Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle America Circa 1999

By Christopher Gray

JUNE 14, 1999:  "Teenage girls now control the world's economy." -- SPIN, July 1999

"Sometimes you say you're not going to scream, but you do." -- Karen Lopez, 14, in Times Square to see 'N Sync on MTV's Total Request Live (The New York Times, December 28, 1998)

The scream has become deafening. Building steadily through the latter half of the Nineties, it may have reached fever pitch several weeks ago in Times Square when over 5,000 youths showed up to catch a glimpse of Kevin, Nick, A.J., Brian, and Howie on MTV's Backstreet Boys Live special. Later that week, those 5,000 -- plus hundreds of thousands more coast to coast -- helped the group's new Millennium album sell 1.13 million copies its first week of release, besting Garth Brooks' previous record by 50,000 copies. According to Billboard, unofficial estimates had Millennium selling over 500,000 copies on May 18 alone, the day of the album's release.

Such Star Wars-style numbers are only the latest example of the massive economic clout wielded by this country's teenagers in 1999. And because money is the engine that drives American culture, all the telltale signs suggest this juggernaut of adolescent spending power, and the corresponding pop-cultural reckoning, is only beginning. "This is the most significant consumer group in America since the baby boomers," John Flanagan of the Connecticut market research firm Blue Engine told The Dallas Morning News in March. (Middle child Generation X is as broke as ever.) According to Teen Research Unlimited, another teen-tracking marketing firm, teenagers spent approximately $148 billion in 1998, up from $122 billion in 1997. TRU expects the number of American teens, currently around 11% of the total population, to keep growing until at least 2010.

What are tomorrow's leaders spending all that economic clout on? What teenagers have always spent their allowances and after-school earnings on: music, movies, clothes, magazines, fast food, soft drinks, video games, hair and makeup products, and shoes. The stakes are so high currently that a savvy marketing campaign -- one that's "down" with youth -- can make a big difference on shareholders' balance sheets. Some companies like the Gap, Abercrombie & Fitch, and the WB shell out big bucks for marketing research like TRU's; others, including Levi Strauss, M&M/Mars, and DuPont, have eliminated the middlemen and begun hiring teens themselves (aptly titled "influencers") to tell them what's hip and what isn't. "It was good money just to sit around and discuss stuff," one influencer told The New York Times last month.

illustration by Jason Stout

In a nation as obsessed by youth as the United States, the opinions and tastes of the young have always carried weight disproportionate to their age (take Rugrats, for example), but lately that influence is mushrooming faster than ever. Of the Top 10 albums on Billboard's June 5 chart, only Jimmy Buffett's A Beach House on the Moon (#8) can be safely assumed to have reached its position without any help from the Dawson's Creek set. Twentysomethings (and maybe even baby boomers) probably helped TLC, the Phantom Menace soundtrack, Shania Twain, and Snoop Dogg attain Nos. #4, #5, #6, and #7, respectively, but none of those albums -- or the Ruff Ryders and Eightball & MJG at Nos. #9 and #10 -- would be doing as well without that under-18 push. And comfortably perched in the Top Three are the current Teen Trinity: the Backstreet Boys, Ricky Martin, and Britney Spears. 'N Sync, which ruled the interregnum between BSB albums, is down to #21, but has already sold out a summer tour and is recording a second album due by Christmas.

"In some ways, the essential dynamics of teenage fans have not changed since the days of the Beatles," wrote Peter Applebome in the same December Times article that quoted 'N Sync fan Lopez. "The screams partake of the same youthful mix of user-friendly music and rampaging early-adolescent hormones."

Indeed, the Backstreet Boys don't sell all those albums singing about low-income health insurance or the Chinese stealing U.S. nuclear secrets, nor have they begun taking musical cues from Pavement or Radiohead. And even though study after study insists teens are more sexually savvy than any previous generation, by and large what's in their headphones is still puppy-dog crushes, foolish promises, and unrequited love. "I don't care who you are, where you're from, what you did, as long as you love me" goes one hit BSB chorus, while another promises, "I'll never break your heart, I'll never make you cry, I'd rather die than live without you." Not to be outdone, 'N Sync has scored hits speculating, "God must have spent a little more time on you," declaring, "I lie awake, I drive myself crazy -- drive myself crazy thinking of you. Made a mistake when I let you go, baby. I drive myself crazy wanting you the way that I do," and finally affirming, "You're all I ever wanted. You're all I ever needed, so tell me what to do now when I want you back." Applebome notes that "there are comparable competing armies with Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync partisans like Beatles and Stones ones," but whether either group has a White Album or Let It Bleed in them remains to be seen.

And there's more out there than those two outfits, both of which sprang from the mind of Orlando promoter Lou Pearlman. If Usher, Dru Hill, or 112 don't freak you, then there's 98 Degrees avowing, "It's the hardest thing I've ever had to do -- to look you in the eye and tell you I don't love you," while two former New Kids on the Block, Joey McIntyre and Jordan Knight, attempt to Stay the Same and get their groove back. Super-suave Brit popster Robbie Williams, once a member of proto-boy-band Take That!, has made a sizable dent on U.S. shores with his debut album, The Ego Has Landed. Cute rockers like Matchbox 20's Rob Thomas and Sugar Ray's Mark McGrath continue to be a force to be reckoned with.

Folkies Edwin McCain and Shawn Mullins still know the quickest way to some girls' hearts is through earnest lyrics and acoustic guitar. And there's no discounting the heavy hold hip-hop has on the teen consciousness -- as if, like all good teens, all they really want to do is dance. For proof, look no further than the man with the #1 single in America, Mr. "Livin' La Vida Loca," Ricky Martin. The Latin stomp and surfy twang of the ex-Menudite's monster hit have, in addition to setting off a crush of pronouncements anointing Latino pop as the Next Big Thing, injected a little fun back into dance music, which was in grave danger of becoming all soulless house, hyper-commercialized Big Beat, and inscrutable jungle.

Across the gender moat, things look pretty much the same once you substitute clingy Capri pants for ultra-baggy Fubus. Britney Spears, a 17-year-old Louisianan, raised eyebrows earlier this year when ... Baby One More Time spent several weeks at # 1, and not just with her saucy schoolgirl video. Some people thought "hit me baby one more time" was a tad risque for a hook line to one of the most infectious singles in years, but Spears' album is now quadruple platinum, and in reality the song is no more about physical violence than Pat Benatar's "Hit Me With Your Best Shot." Her current hit, "Sometimes," highlights the ambiguity young girls are prone to feel over budding relationships, when "all I really want is to hold you tight, treat you right, be with you day and night." Lauryn Hill got millions of teens to pay for her Miseducation and its message of righteous-but-fallible empowerment.

In Brandy's recent "Have You Ever," she loves someone she can't have, and thus can't eat and can't sleep, but has a big hit to help ease the pain. Her duet with Monica, "The Boy Is Mine," was ubiquitous the entire latter half of 1998, even though neither one of them could tell (or would admit) they were both being played by this nameless Romeo. (In the interest of good Young Superstar Relations, the video hinted otherwise.) Monica followed "The Boy Is Mine" with a song about keeping those rampaging hormones in check, wherein she explained. "If I do, it just wouldn't be right. I don't get down on the first night." Sloe-eyed Mya, who first came to chart prominence on Pras and ODB's "Ghetto Superstar," has been a Top 10 regular via a couple of Silkk the Shocker duets and her own blissful "My First Night With You." 702, Destiny's Child, Divine, X-Cape, Wild Orchid, and Ir!ish lasses B*Witched are all handy for those into the group thing. And, capitalizing on her generation-spanning hit "Believe," one particularly savvy clothier is marketing hippie clothes to teens as "early Cher." What goes around comes around, especially in pop.

The biggest difference between today's teens and their parents and elder siblings (besides e-mail) isn't what they buy, or even necessarily what they listen to (though in the case of hip-hop it most assuredly is), it's simply the way they see the world. A big reason Ricky Martin, TLC, and the Backstreet Boys all enjoy such high chart positions and across-the-board radio success is that their fans are part of the most color-blind generation this country has yet produced. A TRU study found that 39% of those teenagers polled said their school had "many" students of a different race or ethnic group. Sixty-one percent of teens at those multi-ethnic schools said they had at least one close friend with a different racial or cultural background. "Importantly, the majority of teenagers actually influencing many of the broader teen-embraced trends are nonwhite," said TRU president Peter Zollo. "More and more, trends that are started by an influential group of teens are likely to be quickly adopted by the mainstream."

It would be nice (and not altogether incorrect) to view this new open-mindedness as a result of teens learning from the effects of America's racially scarred past. Realistically, it's most likely a natural result of our increasingly multi-ethnic society as, inevitably, antiquated social conventions are replaced by newer, more liberal ones. Whatever the cause, it sure works out great for advertisers. "As trends in fashion, music, dance, and design are often culturally or ethnically influenced, it is important for marketers to understand the lifestyles and attitudes of all types of teens," Zollo said.

Unlike earlier generations who came of age in leaner times, the spending power of 1999's teenagers has been considerably boosted by America's stampeding economy. The Morning News article cites U.S. Department of Labor statistics stating that almost half of this country's teens are employed in some fashion. "They've grown up in good times and have nothing but optimism about their future," TRU's Michael Wood told the Dallas paper. "The economy is good, unemployment is at an all-time low, job placement for them when they get out of college looks good and careers are wide open." Teens are also in the advantageous position of being able to spend what they make on what they want, most of them not yet saddled with mortgages, insurance, and college tuition. Little wonder, then, that cash-flaunting rappers like Jay-Z, Will Smith, and Puff Daddy continue to ring up big sales at mall cash registers nationwide, or that TLC -- only recently emerging from bankruptcy themselves -- had a giant hit this spring with "No Scrubs," which decries any man who "just sits on his broke ass."

A few words about sex. No generation has grown up in as sexually charged a cultural climate as today's. While sex is as pervasive as ever in the American pop music arena -- 112's "Anywhere" and Monifah's "Touch It" are two particularly explicit recent examples -- it's the visual media that have been most seduced by the bump and grind. Television is rife with sex, everywhere from Dawson's Creek and Ally McBeal to soap operas, daytime talk shows, and the CBS Evening News. Recent teen-targeted movies such as Slums of Beverly Hills, Cruel Intentions, and the forthcoming American Pie have come under fire for their casual treatment of teen sex and general licentiousness. As the past year's events have graphically illustrated, nothing feeds a media frenzy more than a little hanky-panky in high places. Throw in the constant come-ons offered by advertising, particularly on behalf of the fashion and cosmetics /beauty industries, and it's no wonder why the Supreme Court recently debated whether even preteens are capable of sexual harassment. Yes they are, saith the Court.

The truth is teenagers are holding up remarkably well in the face of such overwhelming sexual stimuli. A Centers for Disease Control study found 52% of 1997 poll respondents had never had sex, compared with 46% in 1991. By contrast, the number of teens having sex shot up to 57% in 1988 from 29% in 1970. In April of this year, the National Center for Health Statistics reported that the birth rate for girls ages 15-19 dropped 16% from 1991 to 1997. In reporting the results, the Times noted that, "Studies show young people are delaying sex until they are older, having sex less frequently, and using birth control more often and more responsibly." In other words, Monica isn't the only one who won't get down on the first night.

As teens exert more and more influence on mainstream culture, from the pop charts to the Supreme Court, the reaction by pundits and policymakers has mostly been a predictable mixture of finger-wagging, hand-wringing lamentations about eroding morality and increasing permissiveness, and flippant "They're just kids" dismissals. Corporations, media outlets, and advertisers, meanwhile, are chasing after teen dollars with an ever-increasing lack of subtlety or shame. In their rush to condemn, co-opt, and commodify, both sides miss the greater point. Far from having the answers, teenagers are still trying to figure out the questions. Mostly they want to have a good time. The bands and brands they display as pop-cultural talismans, the performers and personalities they poster on their walls, and the choices they make with their purchases, their behavior, and their lives, are all their portals of entry into America circa 1999.

It's a mistake to hold teens, and only teens, accountable for this world. They're not responsible for creating the world they're inheriting. They're only responsible for living in it, reacting to it, and hopefully, finding ways to improve it. The greatest challenge teens face today is getting society at large to see them as anything other than walking, talking ATMs (sort of like their parents). Certainly now, they probably have the cultural pop to do something about it. Or maybe they'll just blow all that dough at the Gap. Either way, those screams are only getting louder.

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