by Cecil Beatty Yasutake

Pop Music Overload

Popular music is defined essentially as music that is most popular with the people at any given time. But when corporate interest or money are the primary driving force behind it--as is the case with all of today's teen idol groups--a more accurate description would be "musically trolling for an audience with the widest possible net in hopes of making the most money possible." This popular music dark side has plenty of harmless sounding nicknames: bubblegum, teen idol, or my personal and self-coined favorite: Frankenstein pop (defined as a musical act or group put together with the sole and blatant intention of being a moneymaker and nothing more, i.e. disposable art).

The Hispanic boy band group Menudo is a perfect example of this. They've gone through 30-plus members since their inception in 1977 including one Ricky Martin, and they're still a cash cow for their label.

Look, I'm a firm believer in the hip-hop motto: Don't playa hate, congratulate. So to the singer/songwriters out there who are the backbone of groups like the Backstreet Boys, 'N Sync, Destiny's Child and Menudo, I say congratulations. But to the artists themselves I'm hatin' like an IRS auditor assigned to Bill Gates. Look, I was a teenager once. I liked the Jackson 5, and New Edition. I survived New Kids on the Block. But thanks to all the record company mergers over the past ten years there are now fewer opportunities for singer/songwriters to be heard. If you are not an entertainer first and foremost, you find fewer doors these days opening for you. Making records now more than ever appears to be all about the Benjamins. Record label heads are forced to consider the bottom line, and quarterly profits have become the ultimate measuring stick of success. Just check out the music industry artist landscape. Everybody has either got a teen idol on their roster or is developing one. Rap mogul Sean "Puffy" Combs has even joined the lunacy signing the teen girl foursome Dream. Thanks to guys like Lou Pearlman, there is a near-guaranteed, money making formula out there that everyone seems to be trying to re-create.

[ menudo ]

What's that formula you ask? In short: Pop Songwriter + Teen Idol + Visual Excitement = Money. Or more explicitly: take attractive teenagers with decent voices and some charisma (vocal ability is not mandatory, they can always lip-synch (see Milli Vanilli), give them a sexy and hip clothing makeover, add a ridiculous helping of glitz and glam, find some bubble gum song for them to sing, preferably one written by Diane Warren, and stand back and watch the money roll in. What, do you think I'm simplifying things a bit too much? Crawl out from underneath that rock you're under and join the 21st century! Did you not watch this past fall season's reality series Making the Band on ABC? Lou Pearlman, bubblegum music's mad scientist and father of such Frankenstein pop bands as the Backstreet Boys, and 'N Sync, took us through his whole "how to make money" series with cameras rolling. Before you could say, "No more Earpollution, please sir," he created the boy band O-Town before your very eyes. Five ordinary young men were cleaned up, given million dollar makeovers, and basic lessons in how to sing and dance. And the next thing you know they've got a record deal, and shortly thereafter a certified gold debut album. That's 500,000 in sales for those of you not in the know.

Look, I've seen David Copperfield do some amazing things but nothing close to this. These were just some ordinary Joes who, prior to hooking up with Lou, weren't local country fair good. Yet in the hands of this twisted old man they became overnight sensations. Lou's ability to take bits and pieces of young people and turn them into a money making boy band juggernaut is why I personally refer to his style as pop Frankensteins. Lou's so good at what he does I'm beginning to think he could make Bill Clinton a teen idol.

In case you are think this is just some kind of freak incident, the WB network did it again with their reality "making a band" series called, appropriately enough, Popstars. And although the names of the participants had changed, the results were the same if not better, as once again the Pearlman formula proved to be the key to success. Only this time super producer and songwriter David Foster played the part of bubblegum mad scientist. And instead of making an all boy band he created an all girl group called Eden's Crush. Five young attractive females with decent vocal abilities got star quality makeovers, dancing lessons, and were then rushed into the studio to record the album that had already been written for them. They would become the first female group to debut at number one on the pop charts. Excuse me, I need to find my Tums and some Benadryl as just writing that has inflamed my PMO.

[ lou pearlman ]

The fuel that makes this Frankenstein pop madness go is the second largest teenage audience since the Baby Boomers wore bobby socks and leather. The difference is this generation of teens (unlike their baby boomer predecessors) has money to spend and lots of it. What are they spending it on you ask? Guess. According to Interep Research, teens spend 34 percent on clothing, 22 percent on entertainment, and a mere 16 percent on food. Now consider this: the top selling items in each of those categories were jeans, music, and fast food, respectively. I see you out there shaking your head saying, "So what, how bad can it be? A billion dollars a year?"

Foolish Gen-Y'er! Today's teen is estimated to have $136 billion to purchase their needs and wants. If we break this down by category, that's almost $30 billion on entertainment of which music was the number one listed item purchased. While you're busy considering a new car or home to buy, they're snapping up the next boy band or teen diva CD at budget-breaking, record pace.

Teen spending is already heavily influencing the music industry. In 1999 teen diva Britney Spears and boy band sensation the Backstreet Boys sold a combined 18 million albums, more than the top ten singer/songwriters of that year combined. According to the VH1 special The Struggling Singer/Songwriter, from 1997 to 2000 there were 82 different Number One songs of which only two were by singer/songwriters, Lauryn Hill and Alanis Morissette. Alanis Morissette's 1997 release Jagged Little Pill is seen as the peak of the singer/songwriter movement. The album sold over 14 million copies, making it the best selling singer/songwriter album of all time. This album also would also signify the beginning of the end for the singer/songwriter. Since then, bubble gums acts have ruled the charts along with hip-hop. Music has gone from smelling like teen spirit to being ruled by it.

Confession of a Modern Day Boy Band Hater

[ alanis morissette - jagged little pill ]

Had Justin Timberlake of 'N Sync decided not to answer pop music critics like myself with the song "Pop" which he (brace yourself) co-wrote on his group's latest release Celebrity, it may never have occurred to me to write this article. I most likely would have remained content to manage my PMO disease through selective use of my own music collection and the occasional foray into my father's. I would have continued to avoid the radio like the plague and kept my MTV time to a minimum, hoping that, as in the past, this current teen sensation would dry up as the kids grow up. PMO sufferers the world over have serious reason to be hopeful that the most fearsome antagonist of their condition may soon be eradicated from the sound and airwaves of popular culture. History clearly shows us that in times of prosperity and peace pop music's dark side has enjoyed its best success. Apparently, when the people are happy and without major conflict, they want music that makes them happy. When there is war or economic depression, the people's musical tastes turn introspective. They began to hunger for songs about the issues that affect their everyday life, mindless puppy love and dance-oriented music is less palatable, as the formula for pop success takes on a conscience. Like back in the '60s with Bob Dylan or the Beatles--both were considered pop musicians but what made them different was the fact that they wrote their own music and put their soul into it. They were poets concerned with their art first not their record sales or any particular audience. They had something to say through their music and that was the primary driving force behind it, not making a buck!

So what did Mr. Timberlake have to say on "Pop"? Nothing that will help his cause I assure you as the first verse reprinted here indicates: "Sick and tired of hearin' all these people talk about / What's the deal with this pop life and when is it gonna fade out / The thing you got to realize is what we're doing is not a trend / We got the gift of melody / We gonna bring it 'till the end, come on now."

You have to admire his spunk, even if he's wrong about more than a few things. First, pop music is a trend. And in the case of boy bands, one that does fade in and out of popularity. Anybody remember the Monkees of the late '60s, or the Osmonds of the '70s, and where, more importantly, are they now? Instead of "wax on, wax off," can you say "fade in, fade out"? Now, I'm man enough to admit that 'N Sync does have the gift of melody as anyone who watched the Janet Jackson Icon performance will attest. Their rendition of "That's the Way Love Goes" was so vocally superior to Janet's, it had me wanting to run right out and buy a copy, had one been available.

Now, as for that last part of the first verse "we're gonna bring it 'til the end" is concerned, I do believe he and his fellow boy bandmates are committed to doing the 'N Sync thing until the end. Which is why I, as the official spokesperson for the PMO Foundation, have to ask: When is this expected end going to take place? The physical and mental health of millions is hanging in the balance waiting for a cure and an end to their needless suffering. In short, the only thing wrong with this so-called pop life is the fact that corporate interest has taken it over and exploited it as a blatant means to make money not art.

[ 'n sync - celebrity ]

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