted (2006-2007)*
Destiny’s Child: #1’s (1998-2005)
Hilary Duff: Most Wanted (2003-2004)
Mandy Moore: Best of… (1999-2004)
*Not commercially available. Inquire for details.
For more teenpop discussion, commentary, and music, visit David Moore’s blog: The Cure for Bedbugs.
By: David Moore
Published on: 2007-09-04