December 5, 2004

The Decline and Fall of the American Teenybopper:

For about a quarter of a century in the middle of the last century, adolescent girls had a superb sense for recognizing the next big thing in pop musical greatness, going crazy over Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Michael Jackson long before any other demographic segments did . For example, back in 1944 when my late mother-in-law was 14, she put on her bobby-sox and took the El down to the Chicago Loop at 9am to see Sinatra sing for 15 minutes. Sinatra was so popular with bobby-soxers then that he did something like eleven shows a day.

Then, something happened and teenyboppers stopped being able to sense greatness: they were into Bobby Sherman, the Bay City Rollers, and the Backstreet Boys. I think there were several causes:

First, teenyboppers' judgment was at its best during stylistic innovations such as the invention of rock and roll in the mid-Fifties and the British Invasion in the mid-Sixties. In contrast, there has been little stylistic innovation since the second half of the 1970s, which saw the popularization of disco, rap, punk, and the various "new wave" styles. My son listens to LA's "New Rock" station KROQ, but just about everything they play could have been created in 1982.

Second, the way you become a legend with the people who write about popular music -- who are, overwhelmingly, adult males -- is by making music for adult males. Thus, Sinatra took control of his music-making in 1953 and ascended to a new level of sophistication, as did the Beatles in 1965-1967, and the Stones, too, lagging, as always, a little behind the Beatles. As an artist, Presley's weakness was the he was just too nice a guy, too polite and compliant, and never took control of his own artistry, allowing himself to be pushed around by Col. Parker and other mediocrities, although his brief 1968 comeback, which produced "Suspicious Minds" and "Burnin' Love" indicates what he was capable of.

Bob Dylan, however, showed that you could bypass the teeny-bopper stage of your career and go right for the critics.

Third, various impresarios discovered that rather than wait around for some raw genius to strike sparks with teenyboppers, you could manufacture bands that would push young girls' buttons in a Pavlovian fashion.

Fourth, as the search intensified for male singers who could function as unthreatening "practice boyfriends" for young girls, regular guys like Sinatra, who was in his mid-20s when the teeny-boppers discovered him and was definitely not the ideal "practice boyfriend," were shunted aside for more specialized types. What impresarios look for in teenybopper idols are males who seem younger than they actually are, but they are less likely to grow up to appeal to adult males.

A reader writes:

I dunno bout your theory but I have my own observations. Somewhere in the 70s there started increased specialization. Whereas in the past both boys and girls listened to the same bands. Like in the 80s you had hair bands that strongly appealed to guys but not so much girls. And this trend only got stronger culminating with Nirvana. Which is ironic because Kurt Cobain hated the people who loved his music the most, that is, testosterone addled teen males. But also rap, doesn't appeal much to girls, but a lot of guys love it.

I think it would be impossible to have a super-act like the Beatles today. The market is segmented too much to have such a band dominate. Is this good or bad? I dunno, it just is.

Right. A band like The Clash, which has the #8 album on Rolling Stone magazine's Top 500 albums of all time, with London Calling, has a very specific market niche -- high IQ males interested in politics as well as music, which pretty well defines rock critics. But it's hard to get girls interested in The Clash. The gender divisions have only gotten deeper since then. For example, back in 1982 KROQ played lots of girl groups, like The Go-Gos, including some goofy novelty hits, like Toni Basil's cheerleader chant "Hey, Mickey," but today, even though, the general style of the music has barely changed, the only girl group on the regular rotation is No Doubt, and the mix is aimed overwhelmingly at boys.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

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