"What came first, the music or the misery?" Those were the words of Rob Gordon, Nick Hornby's protagonist in the modern classic tale of arrested adolescence, High Fidelity. Say "teen pop" out loud and it tends to conjure airy images of hand-holding, cotton candy and puppy love. It's to be sung by smiling, androgynous boys and enjoyed by wondrously naive girls who have noticed the male gaze but don't quite know what to do with it. Until the '80s, it was a male-dominated arena for schmaltzy ballads of unrequited love, not a forum for soul-baring, torturous emotion. Some of the greatest pop music created has been fashioned from dark forays into the heart of man, from the bitter babydaddy drama of "Billie Jean" to the falsetto revenge fantasy "Cry Me a River," but these have traditionally been the exceptions, not popular territory for women. Twenty years ago, Madonna sang of teenage pregnancy and spiritual confusion, but she was vilified for her efforts and would stand completely alone in her boundary-pushing for another 15 years, when a new princess would be crowned.
Britney Spears exploded in the late '90s with a single that would challenge virtually every aspect of sociology in three upbeat minutes. "Baby One More Time" not only served up the idea of Lolita Superstar for the public to chew on, but — hidden underneath the glitzy Euro-synth — there was also a dark undertone that could not be easily identified except to attentive preteens desperate for a representative. In the aftermath of grunge, teen pop had been exiled to the underground in favor of R&B and Kurt Cobain emulators. Now, with the help of an economic boom that gave white, middle-class preteens sudden buying power, and the gentle shove of a certain Orlando-based corporation who had long ago made an investment in teen-pop icons, the forgotten genre would be the new grunge. Dancing teenagers would connect with kids and their wallets through nasal lyrics about pain, self-doubt, abusive parents, cruel rivals and good old-fashioned sexual politics — and they would bury those lyrics beneath the most irresistibly upbeat hooks the pop world had ever seen. A message needs a messenger, and word got out quickly: Radio Disney would be the one-stop shop of the new teen angst.
Radio Disney launched in 1996 with the intent of helping 6- to 14-year-olds memorize lyrics to their favorite Disney films' soundtracks and making their parents wax nostalgic for '90s dance fads like the Macarena. It was modestly successful, especially with fed-up soccer moms hoping to avoid the raunchy morning zoos on the school ride. However, with the perfect storm of American Idol, the sudden popularity of the Disney Channel and the homebred stardom of former Mouseketeers, the station morphed into a juggernaut of marketing-meets-generational demand. Teen pop found a rabid audience with its newer, darker image, and Idol winner Kelly Clarkson, Disney Channel star Hilary Duff and reality star Ashlee Simpson were no-brainers as spokespeople for a long-derided corporation looking to reinvent itself as hip. In 2004, the three girls alone sold a combined 13 million albums, and it wasn't a coincidence that Radio Disney blew up along with them. It was reported that over 4 million kids age 6-14 listened per week, and the station received full national radio coverage, along with satellite, digital cable, streaming online and eventually an iTunes podcast.
At the time, Robin Jones, vice president of programming, said, "As more marketers recognize the value of reaching these ‘mini pop-culture critics' and their parents, they're choosing Radio Disney to help them drive their message home."
These messages included hope amidst despair and redemption from pain; unlike the failed marketing experiment of grunge-prep, they were being delivered by ultra- likable and attractive fame-seekers. No subject was out of bounds in this new genre, and no topic could keep the music out of the kids' hands.
Clarkson scored a Top 10 single with the paternal-abandonment anthem "Because of You" ("You never thought of anyone else/You just saw your pain/And now I cry in the middle of the night"); Simpson's identity issues on "Pieces of Me" ("I am moody, messy/I get restless and it's senseless") landed the song in the Top Five in five countries; Duff's paranoia on "Come Clean" ("Wake my dreams … Let it wash away my sanity … I wanna scream") transformed her into a multiplatform sensation.
"Everyone knows what it feels like to be insecure or feel depressed," says songwriter Kara DioGuardi. "I'm just not sure those things were as talked-about when you had the pop music `of` 30, 40 years ago. It's generational, that soul search."
DioGuardi has written smash singles for virtually every teen-pop artist, from Simpson, Duff and Clarkson to Christina Aguilera (the hit "Ain't No Other Man") and Gwen Stefani ("Rich Girl"). DioGuardi claims the decision to go dark lies not with the Disney corporation or with the labels, but with the artists themselves. "Nothing ever gets planned," says DioGuardi. "We don't sit there and go, ‘Let's make a record like this.' When I write with someone, I just try to see what's going on in their lives and take it from there. I don't like to contrive." It's from this point, says DioGuardi, that the labels and radio stations begin their plan of attack. "Whatever their marketing strategy is comes from hearing the record and what it sounded like," she says. "Nobody ever calls us up and says, ‘Do this.'"
If there is no grand plan to subliminally speak to the inner thoughts of preteens, then one can only conclude that Radio Disney's coup has been reactionary. Gone are the days when a mysterious rocker could utter a few hyperbolic Zen ramblings and the kids would listen. In an industry cowed by conservative watchdogs that would make Tipper Gore look like a Phish-following hippie, rebellion must be dished out in small, easy-to-digest doses. Radio Disney's greatest trick, then, may have been to perfect the combination of the knowing wink for the kids and the big smile for parents. The channel has been awarded countless prizes for its "clean" alternative, from iParenting's Media Excellence Award to the Silver Angel Award from the family-oriented organization Excellence in Media, all while maintaining a buzz-heavy, word-of-mouth feel that is a natural fit for tomorrow's consumers.
Is teen pop deeper and darker than anyone ever realized, or is it merely the puppet of corporations with larger agendas than 14-year-olds can comprehend?
"I'm not always proud of where we're at in music and sometimes I feel like I've been part of the problem," says DioGuardi. "Where are the risks? Who are our Beatles? But if there's a little kid out there repeating Hilary Duff's words `ex: "Open up the part of you that wants to hide away" on the DioGuardi-penned "Fly"`, that becomes a mantra to them. Kids can be really cruel. So in that sense, Hilary's doing a service; she's really helping those kids. So did pop music get deeper and start taking more of a risk? Yeah! I think it's getting there."firstname.lastname@example.org