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Teen Steam: a youthquake is blowing the lid off Hollywood

Age ain’t nothin’ but small numbers

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They say hindsight is 20/20. But let’s be honest: How many of us can actually explain our teen celebrity obsessions, let alone own up to them? Andrew McCarthy? Lisa Whelchel? Rico freakin‘ Suave? What on earth were we thinking? It’s enough to send a collective shiver down the spinal columns of all Americans over 18.

Of course, it’s a lot more comforting to think that these onetime luminaries had entered a Faustian bargain with the devil — that they were working some mysterious teen-idol mojo — rather than fess up to our youthful indiscretions. But what did we know? We were teenagers. And it’s not like they all sucked. Those John Hughes films (The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, etc.) still hold up. Happy Days was a pretty decent show. And don’t tell us you haven’t occasionally cranked up Duran Duran’s ”Hungry Like the Wolf.”

It’s difficult to pinpoint with any certainty when those heady days of teen steam began to sputter out, but by the end of the ’80s, not only were idol pickin’s pretty slim, but a certain innocence had been lost: Menudo became Nirvana, Tiffany became Courtney Love, and the Coreys (Haim and Feldman — duh!) became punchlines. The angst-ridden, pessimistic, Prozac-ready anthems of grunge washed across the land like some sort of biblical anti-bubblegum plague, lasting as long as it would take for a bubbly trio of angelic poster boys to conjure MmmBop! in three-part harmony.

The good news for our adolescent successors is that teen-entertainment booms, like all cultural trends, are a cyclical business. Sooner or later, history will repeat itself: And, indeed, in the last few years, TV has become ground zero for a new batch of talented (and, coincidentally, extremely photogenic) young actors populating such youth-driven shows as Party of Five, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Moesha, 7th Heaven, Teen Angel, and Sabrina, the Teenage Witch.

Music — traditionally, the first medium to fire off the rounds of any new revolution — is following suit, with 15-year-old LeAnn Rimes recently occupying the No. 1 spot on the Billboard 200, and such teen-friendly acts as Aqua (they of the hit ”Barbie Girl”), the Spice Girls, Hanson, Fiona Apple, Backstreet Boys, and Jewel all packed into the Top 40.

Ditto at the box office, where, in the wake of Scream‘s $103 million haul, the high school slasher flick I Know What You Did Last Summer is in its third week at No. 1 with a $45 million box office gross so far. (Just for comparison, the 1989 teen ”hit” Heathers pulled in a paltry $1.1 million.) Scream 2 opens Dec. 12, and a Last Summer sequel begins shooting in March.

The easy answer for this new surge is demographics. According to the Census Bureau, there are 37 million 10- to 19-year-olds right now, and that number will soar to 42 million in the next decade. (Call it Baby Boomers: The Sequel.) And with this population explosion comes a hungry horde of consumers itching to spend what amounts to $82 billion per year in disposable income. As added proof of teen buying power, a recent study from the Motion Picture Association of America showed that 48 percent of kids 12 to 17 say they go to a movie at least once a month, compared with just 26 percent of people 18 and over. And last year, while those teen numbers were going up, the adult numbers decreased.

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