George Tobin is a Los Angeles record producer who has had Top 10 hits with Smokey Robinson and Kim Carnes, but he knew two years ago that he was going to have trouble getting a record company to take a chance on his new discovery: a singer from Norwalk named Tiffany Darwisch. The problem: She was just 14 years old.
The reaction, Tobin says, at company after company was: "You've got to be kidding." "Teen stars went out with Donny & Marie." "Come back when she grows up."
"It was very tough to convince anyone of her validity," Tobin recalled in a recent interview. "I was advised not to mention how old she was. Her age was considered a very big negative."
Today, few record executives would worry about signing a teen-ager. In fact, most record companies are looking for commercially appealing young performers. Teen pop stars are enjoying their biggest boom in popularity since the 1970s, when such bubble-gum pop heroes as the Osmonds, the Jackson 5, Shaun Cassidy and Leif Garrett rode the record charts.
Sensing that the market was ready again for teen-age stars, Tobin says he sought to turn Tiffany's age into an advantage:
"I was selling Tiffany by saying: 'Who is there for girls between the ages of 12 to 16 to buy?' Ask a typical girl in Encino or anywhere who her three favorite white female artists are and she's going to name Madonna and Cyndi Lauper and then probably go blank. Maybe she would also say Stevie Nicks--but Stevie Nicks is old enough to be Tiffany's mother, as is Cyndi Lauper."
Tobin finally got a nibble early last year from MCA Records, which came up with a novel way to introduce Tiffany--she uses just the first name--to her natural teen constituency. The label sent her on a three-month tour of shopping malls on the East and West coasts, where she sang to a prerecorded instrumental track. She played a dozen shows at each mall--to audiences filled with hundreds of other teen-age girls.
By the time the tour was over, her version of the old Tommy James & the Shondells hit "I Think We're Alone Now," was streaking up the charts, where it reached No. 1 earlier this month.
And Tiffany's not alone on pop's teen scene.
There's also Debbie Gibson, a 16-year-old from Long Island, who has landed back-to-back Top 10 singles, "Only in My Dreams" and "Shake Your Love." And Glenn Medeiros, a 17-year-old from Hawaii, scored a Top 20 hit earlier this year with the ballad "Never Gonna Change My Love for You." And, Shanice Wilson, a 14-year-old from Los Angeles, has a current Top 10 hit on the black music charts, "(Baby Tell Me) Can You Dance."
And, the ages keep getting younger: Capitol has signed 12-year-old pop/R&B; singer Tracie Spencer, a former semifinalist on the syndicated "Junior Star Search" TV show. Her first album is expected in February.
Also due early next year: The first album by Will & the Kill, a rock group headed by 17-year-old Will Sexton. He's the younger brother of Charlie Sexton, who at 17 had a Top 20 hit last year with "Beats So Lonely."
Hedy End, Sixteen magazine's editorial director, enthused: "I think it's exciting for the kids because they can identify a great deal more. It's real hard to be 13 and watch people like Mick Jagger up there, and try to relate to what his experience is. It's easier with somebody like Tiffany or Debbie Gibson."
So, what has happened since 1985 when everyone told Tobin he was wasting his time trying to market a teen singer?
Among the factors most often cited in an informal Times survey of managers, record executives and other industry insiders:
--The strength of video. John McClain, the A&M; Records senior vice president who signed and groomed the then teen-age Janet Jackson, noted that video favors "younger, more attractive, more energetic acts. . . . Now, the images are almost more important than the music. The look and the image are what's selling right now."
--The rise of the urban radio format exemplified by local powerhouse KPWR-FM. Eddie Lambert, creative director of Largo Music, noted that the ethnic-flavored, dance-oriented urban format--which specializes in such acts as Expose and Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam--is more open to young acts than most other formats.
--The popularity of rap music. Wayne Edwards, Capitol Records' vice president in charge of black music artist development, noted: "For a while, there was a feeling that the young, teen-age market was a little kiddie market that wouldn't spend money. I think the success of such rap acts as Kool Moe Dee, L. L. Cool J and the Beastie Boys has shown record companies that these kids will spend money if it's something that they really want."
--The need to widen the record-buying audience. Larry Solters, an MCA Records senior vice president, said record companies are seeking to expand the traditional--and rather narrow--record-buying demographic. He likened the teen boom to the simultaneous growth--at the other end of the spectrum--of yuppie-oriented New Age music.
--The influence of Madonna and Janet Jackson. Doug Breitbart, who manages Debbie Gibson, noted: "Madonna has brought back a really strong, melodic component to pop music. She has a very youth-oriented, up, bubbly, fun sound." Added Maggie Murphy, managing editor of Teen Beat: "Janet Jackson may have started this more than anyone else. There's a very young appeal to her. She's even got the baby face. She's a beautiful girl, but she's got these little chubby cheeks."
There's a major difference between the teen hits of the early '70s and today. Whereas such records as the DeFranco Family's "Heartbeat . . . It's a Lovebeat" and Donny Osmond's "Sweet & Innocent" were definitively bubble gum, the current hits are so similar to the main pop market that a casual radio listener might not even pick up on the fact that they were recorded by teens.
Gibson's songs, for instance, are right in Madonna's dance-oriented pop style, and Wilson's record has the sassy sound of Janet Jackson's hits. Medeiros' single was actually a remake of an old George Benson recording.
"The music is more sophisticated (today) because the kids are more sophisticated," said Hedy End. "They're more likely to respond to music that's not 'Yummy Yummy Yummy (I've Got Love in My Tummy).' "
MCA's Larry Solters believes there is also more sophistication in the marketing of modern teen stars. He still winces at the crudeness of the marketing formula that was applied again and again during the bubble-gum era.
"In the past, you'd take a kid and put them on TV and in the fan magazines, and then give them a hit song and they'd make a record with a lot of echo and everything else," Solters said. "There was really no talent backing it up. It was just a way of promoting a TV show or a good-looking face."
Teen Beat's Maggie Murphy agreed: "There's an onus on people who are really popular with a teen audience. Rick Springfield has had a lot of trouble overcoming that. To some, being a teen singing idol means you're manufactured; that you have no substance and will have no staying power."
That may explain why few of the current teen acts were pushed through the teen publications.
Breitbart said he never even considered establishing Gibson through the teen magazines. "It's something we couldn't afford to do," he said. "It's a major stigma, and I hadn't spent four years working with Debbie, and she hadn't invested four years in hard training to get discarded as a teen act. Debbie had to compete in the adult form and arena--though on her terms and as a teen-ager."
"Because radio's prime market is 18 to 35. You can't put out an artist as a teen artist and market and package her that way and have pop radio for very long."
There's one other noteworthy difference between the teen stars of the early '70s and today. Though teen idols in the past have almost invariably been male, today's top two teen hit makers--Tiffany and Gibson--are both female.
But some things never change. End noted that Sixteen has received a far greater outpouring of fan mail about Medeiros.
What's the future for the teen pop phenomenon?
Now that the door has been broken down, most expect more teen acts to emerge.
"Record companies are waking up to the fact that they can sell a serious amount of records," said Eddie Lambert. "It took one or two to get going for the rest of the business to do its usual follow-the-leader routine."
End pointed out another reason that this could be an increasingly important factor in coming years--demographics.
"These (fans of Tiffany, Gibson and the other teen stars) are obviously the children of some older baby boomers, but I think you're going to get the biggest blip in another eight years or so because so many people are having babies now," End said.
But will this wave of teen stars endure? Teen idols from Fabian to Bobby Sherman are notorious for having 18 months in the sun and then being cast aside. But because today's teen stars try to avoid the bubble-gum stereotypes in their music, it's possible that they won't wear out their welcomes as fast, and that at least some of them will have career longevity.
Of the new crop, Gibson is the one most often cited as having the potential for a long-term career. One reason: She had the greatest involvement in shaping her music. She wrote every song on her album, co-arranged most of them and produced or co-produced four.
Ron DeBlasio, who manages the rock group X and R&B; singer Barry White, among others, noted: "A lot of the new breed definitely have strong voices and strong presences. They have much more competitive voices--they can stay in the mainstream. I think you can look to them to be around."