Somewhere amid the 20,000 adolescent broken hearts, the 10,000 oversized Justin Timberlake T-shirts and the (at least) 2,000 $10, special-edition 'N Sync strobe glowsticks igniting the T.D. Waterhouse for the fearless fivesome's Nov. 1 homecoming exists a hugely exploitable bit of disposable promise. Cheeky harmonic come-ons and sheepish, matinee-love paeans may prevail at the surface, but the mania and the money behind this industry of haircuts and prefabricated pop hits have grown far more transparent than the glossy packaging indicates. Things may not be as genuine as they seem.
Indeed, these are the days of sweet nubility's sweeter pop fruition, wherein millions in merchandising profits shift from choreographed hand to choreographed hand, as the pop industry finally stands to pay off its ambitious advances. Remember that five years ago, nobody would have bought the Backstreet Boys. Now everybody wants to be them -- or at least be on their payroll.
But at what cost? Continual replication of cute-boy/cute-girl templates promises a glut that would leave Pavlov's dog with a hot case of dry mouth -- and even the industry knows it. Thus the efforts to diversify into other markets (rock, Latin) as well as other media have made the process a joke and the product superfluous. Case in point: O-Town, ABC's surreal foray into reality-based band whittling, in which two years of processing and training were pressed through an intensive, five-month shooting schedule. Although a minor hit, the television show that debuted earlier this year did little to offer any insight into what's really going on inside the pop factory. (Most newbies don't have estates in Windermere.) For whatever reason -- you do the math -- 13 new episodes were optioned for the spring.
According to Stephanie Jones, director of marketing, publicity and new media at Trans Continental (erstwhile launchers of über-poppers 'N Sync and Backstreet Boys), it's the same as it ever was.
"People have accused Trans Con of having this boy-band factory," she says. "And really we have just refined, or Lou [Pearlman] has refined, the art of the music industry. No matter what type of music you're buying, you're buying the same thing: talented musicianship, charisma and a good rapport with the audience."
But let's take a look at how refined it really is. Two current campaigns being waged by Trans Con, cute-girls Innosense and cute-boys Take 5, are finding lukewarm response in a market that has already mainlined its share of pop sugar. Are the kids building a tolerance?
Even Jones submits that there is a huge control issue at hand. The booming demographic of 10- to 18-year-olds is responsible for 42 percent of music purchases in the United States and 45 percent of movie tickets sold, landing the formative tastes of teens in a dominant, fully developed position of influence.
"That disposable income is a major force on Wall Street," says Jones. "Even the guys in suits won't deny that."
Add to that the recent Time magazine study that suggests that all of this influence could be going beyond their heads, stimulating teenage girls to prematurely develop at ages far younger than their mothers did, and you've got the idea. We're hitting puberty at 8 these days. Britney Spears be damned.
As a result, record labels and management companies alike are scurrying to fulfill the needs and attention spans of an overstimulated bunch of girls with bulging allowances and untapped hormones. But predictably, as with most mass pop-cultural movements that involve large-scale metaphor and blind allegiance, the quality of the product is eroding, its drivel running off onto the masses.
Speaking of drivel, at Britney Spears' concert here last September, an ambitious series of next-to-be's were lined up and knocked out as opening acts, performing only two to three songs each. Each act was identified only by a shoddily draped band-name sheet behind them -- no stage set, no pretense. Among them was Innosense, a sort of Spice Girls case study of quirky girl-powerment (with spelling issues), amended with the domestic mall-tour savvy of Trans Con. In all fairness, there were just two or three songs; still, the hair-flipped, body-suited quintet exuded none of the dynamism that makes for an interesting show. And when their sheet was dropped, so was any palpable memory of the group itself. Nobody seemed to care. But in three months, they could be filling the arena, all depending on the strings we don't see. In any case, it's not for a lack of trying on the band's part, however futile that might seem.
"Of course there've been a lot of expectations," offers Mandy of Innosense. "But none bigger than the ones that we have for ourselves. Obviously, it's like a one-in-a-million thing."
And what if you're not the one? Innosense's debut on RCA Records, "So Together," released Sept. 26, isn't exactly igniting the charts yet, nor did its leadoff single, "Say No More," see much radio play. A second single, the balladic title cut, is planned for November, as is a fated appearance in the Macy's Thanksgiving day parade on the very same M&M's candy-coated float that carried 'N Sync two years ago and Christina Aguilera last year. So it could still happen. After all, their manager is Justin Timberlake's mom.
Meanwhile, boy poppers Take 5 find themselves in an even more tentative situation, grappling likewise with a failed first single and fading expectations (which will be on full display Wednesday, Nov. 22, at House of Blues). But in their case, contractual wranglings involving underage business dealings -- a frequent problem in this industry, solvable only by court approval or a public tantrum -- have forced a separation from Trans Con, thus creating a difficult situation for their host label, Elektra, who is still obligated to promote the album it has already sunk millions into. It's all part of growing up -- the kids are getting too big for their britches.
"It's really an impossible thing to plan for," says Jones. "When you're dealing with young pop acts, if they have a life of 10 years, its absolutely amazing. So when you sign on children -- all the Backstreet Boys except for Kevin were when they signed -- it's impossible to figure out what kind of adults they are going to turn into: thankful and modest or, unfortunately, the opposite."
Regardless of overexposure and rampant exploitation, the show continues to go on. But we could be witnessing the beginning of the end for prefabricated teen pop, as the public wises up to the diminishing standards of an overwrought premise. Maybe the kids aren't all right.
"What I've heard [Lou Pearlman] say," says Jones, "is that as long as God keeps making little girls, there will be room for young pop artists."