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Backstreet Boys, the Moffatts, and the teen-idol craze

By Gary Susman

JUNE 21, 1999:  There's not much out there for you to listen to these days unless you're a young girl between the age when boys stop having cooties and the age when the college-admissions envelopes arrive. Such girls are currently in charge of the pop-culture universe. They're the ones who made Titanic the biggest movie of all time, put the WB network on the TV map, and made possible the current ascendancy of bubblegum boy bands.

To be sure, pubescent girls have had such power for at least 60 years, when the teen pop-idol industry began in earnest with all those "bobbysoxers" swooning and screaming over Frank Sinatra, who not only invented the teen-idol archetype -- sweetly crooning, handsome, and just androgynous enough not to be too menacingly masculine -- but first forced mass-marketers in every industry to recognize teenagers as a discrete demographic with tastes separate from those of their parents and older siblings. The short shelf life of most teen idols has meant that the tendency toward clean, keen teen pop has waxed and waned many times over the decades. Since 1997, however, when the supposed Next Big Thing (electronica) was upstaged by groups like Backstreet Boys (BSBs), Spice Girls, and Hanson who seemed to come (as Hanson's album title put it) from the middle of nowhere, the teen-idol trend has been on the upswing. Today, with CDs by BSBs, Ricky Martin, and Britney Spears occupying the top three slots on the Billboard pop-album chart, the trend seems to be at its peak.

The new-model teen idols vary only a little from the time-tested formulas. On the cover of BSBs' new Millennium (Jive), which sold a record-breaking 1.1 million copies its first week, the five singers are wearing white suits and white bucks, and in the liner notes, three of them give thanks first to God; they could be the Pat Boones of the '90s. BSBs, like their chief rivals, 'N Sync, and the many other look-alike ensembles shooting to fame in their wake, epitomize the manufactured dance-music vocal combo (assembled by an impresario) that has been one of the twin strands of boy-band teen idols for generations. The other is the family act (assembled by stage parents), epitomized by Hanson, whose most promising newcomers are the four Canadian brothers known as the Moffatts. Unlike BSBs, the Moffatts, who play Karma Club this Wednesday, write most of their own tunes and play their own instruments, but they have a similarly honeyed sound, and on the cover of their new release, Chapter I: A New Beginning (Capitol), these teens are wearing pinstripe suits and ties, as if to signify their corporate ambitions. For BSBs and the Moffatts, as for teen idols since time immemorial, safety is not just part but the heart of their appeal.

Yet fans of both groups have allowed them just the tiniest bit of unprecedented edge. Both groups expect (however improbably) that their new releases will make listeners take them more seriously as artists. And both have the commercial savvy and the potential talent to survive beyond the inevitable end of the current wave.

To study this current wave of boy bands is to immerse yourself in cheaply produced fanzines with titles like Hit Sensation and Starlog Salutes Teen Girl Power, where pages of rough newsprint alternate with glossy posters of the same handful of bands -- mostly BSBs, 'N Sync, and Hanson, but also the Moffatts, 98deg., C Note, No Authority, Five, and Boyzone. There are even alternative boy bands, like New Jersey's Evelyn Forever or the Selzers, surely the only boy band ever to play at New York punk landmark CBGB's (unless you count the Ramones). And the parallel universe of Christian rock has its own boy bands, including ska-rockers Insyderz and O.C. Supertones.

One thing the new boy bands have that's utterly unprecedented in the annals of teen idols is facial hair. This used to be verboten, since it compromised the singer's androgyny, but in what may be the lone lasting legacy of grunge, goatees and even tattoos and piercings are now considered nonthreatening. Each of these groups seems to have one or two guys with chin fuzz (except the Moffatts, who are barely old enough to shave) and at least one guy with wacky hair (BSBs' pink-tressed A.J. McLean, 'N Sync's pinhead-coiffed Chris Kirkpatrick, spiky-haired Dave Moffatt).

It's noteworthy that most teen idols today come in boy-band form; as with every idol-worshipped band since the Beatles, girls can choose their favorite members. Until about 15 years ago, however, teen idols were mostly solo vocalists. Each new teen idol, from Sinatra to Elvis to the '50s Italian pin-ups (Fabian, Frankie Avalon, Dion) to the shaggy Beatles to the bad-boy Rolling Stones, had seemed cruder and more vulgar than the last, but in retrospect, they all seem harmless. As mediated by fan magazines, the singers seemed approachable yet remained distant, a safe introduction to romance without heartbreak. That teen idols could be produced industrially and made safe for mass consumption was apparent with the manufacture of the Monkees (modeled after the Beatles) and the Partridge Family (modeled after the Cowsills).

Despite the number of family acts in the '70s (the Jackson 5, the Osmonds, the DeFranco Family, the Carpenters), such solo singers as Bobby Sherman, David and Shaun Cassidy, and Leif Garrett still reigned over the Tiger Beat set. That began to change in the '80s with New Edition, who proved, à la Menudo, that a boy band could remain popular even if some members quit or were replaced. It's that business model that seems to be behind the current wave of seemingly interchangeable boy bands. (Another change in the '80s was the rise of girl idols, like Madonna, who sold not romance but female empowerment through clothes shopping, making possible such mall-performing icons as Tiffany and Debbie Gibson. Here too, however, the boy-band business model rules today, as the Spice Girls and B*WITCHED attest.)

What Maurice Starr, the Boston-based mastermind behind New Edition and New Kids on the Block, was to the '80s, Orlando investor Louis Pearlman is to the '90s. He built Backstreet Boys in 1993, at the height of grunge. Although BSBs were the antithesis of the flannel-clad, scruffy-haired, guitar-wielding punks like Nirvana and Pearl Jam who then dominated the charts, they persevered long enough (four years, eons in pop terms) to see the pendulum swing back toward their brand of sunny, photogenic pop. Just as BSBs were becoming huge sellers who chafed at Pearlman's management and alleged underpayment, the rival Orlando quintet 'N Sync emerged, looking and sounding very much like BSBs, finding similar multiplatinum success, and being managed by, as it turned out, Louis Pearlman. BSBs spent a year in court extricating themselves from Pearlman's seemingly conflict-of-interest-ridden grasp. Today, the two fivesomes enjoy a friendly rivalry at the top of the boy-band heap, though nipping at their heels are a quartet called C Note whose bilingual repertoire and three-quarters Latino line-up make them especially well-suited to capitalize on the burgeoning Latin pop trend. They are based in Orlando and managed by Louis Pearlman.

If Pearlman financed the boy-band boom, the creative mastermind was arguably Johnny Wright, a former Starr employee who partnered Pearlman in the days when they crafted the careers of BSBs and 'N Sync. Today, he's on his own (though he still has an office near Pearlman's at Orlando's O-Town studio), managing 'N Sync and Britney Spears. And the songwriter/producer behind the orchestral harmonies of all three acts' top hits is Sweden's Max Martin (Ace of Base).

The Moffatts have not yet achieved the same stratum of popularity as BSBs, though a promotional push by mighty Capitol Records could well change that. That three of the brothers (bassist Clint, keyboardist Dave, drummer Bob) are 15-year-old triplets is a novelty the fan magazines never tire of discussing. Singer Scott Moffatt is the old man of the group at 16. Bob Moffatt has the androgyny thing down so well that he looks eerily like Jennifer Love Hewitt. A fan rivalry seems to be shaping up between Moffatteers and Hansoniacs, which also gives journalists a hook.

The Moffatts' sound, too, smacks of commercial calculation; the quartet started as a country band, but as the title Chapter I: A New Beginning (it's actually their third album), signals, they've broken out of the Nashville ghetto to play pop rock. They cite Nirvana as an influence, but they affect a grunge sound only on a bonus track hidden well away at the end of the CD. Otherwise, it's cheery vocal pop, as produced by Glen Ballard (the hitmaker behind fellow Canadian Alanis Morissette), that, given the boys' youthful, high-pitched voices, inevitably sounds like Hanson. The songwriting, about half of it by the boys, has a certain sameness (acoustic-guitar intro, drums and bass kicking in later, layered harmonies), though the uptempo "Until You Loved Me" and the ballad "If Life Is So Short" stand out for their abundance of pop hooks.

That songwriting formula could have been taken directly from BSBs, the title of whose new Millennium may imply unduly high hopes for the shelf life of the music. Although lead vocalist Brian Littrell and fellow singer Kevin Richardson have started writing a few songs for the group (whose line-up also includes A.J. McLean, Howie Dorough, and Nick Carter), they don't deviate in style from the hitmaking template that worked for "Everybody (Backstreet's Back)" and "As Long as You Love Me." BSBs really can sing, as evidenced by the molasses-like smoothness and richness of such ballads as "I Want It That Way" and "Back to Your Heart." And they offer several gifts to fans, in the form of "Larger Than Life" (which thanks the listeners who have made BSBs so huge) and "The Perfect Fan" (actually a tribute to Littrell's mother).

Neither of these records is likely to become a Walkman staple for anyone old enough to have taken the SAT. Still, BSBs have good ears for hits and strong vocal talent, the Moffatts have versatility and business smarts, and both have professed clean lifestyles, so neither is likely to end up a cautionary tale on VH-1's Behind the Music. In a culture where even the most ephemeral, disposable pop turns out to have the half-life of plutonium, these two groups, maybe more than any other boy bands, are in it for the long haul. n

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