THE KIDS ARE UPRIGHT
A torrential squeal will hit the Southland next week, when the Jonas Brothers play in Irvine and Anaheim, and there’ll be much parental chatter about how this latest craze is affecting our kids. Adults love to fret about the chilling effect of Miley Cyrus’ bared shoulders or of Joe Jonas’ crucifix-adorned purity ring. But there’s also music to consider.
No matter how many backpacks they help Target sell or photo spreads they do in Vanity Fair, tween stars like the Jo Bros and Miley Cyrus (in and out of her Hannah Montana costume) have music at the center of their identities. These young stars tend to write (or at least co-write) their own material, and their hits contain some interesting lessons about both life and pop.
Today’s tween pop is tasty and nutritious and just a bit tart, like a protein-packed smoothie. Anyone over 12 will enjoy its flavor but find it not quite a whole meal. It’s a lot like rock, but not quite rock -- that old drop of poison, of boundary-challenging risk, is necessarily absent. The sounds of Radio Disney and Nickelodeon -- whose stars completely rule the Billboard Kid Audio charts -- are made to be tolerated by parents nervous about the messages pop music sends, especially in the wake of meltdowns by former teen stars like Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears.
No longer is teen pop based on the Lolita principle. Instead, it’s a tool for learning, transforming the individualism and irreverence of the rock era into good-girl-and-boy self-empowerment.
Spears sent scintillating mixed messages in songs like ". . . Baby One More Time”; Cyrus and the Jo Bros make things perfectly clear. Tween emotions are confusing. Tween pop acknowledges this, but it exhorts kids to believe in themselves anyway, and not to play games with anyone’s heart.
Miley/Hannah’s hit of last winter, “See You Again,” recounts how she “freaked out” in a favored boy’s presence but ends confidently: “I will redeem myself / My heart can rest ‘til then.” “S.O.S.” by the Jonas Brothers offers the other side of the conversation. These boys crave nothing more than honest talk and clear commitment: “Don’t wanna second guess,” Nick Jonas sings to his girl, who’s hiding behind coy text messages. “This is the bottom line.”
In both songs, feisty little riffs underscore the lyrics about standing up for yourself and respecting others.
All about rocking out
Nickelodeon’s stars are a bit more sophisticated. Miranda Cosgrove, the Carly of the sitcom “iCarly,” sings with the cute va-voom of Stockard Channing in “Grease” (or, for that matter, Ashley Tisdale in “High School Musical”). Nat and Alex Wolff of the wonderful Naked Brothers Band muse existentially in songs like “Body I Occupy,” sometimes even questioning adult authority. But never do they inappropriately feign adulthood.
Growing up is the subject of tween pop, and nobody wants to skip the process. While some songs acknowledge brewing hormonal desire -- the new Jo Bros single is called “Burning Up” -- none encourage kids to equate sex with power. Girls who tease and boys who are too possessive get the boot. “This is real, this is me, I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be now,” sings Demi Lovato in this summer’s smash “Camp Rock.”
A decade ago, boy bands like ‘NSync and girl-women like Spears projected adult sexuality even when expressing youthful emotions. Tween pop goes back one more incarnation, to Hanson and the Spice Girls, whose breakthrough hits sent forth positive vibes on waves of power-pop sunshine.
There’s a message here about music too. Tween pop is all about rocking out, even if “Burning Up” aspires toward blue-eyed soul (with a cameo rap, no less!). This is a major change from the Britney phase, when teen artists firmly embraced R&B; -- from the early Disney franchise, built around former “Cosby Show” star Raven-Symone. Tween pop is selling rock to a new generation and repackaging it for their parents.
Since hip-hop came to dominate the sound and feel of Top 40 pop, mainstream rock has gotten somewhat stuck, banished to various subcultures or reduced to a nostalgia trip. Tween pop, influenced by pop-punks like Fall Out Boy and Avril Lavigne, lightens up the basic rock sound without abandoning its classic elements.
With tween pop’s rise, mainstream rock goes even further toward becoming family fare -- a status already partly secured by the popular efforts of nonsectarian Christian rockers such as Daughtry and the defanging of transgressive elders like Gene Simmons of KISS.
No matter what the Jonas Brothers do next, they’re still easier to explain to your kid (or for your kid to explain to you) than Kurt Cobain.
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Song by song, the lessons (both moral and musical)
Put together your teen pop sampler using this cheat sheet featuring emblematic songs from the hottest acts on the scene, with notes on where they came from and what messages they impart to young listeners.
THE JONAS BROTHERS
Song: ‘Goodnight and Goodbye’
Sounds like: My Chemical Romance
Minus: The existential dread
Music lesson: Cabaret rock is cool.
Moral lesson: Selfish girls get dumped.
Song: ‘Just Friends’
Sounds like: Green Day
Minus: The snot
Music lesson: Emo is all about longing.
Moral lesson: Wait until you’re married.
Song: ‘Old Blue Jeans’
Sounds like: Joan Jett
Minus: The edge, plus a synthesizer
Music lesson: Heavy guitar can still be sweet.
Moral lesson: Don’t be fake.
Song: ‘7 Things’
Sounds like: Avril Lavigne blended with Faith Hill
Minus: Avril’s sullenness
Music lesson: Pop-punk has room for songbirds.
Moral lesson: Love is confusing.
MIRANDA COSGROVE/ iCARLY
Song: ‘Leave It All to Me’ (theme from iCarly)
Sounds like: “Grease”
Minus: The doo-wop
Music lesson: Show tunes are fun.
Moral lesson: Dreams can come true if you work for them.
Song: ‘Headphones On’
Sounds like: The Go-Go’s
Minus: The thrift-store messiness
Music lesson: Hard rock can be girly.
Moral lesson: It’s OK to have a bad day.
THE NAKED BROTHERS BAND
Song: ‘I Don’t Wanna Go to School’
Sounds like: “Crocodile Rock”
Minus: The campiness
Music lesson: Pianos rock.
Moral lesson: School is tough, but then there’s summer.
Sounds like: Hanson
Minus: The Jackson 5 fetish
Music lesson: Everybody needs an anthem (and a choir!).
Moral lesson: Stay optimistic.
‘CAMP ROCK'/ DEMI LOVATO
Song: ‘We Rock’
Sounds like: Those “American Idol” Ford commercials
Minus: David Cook’s growl
Music lesson: We rock!
Moral lesson: Find your own voice.
Song: ‘This Is Me’
Sounds like: U2
Minus: Bono, the Edge
Music lesson: New wave was great.
Moral lesson: Change the world by being yourself.
-- Ann Powers
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Kid rockers history
Ricky Nelson: Ozzie and Harriet’s younger son was the rock era’s first TV-bred idol. Key song: “Lonesome Town”
The Monkees: Concocted as a(n even more) teeny-bopper version of the Beatles, this quartet had its own zany charm. Key songs: “Daydream Believer,” “I’m a Believer”
David Cassidy: The 1970s heartthrob rode the bus with his fake family, the Partridges, and set the stage for his brother Shaun’s success a few years later. Key song: “I Think I Love You”
The Jackson 5: Motown’s family act had great moves, soulful songs and one troubled genius at the center: Michael. Key song: “ABC”
Donny Osmond (above): This puppy lover had the whitest teeth in showbiz. Key song: “Go Away Little Girl”
Andy Gibb: Younger brother to the Bee Gees, Gibb made disco perfect for high schoolers. Key song: “I Just Want to Be Your Everything”
Rick Springfield: “General Hospital’s” Dr. Noah Drake had one big hit but still has a thriving cult career. Key song: “Jessie’s Girl”
Wham!: England reasserted its reign over teen pop via the duo of George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley. Key song: “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go”
New Edition: This Boston-based group’s dance moves and harmonies are the root of all things boy-band. Key song: “Mr. Telephone Man”
New Kids on the Block (above): Put together by Maurice Starr, the producer who’d discovered New Edition, NKOTB wasn’t just that group’s vanilla cousin -- just ask the fans flocking to see them on this year’s reunion tour. Key song: “Step by Step”
Debbie Gibson: Along with Tiffany, Gibson embodied the pop version of the John Hughes-movie-style mall rat. Key song: “Only in My Dreams”
Kris Kross: This fashion-forward duo showed that rap could be a kiddie affair. Key song: “Jump”
Brandy (above): The prototypical fly ingenue revived girl-group wistfulness for a savvier generation. Key songs: “The Boy Is Mine” (with Monica), “Sittin’ Up in My Room”
Take That: Huge in Europe, hardly known here, Take That blessed the world with Brit-brat Robbie Williams. Key song: “Pray, Relight My Fire, Babe”
Spice Girls: This quintet transformed the energy of punk-rock feminism into an irresistible cheerleader routine. Key song: “Wannabe”
Hanson: The Jonas Brothers admit their debt to this bro-trio, which stood out for playing instruments. Key song: “MMMBop”
‘NSync/Backstreet Boys: Assembled almost simultaneously by creepy mogul Lou Pearlman, these groups brought the boy-band concept to its logical end. Key song (‘NSync): “It’s Gonna Be Me”; Key song (Backstreet Boys): “I Want It That Way”
Britney Spears: The ruling Lolita of the new millennium had a kitten voice and no qualms about exhibiting her pubescent charms; then she tried to grow up. Key song: “Toxic”
Avril Lavigne: This Canadian’s snotty-cute music teaches Disney Girls how to toughen up. Key song: “Complicated”
Raven-Symone/the Cheetah Girls: The Disney networks’ first star of the millennium was not a squeaky-clean rocker but a “Cosby Show” vet. Key song: “Fuego” (as part of the Cheetah Girls)
-- Ann Powers