A New Generation Of Teen Pop

by Sean Ross, VP of Music & Programming

In the early part of this decade, when Eminem and Linkin Park were becoming top 40’s image artists and acts like ‘N-Sync and Britney Spears were losing their chart toehold, it seemed easy for Top 40 programmers to finally declare the teen pop era finished. After all, most had been spoiling to shut down the boy band boom almost as soon as it began. And with many programmers drawing a now famous “line in the sandbox” to deny access to new teen acts once Britney and Christina were in the door, there was no danger of such acts breaking through, unless they were disguised as something else (e.g., Simple Plan or Avril Lavigne).

But just as Top 40 itself had refused to die, it was inevitable that teen pop would resurface. Even last year, there were hints. For one thing, most of the viable pop records that Mainstream Top 40 actually owned were coming from acts like Justin Timberlake, Pink, and Christina Aguilera. If those acts hadn’t outgrown their teen status to become the Beatles, they had at least become Rick Springfield, George Michael, or Duran Duran—former teen idols that had earned the right to be thought of as pop stars outright. And Chrstina helped power another idol on to the charts, literally, with Kelly Clarkson’s “Miss Independent.”

Then there were all the teen records that performed well in HitPredictor, even though most never made it to the radio. Even if most programmers didn’t want to play Amanda Latona, Atomic Kitten, or Play, consumers were at least amenable to them in theory.

Then there were a handful of teen acts, particularly B2K, on the R&B side, which had also held it down for teen pop in the early ‘90s with acts like Boyz II Men and Color Me Badd that survived the New Kids on the Block backlash.

Then there was Stacie Orrico, who walked into top 40 with an existing Christian AC base and records that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on the radio in 1999-2000. “Stuck” and “(There’s Gotta Be) More To Life” were legitimate to different degrees for different stations, but the latter made it to power on WHTZ (Z100) New York for at least a few weeks and certainly earned its place on the radio for many who played it.

Then there was Hilary Duff. Originally exiled to Radio Disney, her multi-media star power (and a boost from Hollywood’s promotion department, rather than just Disney’s) pushed “So Yesterday” on to Top 40 radio and “Come Clean” into its current top 10.

Then there was Jessica Simpson’s comeback.

Then there was Britney Spears’ biggest hit in four years and a No. 1 selling album. (Duff managed one of those two, while Simpson peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard 200.)

Then there was the import success of Sarah Connor’s “Bounce” at KHTT Tulsa, Okla., which compelled the U.S. release of a record that would normally have been written off, like Atomic Kitten, as the same sort of success story that doesn’t apply to the U.S.

The same goes for two of Atomic Kitten’s British girl group competitors. Sugababes’ have been releasing consistently strong British singles for years, but have languished here on two U.S. labels. Now “Hole in the Head” is up to more than 550 Top 40 spins in two weeks. Mis-Teeq’s “Scandalous,” a British hit last summer, is also finally getting a U.S. release and is up to 300 spins.

It was inevitable that teen pop would resurface.

There are also at least two more Radio Disney success stories in the pipeline for mainstream success. One is Lindsay Lohan, whose current profile almost exactly matches that of Hilary Duff in early 2003: multiple movie roles and two songs in Radio Disney’s top 10. Then there’s Raven (nee’ Simone) who has thus far avoided the fate of ex-child stars with a hit Disney Channel series and, yes, at least three Radio Disney hits. Raven and Duff’s sister Hailey both have adult-targeted projects in the works.

Teen pop has benefited from the sea change at Mainstream Top 40 over the last nine or so months. Rhythmic smashes have hardly gone away, as another former teen idol, Usher, proves. But with programmers determined to provide a balanced diet, some records are likely getting more of a shot than they would have a year ago.

Teen pop hasn’t become the calling card for Top 40 radio that it was in the late ‘90s and the early part of this decade. But you can already see at least one station trying to take advantage of its resurgence. KIIS Los Angeles in recent months has been maintaining a distinct emphasis on pure pop, including, but not limited to, more support for acts like Clarkson and Fefe Dobson than we’ve seen elsewhere, a Spears album cut (“Outrageous”) that’s getting 30 spins a week on top of “Toxic”’s power rotation, and Orrico’s “More To Life” as a 3-4 play a day recurrent.

One place you haven’t heard a lot of the new teen pop yet is mainstream AC. That format carried the torch for the Backstreet Boys and ‘N-Sync longer than anybody (and not all AC stations have stopped playing them). But Orrico’s “More To Life” never charted there (despite its likely familiarity to some AC listeners because of her Christian AC stronghold). Neither has Simpson’s “With You,” which would seem obvious, at least sonically.

If it wasn’t healthy for Top 40 to rely so heavily on teen pop in either 1989 or 1999, purging that genre in the years that followed didn’t turn out to be such a great move either. So far, it seems likely that some Top 40 PDs are comfortable with the mini-resurgence of the genre only because they haven’t paid enough attention to recognize it as a comeback. But having seen that despite programmers’ best efforts, the market for music by and for young adults never really disappears, Top 40 might be wise to try and take somewhat greater advantage of that music, particularly at a time when, with Usher on one side and Maroon 5 on the other, it doesn’t have to live and die with this teen boom.

Sean Ross is Edison Media Research’s VP of Music & Programming and the former editor-in-chief of Airplay Monitor, Billboard Magazine’s radio programming publication. The opinions expressed here are his own and can be found on the edisonresearch.com Web site every week. Sean can be reached at 908.707.4707 or SRoss@edisonresearch.com.