So when will this teen music thing finally be over?” It’s a question I’m asked at least once a week, usually when someone discovers I’m a music critic. Until recently, I’ve had no definitive answer, mumbling either ”Eventually, like all cyclical trends,” or ”It’s here to stay — get used to it.” But I now have a new response: ”The end of the teen boom? It’s already begun.”
Like glow sticks at an ‘N Sync show, all signs are in the air. For their next album, the Backstreet Boys are reportedly going to either write more songs or use their own band — as opposed to employing Swedish songwriter-programmer-hit factory Max Martin. Britney Spears’ latest album, Oops!…I Did It Again, includes her first attempt at composing, and Christina Aguilera has started bragging to the media that her next, much rowdier, really! record will feature her own songs. Last week, LFO made a similar vow, saying they’ll take more ”control” of their next, more rock-ish album. It’s not uncommon to hear one of these acts dismissing the unavoidable hit that made them famous, and then claiming they want more creative input in order to dispel the impression — completely unwarranted, of course — that they’re nothing more than puppets.
They’re free to grab hold of their destiny with their young, wrinkle-free hands, but good luck. The history of pop has shown repeatedly that most bubblegum sensations see their careers deflate as soon as they start thinking of themselves as fonts of self-expression who no longer need the — how shall we say it? — assistance of skilled producers and songwriters. I bow to no one in my love of and nostalgic affection for the Monkees, but as a recent VH1 TV movie and Behind the Music episode showed, their curtain began to close once they dispensed with music supervisor Don Kirshner and took the reins of their increasingly self-indulgent records (blissful exceptions like ”Daydream Believer” notwithstanding). In documentaries and his recent TV biopic, David Cassidy has repeatedly groused about how creatively stifled he was by those silly Partridge Family singles. He wanted to crank Hendrix riffs, damn it! What no one’s bothered to state is that his post-Partridge albums (featuring a number of his own songs) were so dull and void they made the very fine ”I’ll Meet You Halfway” seem like Beethoven’s Fifth.
One would think this pattern of overreaching would prove valuable, but those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it — or at least to dance the same doomed steps. Easily the worst track on Spears’ Oops! is one she coauthored, the slurpy ballad ”Dear Diary.” ‘N Sync’s Justin Timberlake co-penned a rare highlight on No Strings Attached (”I’ll Be Good for You”), but JC Chasez’s contributions are more sound effects than songs. Tellingly, none of ‘N Sync’s originals compare to their current ”It’s Gonna Be Me,” co-written by — yep — Max Martin. Song doctor 1, pop stars 0.
Before they watch their empires evaporate, today’s pop set should ponder the upsides of being a marionette. Tom Jones still has a career singing covers. And although onetime teen idol Frank Sinatra knew the value of a good tune, we can be thankful that his few attempts at songwriting were limited to changing the lyrics of Jim Croce’s ”Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” from ”baddest man in the whole damn town” to ”baddest cat…” Helpful homework for today’s approaching-20 teen stars would be to hunt down a copy of David Cassidy’s 1975 concept album The Higher They Climb. First they should study the theme: the rise and fall of a pop idol. Then they should listen to the record. Finally, they should grab their cell phones and call their managers — before it’s too late.