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The Boston Phoenix Bubble-Gum Nation

We examine America's teens and find out they're not as bad as we'd feared

By Jason Gay

APRIL 26, 1999:  They're here. They arrive to a backbeat of Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys, their bodies draped in Abercrombie & Fitch tops and Gap cargo khakis. They pierce, they page, they e-mail, they hang, they chill -- they floss. They worship gods with names like Leonardo, Claire, Cartman, and Jay-Z.

They like stuff you don't understand: 'N Sync, 10 Things I Hate About You, Teen People, and FUBU.

They like stuff you do understand: rock and roll and, to a lesser extent, sex and drugs.

They are younger than you, but in some ways they are older than you. They have come of age in the era of AIDS. They are more likely to have a job than you were at their age. They are more likely to have been raised in a single-parent home.

They have more money than you did, too.

"They," of course, are American teenagers. Right now, the nation is experiencing its biggest youth movement since the mid-1970s, the tail end of the baby boom. The country's population of teenagers -- the "echo boomers" -- is expected to jump nearly 10 percent over the next decade, a growth rate more than twice that of the rest of the population. By 2010, it is predicted, there will be more than 35 million Americans between the ages of 13 and 19, the most in the country's history.

This teen boom has been long awaited -- and, to a large extent, long feared. Just a few years ago, demographers, social scientists, and criminologists worried that the rising number of adolescents would result in increased crime and mayhem. The theory was simple: since teenagers have historically committed more crimes than the rest of us, more teenagers would mean more trouble. Similar concerns were raised about teenage drug use and sexual activity. Parents fretted about crowded classrooms, shortened attention spans, and decaying educational standards.

In short, people were worried.

But a funny thing happened on the way to juvenile hall. Despite isolated events such as Tuesday's shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, early readings of national crime statistics suggest that the doomsayers were wrong; the much-ballyhooed adolescent crime campaign of the late 1990s hasn't materialized. Likewise, teen drug use hasn't skyrocketed; sexual activity, too, is down. Surveys also show that today's teens are better educated and less apathetic than they were expected to be.

The kids, it seems, are all right. And while the rest of us try to make sense of Eminem, body glitter, and MTV's The Todd Green Show, America's next great youth boom plunges forward, platform sneakers first. The country's culture is changing fast, so don't get left behind. It's the first day of high school, and you're already late for class.

It's been more than a decade since teenagers held such a firm grip on American pop culture. In the late '80s and early '90s, the recession-bleary nation embraced its older, twentysomething slackers, a group whose overeducated pessimism was embodied in grunge anthems such as Nirvana's Smells like Teen Spirit and domesticity-mocking satires such as The Simpsons. By mid-decade, economic recovery propelled the boomerish Seinfeld-Pottery Barn set, a neo-Me Generation in which gadgetry, mutual funds, and personal-grooming products became the essential tokens of American assimilation.

Now, it's the teens' turn. Not since Molly Ringwald gave up her underpants to Anthony Michael Hall in 1984's Sixteen Candles has the country's pop culture been so thoroughly attuned to the tastes of its under-21 representatives. Teen culture is nearly impossible to avoid these days. Barely a week goes by without another new coming-of-age movie: She's All That, Varsity Blues, Cruel Intentions, Go. Television's hottest new network, the WB, has boosted its profile with teenfare like the sex soap Dawson's Creek and the mock-horror Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And the top song of 1999 thus far is " . . . Baby One More Time," a mildly risqué disco anthem by Britney Spears, a 17-year-old bubble-gum chanteuse from Louisiana who looks less like a pop diva than a junior-varsity cheerleader with a part-time job at an Orange Julius.

"You can't help but notice the cycles," says Grace Palladino, a professor of history at the University of Maryland-College Park and the author of Teenagers: An American History.

Much of this is about numbers, of course. There are now enough screaming teenage girls in America to support at least five Top 20 all-male singing groups: the Backstreet Boys, 'N Sync, Boyzone, 98 Degrees, and 5ive. America's booming teen population is why Dawson's Creek can run up against Fox's 90210 without each program reducing the other to prime-time rubble. It's why the recent skein of coming-of-age flicks is expected to continue well into the next century.

It helps that all these kids also have money. More than anything else, Teen Nation is about the Benjamins. According to Teenage Research Unlimited, which tracks teen buying habits for marketers, the nation's teens spent more than $141 billion last year -- a jump of more than 60 percent from 1993. And many kids earn this money themselves: a Rand Youth Poll found that teenage girls age 16 to 19 made $103.20 per week in 1997; boys 16 to 19 earned $94.50 per week. Girls age 13 to 15 earned $50.90 per week; boys in that age group earned $42.95. (It's an interesting twist on the adult world, where males typically make more than females. "Babysitting is becoming a real growth industry," consumer analyst Ira Matathia joked to Advertising Age in February.)

Confronted with this spending power, it makes sense for the rest of America to go teen, too. The nation's aesthetic sense is skewing young: witness yuppies hoarding cargo pants from the Gap, the Matchbox-like VW Beetle, and Apple's candy-colored iMac, which looks like the kind of computer you'd find in Barbie's dream house. Teen spirit is evident, too, in adult trends such as online stock trading -- a savvy merger of Wall Street, the info superhighway, and Space Invaders. (A current advertisement for an online brokerage firm features a teenage investor in the suburbs with his own personal helicopter.) Even teenage lingo has infiltrated adult discourse; not too long ago, a Boston Globe editorial used the term "dissed" in connection with Mo Vaughn's exile from the Red Sox.

Teen power is at the root of NBC's decision to lure the WB network's president, Garth Ancier, to helm its entertainment division. NBC became the nation's most popular network this decade by catering to twenty- and thirtysomethings; now, it's going after the kids. And on-the-go teens have influenced leading food manufacturers to invest heavily in quickie microwaveable meals. "As the children of baby boomers mature, the growing teenage population may be leading the way in the home-warming, grab-gobble-and-go trend," the New York Times' Molly O'Neill noted in a story last year. In the same piece, a national supermarket researcher predicted that by next year, sales of precooked meals could overtake sales of ingredients for actual home-cooked meals.

The American fascination with teen culture began in earnest during the 1920s, when social critics, noting the rise of youth gangs, began lamenting the decline of parenting. The proliferation of high schools in the 1930s and '40s gave young people a parentless arena to create their own subculture; recognizing this, Hollywood showcased squeaky-teen matinee idols such as Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. Later, the diversion of many adult males into World War II heightened fears about teenage rebelliousness, and pop culture became fixated on juvenile delinquency -- a McCarthyesque fear celebrated in pulp novels and cheapo films like Reform School Girl, Mad at the World ("The true story of trigger-happy teenage hoodlums living in today's new waterfront of crime!"), and most notably, Rebel Without a Cause.

Other teen booms followed: surf culture, Beatlemania, flower power, and the acid-rock days of the early 1970s. There were smaller outbursts of teen culture, too, such as the mid-1980s, an era remembered for the comforting suburban fantasies of director John Hughes (Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink). And no one around here can forget the late 1980s/early '90s reign of the New Kids on the Block, a shrewdly managed quintet of teenagers from Dorchester who won the hearts of every mall chick from Swansea to Santa Cruz, and briefly became the country's most popular pop act.

Today, it's easy to look at the Backstreet Boys or 'N Sync and suffer from New Kids flashbacks. Teen pop culture is wildly cyclical. Just as Leonardo DiCaprio equals Rob Lowe equals James Dean, Britney Spears equals Debbie Gibson equals Connie Francis. Marilyn Manson is Ozzy Osbourne; Ozzy, of course, was Alice Cooper. Even the teen-entertainment clichés stay the same: protective stage parents, meddlesome managers, creepy Svengalis, and 15-minute flameouts. (Nominations are already being taken for the echo boom's Anthony Michael Hall.)

To be sure, there are differences between today's teen culture and earlier booms. The current crop of teen entertainment is undeniably more confrontational and less inhibited than yesterday's fare, especially when it comes to sex. Just a few years ago, it was a big deal when Brenda (Shannen Doherty) lost her virginity to Dylan (Luke Perry) on 90210; by contrast, the average Dawson's Creek episode is an all-out boinkfest. Sarah Michelle Gellar's most memorable line in Cruel Intentions is "I want to fuck!" And it's hard to imagine '80s Tinkerbell Tiffany getting away with some of the lyrics Britney Spears utters in " . . . Baby One More Time":

Give me a sign
Hit me baby, one more time

I know, I know: we can all sit around and try to deconstruct what she means by "hit." But few would disagree that today's teen pop culture is strikingly more adult-oriented than previous generations'; from music to television to film, it hardly depicts kids as young innocents. Last week, in fact, the "news" broke that Spears had reportedly turned in her pubescent chest for a very adult pair of implants. Though teen culture is certainly cyclical, grad-student/hipster arguments -- In its time, Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti" was just as scandalous as Jay-Z's "Money, Cash, Hos" -- are dubious.

The portrayal of teens in pop culture conflicts, however, with what's actually happening in the adolescent populace. Surveys of actual (read: not Hollywood) teens show that they're not all a bunch of hardened hedonists. Take away the computers, videos, and other technological changes, and coming-of-age rituals and crises have stayed fairly constant over the past several generations. There's sex, naturally. There's the desire to fit in, and the quest for popularity. There's substance abuse, parental conflict, and annoying siblings. There are lame first jobs, bad first kisses, and, above all, high school. Maybe that's why it's so easy for teenagers to take over the culture. Nearly everyone remembers the importance of being 16 years old.

But as long as there are adults, there is always going to be some built-in antipathy toward teenagers. There are always things about teens that adults aren't going to get -- whether it's hot rods, bell bottoms, or nipple rings.

Teenagers have historically been feared by segments of the adult population. And the current group of teens may have been feared more than any other. If you had listened to some of the rhetoric steaming out of the country's political and law-enforcement establishment as late as 1997, you'd have thought the coming teenage boom was going to result in some kind of adolescent apocalypse -- something like Dead Poets Society meets Escape from New York.

"Unless something is done soon, some of today's newborns will become tomorrow's superpredators -- merciless criminals capable of committing the most vicious of acts for the most trivial of reasons," Bob Dole said in a 1996 speech during his presidential campaign.

But we're already knee-deep in the teenage boom, and the crime wave hasn't materialized. In fact, teenage crime is significantly down in almost every category. Nationally, the rate of murders committed by juveniles is down 50 percent from the early '90s. The rate for other crimes has fallen too -- robbery, for instance, has dropped nearly 20 percent. Here in Boston, notes criminologist Jack Levin, there were three murders by juveniles last year -- down from 34 in 1990.

"I think we better reconsider the superpredator theory, because it just didn't work," says Levin, the director of Northeastern University's Brudnick Center on Violence. "The prophets of gloom and doom have been proven wrong."

Even more surprising, teenage drug use is declining. Last year's Monitoring the Future study -- a major annual survey of 50,000 students in the 8th, 10th, and 12th grades conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor -- showed drops in illicit-drug use, cigarette smoking, and alcohol consumption. Even marijuana smoking, which had jumped considerably in the early 1990s, appears to be leveling off.

"The teenage population is becoming less criminal," says Mike A. Males, a sociology instructor at the University of California at Irvine and the author of Framing Youth: Ten Myths About the New Generation (Common Courage Press).

Indeed, if we were to come up with a composite of American teens based on recent survey data, it might look something like this:

Sixteen-year-old girl: Attends school. Has a part-time job. Believes in God. Doesn't have an eating disorder. A virgin. Still, thinks distributing condoms in schools is a good idea. Computer proficient. Cares about the environment. Uses alcohol occasionally. Tried pot a few times. No hard-drug experience. Thinks homosexuality is okay. Does volunteer work.

Sixteen-year-old boy: Attends school. Works part-time. Believes in God. Not a virgin, but many of his friends are. Thinks condoms in school are a good idea. Computer proficient. Believes in affirmative action. Does volunteer work. Not suicidal. No criminal history. Uses alcohol occasionally. No hard-drug experience. Has positive self-image. Thinks corporations aren't concerned enough about the environment.

Not bad, right? Promising signs are everywhere. Consider the National Center for Health Studies report, which found the teen birth rate had dropped nearly 21 percent between 1991 and 1996. Or how about last year's 4-H/Honda survey, which reported that 77 percent of American teens age 13 to 18 are concerned about the prospect of our doing permanent damage to the earth's air and water. A poll conducted last year by the New York Times and CBS News found that most adolescents (gosh) like their parents, (yeesh) abstain from sex, and (good grief) don't believe violence in schools is a big problem.

"There seems to be an attitudinal improvement in kids," says Males. "Today's generation of kids isn't so much oriented to social protest as kids were in the '60s, but they are more [oriented] to community and volunteer work. It's amazing."

William Strauss, the co-author with Neil Howe of the "Generations" series, which includes The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy (Broadway Books), believes that, if anything, today's teenagers (whom he refers to as the "Millennial" generation) have more in common with their World War I- and World War II-era predecessors than with more-recent generations. Strauss says that the behavior of today's teens represents a correction of the adolescent excesses of the 1960s and '70s. "To the extent that [today's teens] see things that they want to fix, it's boomer things they want to fix," says Strauss. "They are the anti-boomers, just as the boomers were the anti-GIs."

Some suggest that these trends reflect a growing conservative and materialistic streak in today's adolescents. Critics point to surveys like last year's Roper Youth Report, in which 55 percent of teens said that being rich was their number-one aspiration. (Forty-four percent said they'd like to be smarter.) Others interpret the decline in sexual activity as a rebirth of 1950s morals; indeed, the Times/CBS poll found that almost half of all teens consider sex before marriage "always wrong."

Even if they are alarmingly conservative to some eyes, though, there would seem to be little basis for panic about today's kids. Still, because most teens don't vote, and therefore lack political clout, the nation's political and law-enforcement establishment continues to demonize them. Statistics about declines in crime and drug use are rarely mentioned, except to justify pleas for more funding. More often, aberrant events -- schoolyard shootings or a teen drug overdose -- are inflamed to advance get-tough juvenile sentencing, anti-drug public-service campaigns, and even the death penalty for some young criminals.

Males calls this "demographic scapegoating," and he says it flies in the face of what today's teens are really like. "There's just a denial that things are good," he says.

Everything isn't perfect, of course. Many American teens still have problems with self-esteem, substance abuse, broken homes, and eating disorders. Though the crime rate is down, there will undoubtedly be future outbreaks of juvenile violence. And surveys continue to show that the poverty rate for American teenagers is on the rise.

Likewise, it's critical to recognize that teenagers, by their nature, will always swim somewhat upstream from the rest of us. Rebelliousness, after all, is the petrol of adolescence; it ignites young people to rail against their elders, and it frightens the establishment. Whether it's Marlon Brando's motorcycle in The Wild Ones, Elvis grinding his hips, or Madonna's "Like a Virgin," the elements of American teenage culture that most powerfully attract kids simultaneously repel adults.

What's changing is the nature of the rebellion. It's no longer a simple question of appearance; walk into a high school in Boston or Anchorage, and you'll find that kids dress pretty much the same way. Even kids with nose rings and pink hair don't frighten anyone anymore. They just sell Mountain Dew.

The real American youth rebellion is happening at the fringes, away from the glare of Hollywood and MTV. As it expands, the country's teen population is becoming more racially diverse (read: less white). Technology is changing the teenage landscape, too. In a 500-channel/Internet/MP3 universe, adolescent culture will grow more diffuse. Individuality will rise, and teens will be less likely to embrace all the same icons and commodities. Shared moments -- the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, the premiere of a Michael Jackson music video, the Dawson's Creek season finale -- will become rarer.

But for now, America's adolescents are still capable of exerting broad rule over the culture. Once again, we are Teenage Nation. We are living in a free-spending era of bubble gum, big beats, and baggy pants.

Get used to it.

Transmission from Teenage Nation

Three guys, three girls, and a pizza place

THE SETTING: Bertucci's in Brookline Village.

THE TIME: A Wednesday afternoon in late March.

THE PANEL: Brookline High School seniors Patricia Singleton, 18; and Shawn Bissette, Lucas Leto, Julie Shama, Monica Ballin, and Charlie Levine, all 17.

THE TAB: $63.79

THE TOPIC: Teenagerhood.

ON TEEN MOVIES/TV: Only a few of the gathered panelists have seen the recent spate of teen movies, including Cruel Intentions, She's All That, and Varsity Blues, but almost all agree that people their age are chronically misrepresented in the movies. The same goes for television shows: Dawson's Creek, Party of Five, Felicity, and the like. "I can't think of one TV show that's even close to reality," says Charlie. Shawn disagrees, arguing that the melodrama of these teen-oriented programs reminds him of his peers: "I think all teenagers, no matter who you are, go through a period of life where everything feels like a soap opera." The girls are less critical. Patricia admits she digs Felicity. Julie (a Phoenix intern) liked She's All That, a remake of Shaw's Pygmalion. "That's every girl's dream, to be made over and be taken to the prom by the hottest guy," she says. The one movie mostly everyone liked was Kids, Larry Clark's in-your-face 1995 portrait of Manhattan teens. "That movie was right on," says Lucas. "I've never seen a movie like that."

ON MONEY: Nobody here has much of it, and all of them want more of it. Each panelist has a part-time job of some sort. (Patricia works upstairs at the New England Soup Factory.) Everyone says they'd make their teenage kids go to work, too. "If you're working, that's how you know the value of a dollar," says Shawn, who works at HMV Records. The most money they've ever dropped? Charlie's spent more than $1000 on his turntable/DJ setup. Shawn put a couple thousand into a European trip. And Julie says she's spent nearly a grand on body adornments: 13 piercings in total, and four tattoos.

ON CLIQUES: Right now, the subjects say, Brookline High is subdivided into a variety of cliques, including the Abercrombie & Fitches, the Ravers, the Goths, the Homies, and the Vegan Warriors. The Abercrombie & Fitches, it seems, are the 1999 version of preppy jocks, with polo shirts, chiseled abs, and flash cars cranking Puff Daddy. The Homies are the white hip-hoppers with the giant pants. But it's Brookline's budding Vegan Warriors -- hardcore-music fans who forsake animal products -- who fascinate these panelists the most. "They asked us to call Macy's and tell them we're not going to shop there until they stop selling fur," says Julie.

ON BEING TRENDY: Despite what today's teen marketers think, trendiness is anathema to the panelists. In short, if everyone's got it, they don't want it. There are exceptions, of course. "Cargo pants," says Lucas. "That was one mainstream thing I followed. I couldn't avoid it."

ON MALE-FEMALE RELATIONS: Despite gains elsewhere in the culture, respect between the sexes is in short supply among teenagers, the panelists agree. Too much is made of who does the deed and who doesn't -- and, of course, the standards are different for young men than they are for women. The panelists don't hesitate to point a finger at pop culture, in particular misogynistic hip-hop artists. "I think if all you listen to is rappers [disrespecting women], it affects your head," says Lucas.

ON SEX: Yeah, teens are gettin' some. And though the panelists chuckle at the notion that virginity is fashionable -- "I don't think there will be a day when virginity is a big thing for guys," says Shawn -- they agree that abstinence may not carry the stigma it once did. Julie is unabashed about saying she's a virgin. "I don't want to follow after [students] who go on vacation and have sex with guys they'll never see again," she says. Safe sex is a consideration -- everyone agrees that AIDS, other sexually transmitted diseases, and pregnancy are concerns -- but few are 100 percent careful. "I think any sexually active person can say they've had some scary moments," says one panelist.

ON DRUGS: Anything you want, you can get, the panel agrees. But certain drugs are more common than others. Pot's everywhere. "There are people who smoke [pot] for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and between snacks," says Monica. "It's a fact of life for them, just like brushing their teeth." Ecstasy is also common, the Brookline students say. But harder drugs, like cocaine and heroin, are less prevalent -- in fact, the panelists say they've never seen either. And, of course, alcohol is the real drug of choice. "I bet 75 percent of Brookline High students will be around alcohol this weekend," says Shawn.

ON GOD: Most believe in him (or her). All the panelists acknowledged some form of personal spirituality, and several go regularly to church or temple. Charlie says he dropped out of Hebrew school this year after going since the third grade. "I connect to things more as a human being than as a Jew [right now]," Charlie says, but adds that he could see himself revisiting his faith in later years. Julie says she's looking for alternatives: "I don't believe in God," she says. "I believe in angels. My mother got me into believing in them."

ON PARENTING: Believe it or not, the group generally agrees that the tougher parents are, the better their kids turn out. "The more personal freedom you have, the less wholesome a lifestyle you're probably living," says Charlie. Several of the panelists came from single-parent homes and say the Beaver Cleaver ideal of the nuclear family is a mystery to them. "I can't imagine living with two parents," says Shawn, who lives with his mother and brother. "I can't imagine having a dad in the house."

ON POLITICS: Clinton's gross, the group agrees, but Ken Starr was grosser. "Such a waste of energy," says Monica. Shawn says he was embarrassed to be an American when he was in Europe last summer. Lucas is disgusted with politics in general. "I don't like Democrats, I don't like Republicans," he says. "They're the same thing." Asked to identify a political cause or group they do like, the teens are momentarily stumped. Then Monica pipes up again. "The Vegan Warriors!" she exclaims.

Jason Gay can be reached at jgay@phx.com.

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