What’s cute, cuddly, and becoming an endangered species? Okay, the panda. But what about the teen idol? Last year, the multimillion-dollar heartthrob business went bust, failing to find new boy toys to replace such aging staples as Beverly Hills, 90210‘s recently married Luke Perry and the New Kids on the Block, or NKOTB, as they’re now known.
”I know there’s a dearth of teen idols,” says Sassy editor Jane Pratt. ”We’re scraping. You know that when you need Blossom‘s Joey Lawrence for the cover.” Teen Beat magazine—the longtime bellwether of such pop princes as Rick Springfield and the defunct Menudo—might agree: Its circulation has dropped from nearly 265,000 in 1990 to about 140,000 in ’92. It’s not just that teens have less to spend: According to Teen Beat editorial director Karen Williams, ”There is no phenomenally hot group right now.”
One problem is pop music itself. ”The rough edges of rap and hip-hop have made it very difficult for the squeaky-clean pop star to be effective,” says Benny Medina, senior VP of A&R at Warner Bros. And if a teen idol like Lawrence does manage to get a record made—his eponymous debut album sold less than half a million copies in 1992—it’s become harder to get it played. ”Radio always nurtured the teen stars,” explains Billboard associate publisher Michael Ellis, ”but now radio (wants) a bigger audience.”
The same goes for Hollywood. In the ’80s, endless brat-pack films—like The Breakfast Club—created players such as Demi Moore and Tom Cruise in the process. But the genre bit the dust with 1992’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which grossed a mere $15.2 million, despite the pinup appeal of its star, 90210‘s Perry. ”Casting Perry in Buffy,” says one Hollywood agent, ”made the movie something for boys not to see.”
”Going after just teenagers was discovered to limit a picture’s potential,” says producer Jack Brodsky (Rookie of the Year), who was at Twentieth Century Fox in the heyday of Revenge of the Nerds. ”It’s too narrow an audience.”
The networks learned this last year, when, in a knee-jerk reaction to the 90210 genre, they oversaturated the market with teen shows. ”Teens are a group that doesn’t watch much TV,” explains Betsy Frank, senior vice president at Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising. But one insider is optimistic that the absence of teen-targeted shows is just a trend: ”What would Teen Beat do without them?”
Until the idol drought is over, Teen Beat and its ilk might have to change. ”I don’t think the pinup magazines will fold,” says Pratt. ”They’ll just flail around, and maybe they’ll have to ask more in their interviews than ‘What’s your favorite color?’ Teens want someone with something to say, or with genuine talent.” And that, no matter how blind a bopper’s love may be, doesn’t quite describe a typical teen idol.