But in spite of what countless Swedish garage bands might tell you, today's rock and roll climate really offers no contemporary figures worthy of the status of "rock star"--no Jaggers, no Townsends, no Bowies, no Pops, no Springsteens, and as hard as they try, certainly no Cobains. Think about it--even as contemporary rock's most recognizable forerunner, Jack White can certainly walk in to a Circle K in most parts of the country and not be accosted. Then ask yourself, "Who does wield that kind of hysterical cult? Who's taking the place of the rock star?"
The answer is irrefutable: teenage girls. More specifically, teen pop princesses. And while on the surface the correlation may seem, at best, a vast cognitive leap, teen pop's subversion of the rock star archetype is in actuality a feat of unbelievably clever design. And it just might be the final blow to rock music's creeping undead.
STEP BY STEP
To fully comprehend the correlation between the death of the rock star and how it relates to the rise of teen pop, it's important to understand how we arrived at our current juncture. Now, when discussing the "teen pop phenomenon" herein, note that I mean specifically those groups of performers bracketed by the late '80s teen pop explosion (e.g. Debbie Gibson, New Edition, Tiffany, and most specifically the New Kids on the Block), and the media's present climate (e.g. Lindsay Lohan, the Duff sisters, and most recently Ashlee Simpson). Our timeline begins in the artistically terse musical patch between 1987 and 1988 (years that saw the release of Tiffany's self-titled debut, Debbie Gibson's Out of the Blue, and the New Kids on the Block breakthrough, Hangin' Tough), wherein the teen pop audience was established as a major force within the record industry.
This initial teen pop boom, you'll recall, occurred at a time when rock music had largely come to its excessively bloated commercial climax in the unlikely form of hair metal and power balladry--and was about to suffer one of its many deaths. The traditional visage of the rock star (one of youthful desirability, charisma, danger, charm, and projected intelligence) had long been, for the most part, co-opted by undesirables. Apish, contemptible sorts who had selfishly reaped all the glory and glut that their forefathers had so thanklessly perfected without maintaining any of the crucial standards of the rock star archetype. The rock star had, through a natural progression of sorts, become an outmoded, disagreeable figure for most discerning music fans--absent the requisite charms that made rock music so universally marketable to begin with.
After roughly four years of mutual chart-topping, the teen pop phenomenon and the hair metal lineage of the rock star met with what appeared to be the same end--the unlikely alternative rock explosion making both forms momentarily obsolete. Ironically, alt rock's anti-star had again brought a certain respect back to the rock star archetype--with charisma, danger, charm, desirability (however rough), and, most importantly, intelligence. After the dearth of the late '80s, the alt rock anti-stars offered brief hope for a rock star renaissance.
With alt rock's commercial explosion, teen pop all but disappeared from the American landscape--maintaining a surprising strength in the U.K. largely due to the efforts of Robbie Williams' British boy band, Take That. And there it waited, patiently perfecting, as alternative rock's promise began its quick decent. Teen pop realized that the American music industry had grown far too savvy than to leave its stock too long in the hands of fickle artists, whose defiant rigidity makes the matter of money making a little too unpredictable. With celebrity making down to a science, the rock star is something to be produced, not cultivated--and it stands to reason that this process is made all the more painless when the product is easily malleable. And so it stayed, poised for its inevitable outbreak.
SEX, DRUGS, GIRL POWER
By 1996, the alt rock boom had all but run its course--leaving the rock star archetype slightly tarnished in its failed promise. Meanwhile, the U.K.'s viral strains of teen pop had somehow slipped past customs, and with surprising stealth jumpstarted a new teen pop--with something called "girl power."
With the floodgates reopened, the American record industry was again poised to unleash a flood of new product--and, well, you invariably know where this story goes. Dormant stateside for roughly five years, the virus the music industry had stumbled upon in the late '80s had been cultivated, focus grouped, and thoroughly sexed up--and when the time came for it to again hit the streets, it had grown to impressively epidemic strength. With the rock star scepter shit-tossed to its most charmless harborers to date (who made the rock star seem about as appealing as frat house date rape), the new teen pop met very little opposition. Its sex-and-diet-pills aesthetic was enough to cover two-thirds of the rock star cliché. The rest was only a matter of time.
By the time Britney Spears (then 16, now a matronly 22) sealed the deal with 1999's ...Baby One More Time, the new teen pop explosion had lasted longer than any of us could have ever possibly imagined. But with the successful hop from group-based success (Backstreet Boys, Spice Girls, N*SYNC, etc) to that of the teen pop figurehead, the boom was just beginning. For the next two years, brilliantly conceived underage starlets flooded the pop market--distinguishable more by their stance on premarital sex than by their appearance. And the music... this is hardly about the music. The would-be stars were even mined largely from the same pool--The Mickey Mouse Club alone birthed Britney, Christina, and two N*SYNC's--not to mention Club reject Jessica Simpson. Differentiating between the blonde hair and Germanic features became a matter of professional Darwinism for the girls--a case of "may the best handler win"--whose results translated to a work of unexpected genius.
POP'S PRINCESS GOES SLUMMING
At a clear commercial advantage with the inescapable success of ...Baby One More Time, Britney's highly effective game plan seemed a simple one: shit storm. From her deliberate virgin/whore aesthetic (the forward slash marking a canyon-wide disparity) to her bizarrely engaging television appearances, Spears set out to confound her audience as much as entertain it. The sort of bewilderment that made her rather halfhearted stab at "Satisfaction" (Mick Jagger's fitting tome to personal entitlement) from 2000's Oops! ...I Did It Again seem somehow reasonable. At the time, the cover seemed like just another confusing creative hiccup, but in retrospect it marked a cleverly conceived first. Where teen pop was once presented largely as an alternative to rock music, choosing instead to appropriate its cues from more "urban" musical trends, here we found Britney Spears, the queen of teen pop, borrowing from the Rolling fucking Stones, the most pristine pillar of the rock star archetype. And that was just the beginning. In 2001, Spears mounted her first televised concert in Las Vegas for HBO, in which she donned the familiar rhinestone-studded jumpsuit ("because, you know, [Elvis is] from Vegas," she later remarked)--knowingly aligning herself with the very king of fucking rock and roll. Britney was building a new kind of rock star. And as explicit as this foreshadowing might have seemed, Britney's hand in the rock star game was about to take make a remarkable advance.
PUT ANOTHER DIME IN THE JUKEBOX, BABY
It wasn't until the early 2001 onslaught of "return to rock" hype, with the justifiably apt rock star visages of the "The" bands (e.g. The Strokes, The Hives, The White Stripes, ad infinitum), that the iron fist of teen pop seemed to approach a seemingly suitable adversary for popular opinion. Wiser in its approach, however, the new teen pop faced its adversary undaunted, as in its dormant period it had built up a subtle immunity to this sort of rock star vaccination.
The industry that made Britney was already hard at work Svengali-ing her archetypal alternative (the Stones to her Beatles, if you will) in the form of prefab rebellion pop, dressing up their new pop princesses in wife beaters, spikes, guitar solos, and only the most angst ridden of eye shadows. Because hey, what better to combat the sheen of bubblegum pop than the feigned indignation of rock and roll? And what better way to battle the in-malleability of rock stars than to invent them yourself?
Though it's difficult to define exactly where the real change happened, if pressed one could probably pinpoint its epicenter to the Spring of 2002--when Britney Spears, feigning her best Pat Benatar, finally confessed, "I Love Rock 'n' Roll." And America seemed to believe her.
Though her lowest charting single to date (a paltry #22 on the pop charts), the significance of Spears' mousey rendition of the Joan Jett calling card is twofold. Another direct reference to an iconic rock star of considerable weight, teamed with a specific battle cry that was to essentially state teen pop's intent. Teen pop was approaching its true coup--it was about to steal the rock star. And it would do so fair and square.
SK8ER BOIS AND MOVIE STARS
With the queen of teen pop successfully appropriating the rock star archetype, the trajectory was simple: toe the water, or get left behind. And though the specific depths of submersion varied from management company to management company, every self respecting teen pop star dabbled in a little carefully orchestrated rebellion--from Xtina's sexually liberated tongue piercing and Pink's dance pop flip-flop to the pseudo pop-punk of deep ender Avril Lavigne. Suddenly the squeak and clean of Mandy Moore and (however briefly) Jessica Simpson was outmoded and quaint--and the once powerful popstresses were relegated to the farm leagues. The great teen pop takeover also happened to conveniently correspond with the onslaught of the teen girl as franchise phenomenon, which lead multi-platformers like Lindsay Lohan, Ashlee Simpson, and Hilary Duff to all don the snarled lip and a killer riff for a single or two.
The rock star was a viable social force once again--as channeled through the playact rebellion of little girls--and some of its direct effects were inconceivable. Certifiable rock stars like Liz Phair, Sheryl Crow, and Jewel--women comfortably in their 30s--were even drawn into the hysteria, as they dressed up like 16-year-olds (dressing up like 20-year-olds) to promote their desperate comeback albums. The great teen pop coup had claimed its first casualties--but at what greater cost?
Still deep in the trenches, the full toll of the teen pop takeover remains nebulous at best--but its scale raises a number of interesting questions: has the rock star been forever tarnished for its rightful lineage? Will another rock star messiah return to wash away all of our sins? Or did teen pop (however unlikely) finally just slay the beast proper--ending the horrible sequels in a deservedly poetic bloodbath? One thing is certain: the rock star has taken unlikely host in the form of a frail, over-worked, completely oblivious teenage girl. And honestly, its fate could be a lot worse.