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

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.