Teen Idols

By Poison Ivy,

I have memorized the Jonas Brothers’ names. I know that Nick Carter was in the Backstreet Boys, not in ‘N Sync. I have more trouble with Mark Wahlberg. Was he from the New Kids on the Block? But then who is Donny Wahlberg? And I am struggling to recall the names of the boys in Hanson, a boy group that was wildly popular 15 years ago. Jacob? Another Joe?

I’m not deeply interested in every teen idol band, but I want to keep current with popular culture. Because teen idols often are terribly important to many people, they become touchstones of popular culture. They are windows into how Americans are thinking and feeling. So are romances. Right now we have several very different strains of romance that are popular. And they are extremely different. It’s a long distance between the Christian evangelical publishers’ squeaky-clean sexual attitudes (okay, call it prudery) and the erotica writers’ anything-goes attitudes (sure, call it porno for women if you want to. But be ready for a fight). These books represent philosophical and spiritual belief systems in diametrical opposition.

And then there is paranormal romance, which has been extremely popular for several years now. In paranormals, vampires or werewolves usually are not the villains, but the misunderstood heroes. They make a strong pitch to obtain or retain civil rights that may be denied them by ordinary humans. Lots of these vampires don’t suck human blood and are okay people, too. And the werewolves have strong family ties but their pack mentality and the rules under which they live (including their sexual practices) are strange to humans. If this isn’t symbolic about ethnic and other groups that suffer discrimination, I can’t imagine what else it means.

But what if I want to read a more conventional romance? There still are plenty that attempt to be relevant to women’s issues today without drawing a line in the sand involving religious beliefs. There are plenty of romances that don’t involve canine teeth and blood-sucking tendencies. And there even are romances in which there is fur, but it’s the fur provided by some über-rich, cosmopolitan hero. We’ve all laughed at the Greek tycoons and Italian billionaires and the crazy book titles that Harlequin is using currently. But as a very canny old man once told me, if you see a thing twice in the marketplace, it’s making money. So another genuinely popular strain in romances today, and it’s an all-time classic, is the rich man story, in which there is a tremendous disparity in wealth and power between the hero and the heroine that threatens to turn her into some kind of love slave or baby mama (putting a polite face on shenanigans involving sexual services that resemble prostitution, but which of course will develop into true love).

As much as I am eager to find the newest trend in romance, and exhaust my interest in it by reading the same kinds of storylines over and over, I also want to keep up with the rest of the world that gets reflected in romances. Which brings me to horror comics being popular during Republican administrations (check it out; there’s a definite trend), and the rise of a single soaring pop music idol group or individual every decade versus the fad pop stars who come and go.

Which of course brings me to Elvis. Elvis Presley’s meteoric music career has been described in great detail elsewhere, but the chief aspects are these: Fusion of several strains of white and black music, new and overtly sexual moves while performing the music, and one hot guy with a tragic ending. Elvis was so wildly popular amongst teenagers that his personal life became big news 50 years ago. His career had dramatic twists and turns and ups and downs. And he died young, which made him a genuine rock and roll legend, the King. Elvis went from “who is that low-class truck driver with the dirty moves on stage?” to “irrelevant near has-been” to “back on top with his legend secure” to “the key popularizer of black music to whites in America.”

My funny Elvis story is this: I once worked in an office where it seemed like a good idea to have a known hobby-type interest. It gave me something to joke about with my co-workers that didn’t involve me in anything deeply personal and wasn’t threatening to anyone. So I let it get around that I had a thing for Elvis Presley. It was a harmless exaggeration. The people I worked with were a nice bunch. When it was time for silly office gifts, they gave me cute Elvis-themed items. I truly appreciated the thought, and I liked the presents. And I never told them that over a lifetime of listening to Elvis songs on the radio, I actually had only bought two Elvis records while he was alive, and I never had gone to any of his movies or his live concerts. I wasn’t one of his original screaming teen fans. Still, I really liked playing my own personal copy of “Blue Christmas” in an endless loop.

But why try to learn something about the Jonas Brothers? Why is knowing their names important to me? Because that makes them people, not just a teen phenomenon I can ignore because I’m not a teenager. It’s so easy to get in a rut, to listen to the same music or pick up the same types of romances over and over. And I don’t want to do that. I want to find what is new and different. I may not like it, but I want to know about it. I do appreciate Elvis as a musician today far more than I ever did in the past, but that doesn’t mean that I play his music every day, or even every month. I listen to what is new, just as I read new types of romances.

When I’m a geezer on a quiz show some day, I want to amaze and awe the audience by being able to name the teen idols of generations younger than my own. Or identify the popular romance authors that younger women are reading. I have spent much time learning about the art and artists of generations before me. But although I want to honor the past, I also want to participate in the future as it becomes the present. So I don’t just go around condemning rap music, a cliché attitude that brands a generation as grouchy geezers. And I don’t want to condemn out of hand even romances whose sexual details are breathtakingly different from what I am used to. That does not mean that I’m going to major in those new trends. But I want to know about them for myself, not just develop a second-hand, knee jerk negative opinion derived from ignorance. That’s why I want to remember the names of the current boy sensations.