As long as there are teenagers, there will be teen idols. From the vintage "Frankie" Sinatra to Elvis Presley, from the Beatles to David Cassidy, from the New Kids on the Block to 'N Sync, the names and faces may change with the decades, but the emotions that drive the phenomenon do not. Teen idols are a rite of passage for pre-teens and early teens. They are dream mates who fuel romantic daydreams, and provide a safe release for hormonally-charged emotions. After all, unlike flesh-and-blood boyfriends or girlfriends, the teen idols make no demands.
Collectively, teen idols have long been dismissed as lightweight and flashes-in-the-pan. But, in fact, many notable performers have passed through the teen idol ranks. Before becoming one of Holly-wood's most prolific and acclaimed leading men, John Travolta was a popular pin-up, the result of his co-starring role in the 1975 TV series, Welcome Back, Kotter. The 1997 box office blockbuster, Titanic, derived much of its drawing power from the casting of teen idol, Leonardo DiCaprio. Pop-soul maestro Michael Jackson was a teen idol in the 1980s, as well as the previous decade, when he was one of the Jackson Five. The Beatles were huge teen idols in the 1960s, as was Elvis Presley in the 1950s. In the 1940s, females screamed for Sinatra.
Even those teen idols who did not successfully make a transition as their fans matured continue to be regarded with affection. To their fans, they represent a special time in their lives. To the credit of these teen idols, they also left imprints on popular culture. For example, many of the icons of the 1950s—the decade in which the modern teen idol is rooted—became fixtures on the record charts. From late 1957 through 1963, the young performers were responsible for at least thirteen number one hits. They included Tab Hunter's "Young Love" and Frankie Avalon's "Venus." Another twenty tunes by teen idols climbed to the top five.
Just as Presley had gone from recording studio to Hollywood, the idols made the leap to the big screen. Theirs were major names during the final years of the so-called Hollywood "star system." Sandra Dee, who became a teen favorite with her depiction of the surfing-obsessed Gidget, went on to become a top-ten box office draw for the years 1960, 1961, 1962, and 1963—an astonishing feat, considering the list also included Doris Day, Cary Grant, Elizabeth Taylor, and Frank Sinatra. Between 1959 and 1964, Fabian appeared in no less than ten films, ranging from comedies to teen genre flicks to a John Wayne action adventure. Tab Hunter clocked in seventeen films between 1950 and 1964.
Of course, teen idols did not originate in the 1950s. Back in the 1930s, singer-actor Rudy Vallee induced swoons from schoolgirls when he performed while clutching a megaphone. But it is Frank Sinatra who is credited as the official pioneer of the teen idol movement. At age 27, Sinatra had a skinny, vulnerable look. That look, combined with his lush romantic ballads, elicited mass hysterics and stampeding among teenage "bobby soxers" at his December 1942 performances at New York's Paramount Theater. When Sinatra later appeared at the Boston Armory, the seats were bolted down as a security measure.
In the 1950s, the emergence of American teenage culture prompted another kind of hero worship. Before he cinched his eternal stardom with his car crash death of 1955, James Dean had come to symbolize the teenager in pain, with his angst-ridden performance in Rebel Without a Cause. The early Elvis Presley had his own angst-ridden performances in song, including the bravado Heartbreak Hotel. But Dean and Presley also summoned up a sense of looming danger. In Presley's case, his sexy stage antics and the fact that he was a white singer who sounded "black" made him anathema to authority figures.
A much safer alternative was found in Charles Eugene Boone. Better known as Pat Boone, the young performer from Nashville, Tennessee, emerged as the flip side of the coin that bore the imprints of Dean and Presley. Considering the era's controversy over rock 'n' roll, it is significant that Boone rose to fame by singing cover versions of songs originally recorded by African-Americans. His easy-going delivery and boyish charm helped to defuse the volatility of rock 'n' roll. Furthermore, Boone did not emote sexual magnetism. It was Boone who set the stage for what transpired, following a Richter-scale shift in the world of rock 'n' roll.
Denoting that upheaval was the U.S. Army's 1958 decision to draft Elvis Presley. Other significant careers also came to a standstill. Chuck Berry faced a prison term for having transported a minor over a state line for sexual purposes. Jerry Lee Lewis was blackballed because of his marriage to his thirteen-year-old cousin. Plane and car crashes took the lives of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and Eddie Cochran.
With the music world in transition, promoters moved in to provide an antidote—a new commodity to entice the growing teenage spending power. The idea was to cater to teenage desires, but without the erratic undercurrent or explosive passion that had made Presley an infamous household name. So the new teenage idol was created. It was no coincidence that, along with the lure of their talent—some of it legitimate, some wholly manufactured—the teen idols were exceedingly clean cut and attractive. Or that the male teen idols appeared vulnerable as opposed to predatory. After all, strong masculine qualities can be off-putting to young females. Thus, over the years, many teen idols have had an androgynous look.
More than any of the others, Fabian and Frankie Avalon set the standards against which the 1950s teen idols were measured. Both young men had the engaging affability of the boy-next-door. And not coincidentally, both were managed by Philadelphia producer-promoter Bob Marcucci, who was teamed with Peter DeAngelis in Chancellor Records. The label was based in Philadelphia, a city that specialized in turning out teen idols.
Phil Spector—the legendary producer known for his work with girl groups, the Righteous Brothers, and the Beatles, and the "wall of sound" that backed their tunes—has called Philadelphia of the 1950s "the most insane, most dynamite, the most beautiful city in the history of rock 'n' roll and the world." The city's thriving music industry included competing record labels and their respective producers, and promoters. Their collective goal was to get their performers booked on the Dick Clark-hosted American Bandstand. As the premiere showcase for rock 'n' roll performers, the show was essential to the careers of would-be teen idols.
When the pioneering rock 'n' roll artists had made their ascent, there were no national television shows devoted to rock 'n' roll. The performers made their reputations after months or even years of touring. Prior to his famed appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show, Presley was a regional star, the result of having played the hinterlands. Only after becoming known regionally did he enjoy exposure on national TV variety shows. By contrast, the teen idols could become "overnight" successes as a result of a single, carefully-promoted TV appearance. Ricky Nelson's rise as a teen idol began when he sang a single song on his family's long-running series, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. Tommy Sands was an unknown seventeen-yearold when he appeared in the NBC telecast of The Singing Idol, which generated eight thousand pieces of fan mail. Avalon, Bobby Rydell, and Fabian all owed their fame to American Bandstand.
The rise and fall of Fabian stands as a cautionary chapter in the teen idol annals. Fabiano Forte was a 14-year-old boy literally sitting on his front porch when he was spotted by Marcucci, who was already managing Avalon. Though Fabian's father had just been taken away by ambulance after having suffered a heart attack, Marcucci was brazen enough to ask, "Say, kid, can you sing?" Fabian was not interested. After continuing to see the teenager in the neighborhood, including at the corner drug store where he worked, Marcucci returned to the family home. This time Fabian agreed to become a Marcucci protégé.
At the time, Avalon was finally enjoying success as a singer—after having bombed with a trio of singles. But unlike Avalon, who could carry a tune and was an accomplished musician, Fabian had no natural musical prowess, in fact, he had failed his high school chorus class. But Marcucci persisted, taking the youth to a series of vocal coaches and introducing him to local audiences via sock hops. He also launched a major promotional campaign touting Fabian as "The Fabulous One." Still, despite several American Bandstand appearances, the teenager's initial records failed. "You gotta find this kid a hit record!" Clark told Marcucci. That hit turned out to be "I'm a Man," which Fabian lip-synched on a December 1958 show. The single climbed the charts, and paved the way for additional hits, tours, and movie roles. But Fabian's fame and largely off-key singing also led to cruel barbs from the press, which left the teenager both hurt and bewildered.
Ironically, Fabian garnered some of his best notices when he played a psychopathic killer in a 1961 episode of the TV anthology series, Bus Stop. But the casting of the teen idol also generated controversy, for teen idols of the day were not expected to have dimension as artists. For that reason, they were not taken seriously by the very industry that created them. Thus, when times and tastes changed, and his teenage fan base grew older, Fabian had to grapple to survive as a performer. Of his reign as an icon, Fabian once said, "I was just a street-punk kid who got into all this because my father had a heart attack and the family needed money. I didn't know nothing. Sure I had girls—I was a healthy young man. But what all this teen idol stuff comes down to is business. Big business."
In the 1960s, that big business was typified by the staggering success of the Beatles, and the fellow and female Britons and Americans who followed in their wake. Foremost among the latter was the fabricated-for-TV group, the Monkees. Selected from a casting call that drew more than 400 applicants, the group starred in their own series and a major movie, and had eight Top 40 hits, two of which went to number one.
Integral to the success of Monkeemania, Beatlemania, and myriad other teen idol-manias was the teen fan magazine industry, which thrived during this era. A hybrid of the "girl's" magazines which debuted in the 1940s and early rock 'n' roll magazines, some of these publications had monthly sales of more than 900,000 copies.
Reflecting the relationship between the idols and publishing, teen fan magazine pioneer Charles Laufer once related how he honed in on the appeal of 1970s teen icon, David Cassidy. It happened as he was watching an episode of TV's Marcus Welby, M.D. "A kid comes on, and he's got diabetes. I didn't know who he was, but he was raw-boned and vulnerable, and I thought, this kid's terrific. So I waited for the credits. The next day I came into the office and said, 'Who the hell is David Cassidy?"' Laufer tracked down Cassidy, who was about to begin work on the 1970 TV show, The Partridge Family, about a family singing group. Laufer went on to publish the Partridge Family teen magazine, and to oversee the group's fan club. Though it was a fictional group, in which only two of the show's cast members, Cassidy and stepmother Shirley Jones, actually sang, the Partridge Family went on to have a number one hit, with "I Think I Love You." The shag-haired Cassidy would later call the group "the last gasp of innocence in America."
In truth, there have been many more gasps of innocence within the teen idol roll call. During the 1970s the roster included Cassidy's half-brother, Shaun Cassidy, as well as Donnie and Marie Osmond, Robbie Benson, and Andy Gibb. Among 1980s names were Scott Baio, John Stamos, Menudo, and Debbie Gibson. The safe, sweet side of teen idoldom continued in the 1990s, with the actor Jonathan Taylor Thomas and singing groups such as Hanson.
But another kind of teen idol, who is less than wholesome, also managed to exist in a parallel universe. The metamorphosis began in the late 1970s, and is exemplified by Kiss, which became a potent teen idol force despite the group's shock-value tactics. According to fan magazine publishers, kids rallied to the group's larger-than-life stage theatrics, as well as to the members' comic book-like appearances. Those appearances made them seem more like fictional characters, as opposed to "real" and therefore threatening heavy metal artists. Madonna, meanwhile, was embraced as the enticing embodiment of the disobedient girl and a proud boy toy, something about which young females fantasize. In the 1990s, that naughty but cool mantle shifted to the Spice Girls and their mantra espousing "girl power!"
Of course, the Spice Girls could not have succeeded in a more modest era; by the same token, a Connie Francis would today be considered an anachronism. For teen idols are both a product and a reflection of their times. As with all product, their success/failure is indelibly linked to marketing, as well as timing. The stakes are tantalizing. According to the Recording Industry Association of America, of the 532 million albums purchased in the United States in 1996, twenty-five percent were bought by 10 to 19-year-olds. That same group comprised a significant percentage, fifty-eight and thirty, respectively, of the rap and rock markets.
Just as the teen idols of the 1950s were able to become overnight successes as a result of television, the current teen idols are able to become multi-millionaires on the basis of synergy and mass-marketing. Consider: At their height in the late 1980s, the New Kids on the Block, comprised of five rapping Boston "boys," sold eighty million albums and $500 million worth of merchandising. Their 1990 earnings were $1 billion.
But the power of teen idoldom is not summed up merely by dollars and cents. "When you're talking about teen idols, you're talking about being godlike," said Bobby Sherman, a leading 1970s teen idol. But there are distinctions between the teen idol types. As explained by Sherman: "See, there's an A group and a B group. The A group is like the Beatles. They create a lifestyle which changes people. Then there's the B's, like I was. I was like a number in a system that was created in a succession of molds that perform well for their time and place."
Yet when the Beatles first arrived on the scene, they were perceived by the media to be no more than a fad. To young females, they were cause to celebrate, en masse, and to release sexual energy. The group's musical evolution and staying power could not have been foreseen. The same can be said of the young performers who carry on the teen idol tradition. Some may go on to achieve greatness. If not, they will doubtless live on in the scrapbooks and the memories of the fans whose hearts and lives they touched.
—Pat H. Broeske
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