From Britney To Disney (And Beyond): Idolator Plunges Into The World Of Teenpop

Nov 25th, 2008 // 25 Comments

Ten years ago this month–Nov. 3, 1998, to be exact–Jive Records released Britney Spears’ debut single “Baby One More Time” (b/w “Autumn Goodbye”) in CD and 12-inch vinyl configurations. Metal Mike Saunders–the most entertaining teen-pop critic of this decade if not human history, not to mention a Certified Public Accountant, not to mention the former singer of L.A.’s greatest early ‘80s punk band the Angry Samoans–had already purchased his copy of the song on promo cassingle two months earlier.

The album came out in January 1999, and by March (as is clear in this 5,000-word Village Voice diary, edited by yours truly), Metal Mike was predicting a multiplatinum long-haul career consisting of 20% music, 50% TV, “and—God help us all—30% s-e-x.” (“The game is over. Set, point, and match… the CD’ll go 3-4 million easy.”) And though nobody could then have anticipated what Britney would turn into (basically, a one-woman circus, as the title of her sixth album, due a week from today, makes explicit), Mike’s predictive math wasn’t all that far off; honestly, Nate Silver would be proud. When MTV aired its final edition of TRL earlier this month, “Baby One More Time” was named the show’s most influential video ever. (Of especially weird note are Saunders’ observations about Britney’s hardcore Protestant upbringing, “I’m better than you are and you’re boring me” facial smirks, and successful Saturday Night Live debut, all of which eerily anticipate Sarah Palin.)



Metal Mike’s definitive Britney diary hit the streets in June 2000, just a couple of weeks after her second album came out. (Yes, kiddies, there really was a time that record reviews did not have to correspond exactly with release dates.) But a couple of months before that, in March, Saunders published what might be an even more definitive magnum opus about the early ‘00s teen-pop era, devoting several thousand words to Radio Disney. “The truest pop underground of Year 2000,” he wrote, “turns out to be grade schoolers.” He called Disney (which went on the air in November 1996) the best radio station in three decades, then looked into his handy-dandy C.P.A. crystal ball: “If you’re collecting predictions on teenpop era span, I say through Year 2010 and beyond, EASY–That would be about 15 years, total.”

Starting to close in now on 2010–and noting that, oh, Taylor Swift and the Jonas Brothers and not-dead-yet Miley Cyrus and, what the heck, maybe even High School Musical 3 didn’t exactly have bad 2008s–I’d say Metal Mike’s prediction has been more or less on track so far. Which isn’t to suggest things haven’t changed. Radio Disney’s current Top 30 is no longer the “100% hyper teenpop” it was in 2000, for instance; where Saunders praised the station back then as an antidote to Clueless-coined “mope rock,” where “horrid faux-‘rock’ bands” of the Blink 182 and Foo Fighters sort “mercifully DON’T EXIST!!,” now the station has no qualms about programming the even drearier likes of David Cook and Nickelback. The playlist seems more Disney-intensive now, too, addicted to its own starmaking machinery and cross-marketing influence. And at least as far as the top 30 is concerned, seemingly nerdboy-driven post-Dr. Demento novelties on the order of Lou Bega’s “Mambo No. 5” and Eiffel 65’s “Blue” and Hampton the Hamster’s “Hampster Dance” sadly seem to have long gone by the wayside.

On the other hand, the teen-pop underground isn’t entirely what you’d call homogenous, either. A number of artists who’ve placed on Radio Disney’s chart this month–Emily Osment, Miranda Cosgrove, Clique Girlz, Saving Jane, Savvy and Mandy, Varsity Fanclub, Meaghan Martin, longtime stalwarts the Cheetah Girls–are nothing like household names in the grownup world; most of them occupy no Billboard chart space to speak of at the moment, and several of them have yet to even put out an album. And while you’re free to mourn the passing of the alleged “monoculture” as if that’s news–as if deluded hippies who care about such things haven’t been fretting about pop audience fragmentation since before you were born–autonomy from mass-market hegemony is more or less how this station has always worked. Radio Disney still seems to catch new potential stars on their way up, mixing them now with older stars (singer-songwriter sap Jason Mraz, for instance, or Brit popsters like Leona Lewis and Natasha Bedingfield who tend to avoid the more vulgar and hip-hoppy tendencies of their American equivalents) after their songs have already peaked on more adult airwaves. So an independent aesthetic is apparently still out there.

And of course, that’s just Radio Disney–which, though presumably still Action Central for the stuff, is obviously not necessarily the be-all and end-all of Teen Pop, even with TRL relegated to the dustbin of history. The objective of this column will be to keep tabs on the genre’s pulse. If you have any ideas along those lines, as Radio Disney used to say, I’m all ears.

  1. Chris Molanphy

    Great to have you doing this, Chuck.

    I’d love to know what you think is an appropriate yardstick for measuring the penetration of teen pop, since the old barometers seem to have failed this decade. Until 2001 or so, teen pop was reliably on the major Billboard charts–selling albums, getting round-the-clock radio airplay, etc. But even while it’s continued as a marketing force, it’s been possible for people over 20 to ignore most of this decade: few of the genre’s superstars have scored an actual crossover hit (Miley’s “See You Again” is about the biggest; some higher-charting stuff from HSM and the Jonases is based on quick iTunes sales hits but no radio/longevity), and while the albums sell, they don’t move the kind of tonnage that they did eight years ago (not like anything does).

    Over the summer, I posited that maybe teen pop was about to have its once-a-decade crossover moment, where the music and the style become unavoidable. But while the quick, flashy chart feats continue (e.g., last week’s short-lived fusillade of Taylor Swift “hits”), nothing seems to be sticking beyond the niche.

    Am I just measuring the wrong way?

  2. Tauwan

    I don’t know why, but I had Britney’s From the Bottom of My Broken Heart stuck in my head the entire time I read this piece. Maybe it’s that picture of her up above. Yeah it’s supposed to be come hither(?), but I see sadness in those eyes.

  3. Audif Jackson Winters III

    Wow, that single cover is a revelation. Early Brit as bangs-covering-forehead inspiration for ’00s female indie rockers? Are we sure that’s not Jenny Lewis?

  4. ObtuseIntolerant

    @Chris Molanphy: I don’t have a deep understanding of these intricacies, but the weight of radio on chart success seems to be having a big impact on the teenpop bands as long as the old school measures are kept.

    Programmers have made it clear they are not willing to put even the best of the “Disney” songs in heavy rotation to get them heard by a wider audience. And I’m sorry, I’d rather listen to “Love Bug” than “Hey There, Delilah” (let alone any Katy Perry) as much as radio made me listen to it, but maybe that’s just me.

    I am still surprised that the Jonas Brothers and Miley have caused as much mainstream furor as they have…when I started listening to the Jonases a couple of years ago because of my kid I loved them but I didn’t actually expect them to get out all that much farther than, say, Jordan Pruitt or T-Squad. Radio Disney and the Disney Channel do feel a bit locked down.

  5. Chuck Eddy

    See, I clearly need to more research (and, as Chris suggests, maybe explore whether the stuff might be measured by some as yet undiscovered metric), but I’m a little confused by all this. Like I said in the post, Disney hits not crossing over to the bigger charts is hardly a new phenomenon. There have been penty of acts who never graduated beyond Radio Disney since the beginning — since the days of the A-Teens and Toy Box, or Sara Paxton and Rose Falcon. And conversely, there are still plenty of songs on Radio Disney (if that’s how we’re basically defining “teen-pop”) that *are* hits on more mainstream/adult pop stations. That’s pretty much always been the case, right?

    I guess what Chris is suggesting is a lack of blockbusters that cross over *from* the teen-pop world to the larger world, like Britney and Backstreet and *N Sync and Xtina used to. And while I *sort of* see that (though, as he admits, there’s a lack of blockbusters in general these days), I also assume that Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers have more adult fans (not necessarily just parents of tweens, either) than most of us suspect. How you’d quantify them, I’m not really sure. And Taylor Swift *clearly* does — though she’s a special case, of course, having actually crossed in the other direction; i.e., she had country hits *before* teen-pop hits. But it still seems odd to claim that she and Hannah and HS Musical — three of the biggest acts/franchises/ whatever of the past few years are acting, in any way whatsoever, below the pop radar. Ditto Kelly Clarkson, Avril, etc.

    And obviously, bigger questions come into play here, too — i.e, what constitutes a hit single in 2008 in the first place (does longterm radio play *have* to be a prerequisite? and if so, why?), and how should teenpop be defined, when teens (and tweens, more to the point) listen to all sort of things *not* on Radio Disney. (And what about non-r&b-identified, non-rock-identified pop *not* specifically marketed to teens? That matters here too, somehow.)

  6. Chuck Eddy

    I mean, Katy Perry (for instance) basically makes teen-pop *music*, sonically, at least. And I don’t doubt that she has lots of fans younger than, say, 15. Seems weird to discount someone like her from this equation just because Radio Disney doesn’t play her. She sounds more bubblegum than lots of what they *do* play. And “naughty” lyrics in bubblegum music go back four decades, at least.

  7. Chuck Eddy

    Also, how sure are we that Britney/ Backstreet/N Sync/Xtina got Disney play *before* they got pop play? Wasn’t it more simultaneous than that (i.e., they were breaking in both platforms at once)? If so, there may well be *more* crossovers-to-blockbuster status now, not less. (Though the boy bands — or Backstreet at least — initially broke in Europe, as I recall.)

  8. Chuck Eddy

    Finally, it’s easy to exaggerate the extent to which Britney and Backstreet et. al. totally dominated the pop world at the dawn of the decade. But if you, say, check Pazz & Jop results from back then, it’s pretty clear that most rock critics (to name one random demographic) felt they had more important things to listen to at the time. I doubt they got many Spin covers, either. So it’s a leap of faith to act like the pop world suddenly broke up into all these little fragments *since* then. I’m sure country and metal and hip-hip and indie-rock listeners didn’t find it all that difficult to ignore Britney at the time, if they wanted to. There were tons of music fans who *didn’t* watch TRL. And 50 years ago, Kingston Trio fans and Fabian fans didn’t always mingle, either.

  9. CapnCalamity

    At the time, Britney et al serviced separate singles to Radio Disney (“Soda Pop,” “I Will Be There”) while sending the big guns (“…Baby One More Time”) to regular radio, much in the way Urban/Top 40 schism singles happen today (“If I Were A Boy”/”Single Ladies”).

    And boy bands DID let America cool off from NKOTB by skating through Europe before hitting their home shores (hence one of BSB’s first singles: “Backstreet’s Back.” Before I knew the story, I always wondered where they’d been).

  10. Chuck Eddy

    Is there a separate place (radio station, website, magazine, whatever) that the teen-pop hip-hop tends to gravitate toward? An r&b equivalent of Radio Disney would be really cool, probably. Or does it (and the teen Christian stuff, which I know almost nothing about) just compete alongside more adult stuff in those respective genres?

    Fwiw, I think the Jonas Bros album from this year is actually almost as good as the (way too long, and not nearly consistently lip-glossy enough) Lil Mama album from this year, myself. Also like enough of the Demi Lovato album to give it a pass, especially since her Zeppelin-riffed “Party” comes closer to Suzi Quatro than any other ’00s teen-pop I’ve heard (a real high compliment in my book). And I thought two of the four Miranda Cosgrove songs on the *iCarly* soundtrack were better than awful, but then I may well like Katrina and the Waves more than you.

    Not sure who I have less use for, Iron and Wine or the Bosstones. A tossup, I’d say.

  11. dabug

    Well, the Christian stuff definitely competes against some of the Disney stuff — Aly and AJ have shopped singles exlusively to Christian radio (I think “On the Ride” was a Christian single before Disney started playing it). I think the R&B just gets mixed in to adult competition.

    Ha…I think it was Mikael Wood who said that the Jonas Bros. needed to hook up with some of the Disney stable’s producers, but actually I’m starting to think they might want to consider being those producers themselves and putting down the microphone (Nia makes an argument that Demi’s song written by the Jonas Brothers is a good example of a great Jonas Bros. song made better by a different singer — she also tells me I really need to revisit Demi’s album, so hm). I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a JoBro song I’ve hated, but I also don’t think I’ve heard more than a handful I’ve really liked, either, and it’s mostly from the singing.

    I’ll see your Miranda Cosgrove rec and raise you a

    “>Mitchel Musso.

    EW, was one of Miranda’s songs you liked the Max Martin-penned

    “>Stay My Baby????? Which I never knew existed until just now. A cover of “>Amy Diamond’s incomparably better, original version — another point for kid’s conglom appropriation of (better) Swedish hitz. Gross.

  12. dabug

    Damn…

    Mitchel:

    Miranda:
    Amy Diamond:

  13. dabug

    Hm, the Katrina and the Waves one is good…

    I coulda sworn I heard something worse! I think it was this one:

  14. dabug

    Wow, swiping from Dr. Luke & the Sugababes, too! Is this song even a year old yet??

    Crazy.

  15. dabug

    LOL “the” Sugababes. (Better band name anyway.) It’s hard to write Dr. ____ and the ____ without the article.

  16. dabug

    Worth checking out are any Christian artists that Disney sticks on their tours or into their incubator. Krystal Meyers just made RD airplay w/ “Make Some Noise” two weeks ago, apparently.

  17. Chuck Eddy

    Nah, didn’t like Miranda’s “Stay My Baby” at all. The two I thought were good were “Leave It All to Me” and “Headphones On.” Wrote about the soundtrack here:

    [blog.rhapsody.com]

  18. Maura Johnston

    @dabug: sugababes’ version of ‘about you now’ actually hadn’t even been out for a year when it landed on the icarly soundtrack!

    however, it had already received the ‘sad cover at a funeral’ treatment from the brit soap hollyoaks:

  19. ObtuseIntolerant

    This thread is totally interesting, I can’t wait to send some of my more inquiring blog readers over…

    @dabug: I think the Jonases will eventually be really good producers in their own right but why do people slam their vocals so hard? I was a relentless Britpopper in my youth and I surely don’t find Joe’s vocals any less palatable than, say, Richard Ashcroft’s or Liam Gallagher’s (ok, probably better than Liam’s)… Nick’s might be more of an acquired taste for some, but he’s undeniably talented. Is the issue that they get called a “boyband” and people expect them to open their mouths and sound like N*Sync?

    Honestly, I have more problems with Demi’s screaming…though when she nails it, she has quite a lot of promise.

  20. ObtuseIntolerant

    @dabug: For the record, that Mitchell Musso video was one of the most terrifying things I ever saw, as the parent of a child who loves the Disney Channel (or did before we canceled cable). Emily Osment’s is a close second.

  21. dabug

    Disney probably still has an edge on production/distro of the teenpop they play on their radio station, but that’s connecting less and less with stuff I want to listen to. Demi Lovato has about two good songs, Miley’s new one has two or three, Jonas Brothers might have one, Clique Girlz and Emily Osment and Miranda Cosgrove are basically awful (haven’t heard a couple of the ones you mention — haven’t checked the incubator, or the Top 30 even, in months!).

    Places to look: hip-hop (Lil’ Mama, Tiffany Evans, Keke Palmer, Karina Pasian) and Christian rock. Except the latter I just can’t keep up with. Will vouch for Krystal Meyers’ album, “Make Some Noise,” though.

    I do wonder whether or not an Iron and Wine song being featured in Twilight is the equivalent of the Mighty Mighty Bosstones headlining Clueless.

  22. dabug

    Don’t know too well (I lack access to weekly charts dating back a ways, though I think Mediabase probably has the records if you’re a member), but my guess is that if Britney technically hit RD before mainstream radio, it didn’t make a huge difference, since they hadn’t really locked in their audience until after her career had already gained steam.

    Don’t know if that would hold true for a smaller act (did Eiffel 65 or Lou Bega start at RD? Don’t think the second one’s true…RD’s “Mambo” edit replaces all the women with Disney characters) but it’s still significantly different from the movement of some of, say, Miley Cyrus’s or Jonas Brothers’ material (though “See You Again” is weirder than Britney crossover OR Miley crossover, since it seems to have connected on mainstream radio before Radio Disney played it).

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