How Teen Pop Idols Are Reckoning With The Despair Of The Late 2010s

04.18.19 3 months ago

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“I was told very often that I was a comedian only for 13-year-old girls, and f*ck yeah I am,” Bo Burnham exclaimed at the Independent Spirit Awards earlier this year, while the comedian/writer/director was being honored for his 2018 comedy Eighth Grade. “I’m really proud of that. They deserve to be paid attention to and to be taken seriously.” Indeed, popular culture has seemingly shown a greater investment than ever before in providing teen-focused entertainment that speaks to the harrowing highs and lows of adolescence—besides the brutally emotional Eighth Grade, the hormonal hijinks of Pen15 and Big Mouth have plumbed teenage depths deeper and more hilariously than ever before.

It’s interesting that these teen-focused vehicles have proliferated over the past two years, considering that popular music has typically seen its own teenage-targeting wave crest near the end of the last several decades. The end of the 1980s saw New Kids On The Block finally breaking big after their self-titled debut flopped a few years previous; at the close of the twentieth century, popular culture was awash in teen-heartthrob pop ranging from boy bands Backstreet Boys and N’SYNC to Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. The era’s soft-focus lasciviousness — never quite breaking past a slow-dancing embrace when it came to embodying adolescent lust — took a backseat during the teen-pop resurgence of the late 2000s, replaced by the Catholic inspo-pop of Disney Channel Extended Universe stars like Miley Cyrus, Demi Lovato, Selena Gomez, and the Jonas Brothers as well as the boy-band revival acts One Direction and 5 Seconds of Summer.

As the 2010s come to a close, we’re in the midst of a similar teen-pop frenzy. Earlier his month, R&B-pop megastar-in-the-making Khalid’s Free Spirit was the No. 1 album in the US, itself a follow-up to the 21-year-old singer/songwriter’s 2017 debut American Teen — and it dethrones 17-year-old goth-pop phenom Billie Eilish’s debut When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?. Fresh off a jail stint, the genre-bending and barely-old-enough-to-drink Dominic Fike is doubtless poised to break through to mass consciousness this year after his 2017 release Don’t Forget About Me, Demos netted the Florida artist a hefty deal from Columbia; in the world of indie rock — a genre that’s increasingly rubbed elbows with mainstream pop throughout the decade — Snail Mail’s Lindsey Jordan and Soccer Mommy’s Sophie Allison cut impressive figures last year with their respective debuts Lush and Clean, showing songwriting wisdom well beyond what’s typically expected from their age group.

Clearly, this wave of teen pop (specifically, music made by teenagers or artists who have only recently shed their teendom, more often than not carrying direct appeal towards teens themselves) is different from previous eras. Not better, necessarily — a distinction I feel compelled to make only because the wholly elitist practice of judging younger listeners for what they consume is best left in the past.

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