Britney, Justin, and Freddie aren't getting any younger. But their fans are getting wiser. Where does bubblegum entertainment go from here?

By Josh WolkChris Willman and Ethan Alter
Updated June 08, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

”Sick and tired of hearing all these people talk about/What’s the deal with this pop life, and when is it gonna fade out?/The thing you got to realize, what we’re doing is not a trend/We got the gift of melody, we’re gonna bring it ’til the end.” — ”Pop,” cowritten by JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE

We thinks Justin doth protest too much. ‘N Sync, the pubertucus rex of the boy-band kingdom, no doubt mean their latest quest to top the charts as a defiant ”We’re here, our skin is clear, get used to it” battle cry, but there’s something startlingly insecure about this tune. Perhaps they subconsciously sense, as we do, that the current teen-pop movement is on the brink of going bye, bye, bye.

For the past five years, whether in music, movies, or TV, teenagers have been the darlings of the entertainment industry. With 1996’s ”Scream,” Dimension Films kicked off a collective bar mitzvah: Today, you are a marketing target! Yet no matter how all-encompassing and profitable this streak has been, we all know you can’t spell trend without e-n-d. Countless Britney wannabes and nine Freddie Prinze Jr. movies later, there are signs teens themselves are growing weary of bouncy beats and well-gelled young casts.

Maybe it’s the topsy-turvy economy: The giddy economic times of the late ’90s helped spur the love of boppy tunes and frothy films, much in the way that the early-’90s recession informed gloomy grunge. ”You gotta equate the boy bands to the Nasdaq,” says Warner Bros. Records A&R exec Jeff Blue, who recalls how teens impetuously reacted to new groups like adults did on hearing about a new tech stock. ”You [were] gonna buy it even though you [didn’t] know exactly what they do.”

Or maybe it’s some real-life growing pains. Many of the hottest teen stars are barely clinging to their early 20s, and it will only get harder for younger fans to muster a shriek for idols like Syncer Joey Fatone, 24, and 98[Degrees]’s Jeff Timmons, 28, whose female fans now include their baby daughters.

Now, put down your Jessica Simpson pen and 3LW stationery and hold that angry letter: We’re not saying teen entertainment is ready to join Tiffany and the Brat Pack in the pop-culture morgue. Teenagers are hardly fading away — quite the contrary, there will be 35 million 12- to 19-year-olds in 2010, compared with 31 million now, according to Teenage Research Unlimited. But the comparative crotchety adults in charge of producing records, TV, and movies believe the voice of this increasingly fickle generation has changed, and it will no longer cheer for the same formulas.

”The girls in my grade are still into boy bands. I just don’t understand why. How many times can you sing about love?” — JUSTIN McGANN, 13, WESTBOROUGH, MASS.

Glancing at the week’s charts — past the belly-shirt- and/or goatee-sporting groups such as Eden’s Crush, O-Town, Dream, and S Club 7 — it feels like business as usual on the teen-pop assembly line. The total SoundScan album sales for Aaron Carter’s debut CD are an impressive 1.9 million — better than Radiohead’s ”Kid A.” Yet these numbers fall short of the multimillion sellers racked up by Christina Aguilera and Co. just a year ago.