In the opening episode of "Popstars," the WB's newest reality-TV show, a camera slowly pans a line of girls waiting patiently for their chance to belt out a few bars of a song for a panel of judges. The girls gaze coyly at the camera and strike poses -- in their skintight pleather pants and last season's snakeskin print halter tops, soft bellies exposed from there to there, eyes crusty with mascara -- hoping that this brief moment on film will help launch them toward girl-band stardom.
"Popstars" will, over the next few months, take a handful of these girls in their late teens and early 20s and attempt to turn them into a cookie-cutter pop group modeled on bands like Dream or Britney Spears or a whitewashed Destiny's Child. The TV show is a female version of "Making the Band," a semisuccessful reality show from last season that turned a parade of fresh-faced boys into a five-man Backstreet Boys pastiche called O-Town (a band whose CD debuted on the charts on Jan. 23 at No. 5).
But where "Making the Band" took a handful of clean-cut boys next door and turned them into fuzzy, desexualized plush toys that you'd feel safe leaving with your 14-year-old daughter, "Popstars" is assembling a collection of precocious sexpot tartlets hellbent on titillating men twice their age (and striking fear into the heart of any teenage boy who has ever had an inopportune erection) while selling pop pablum to prepubescent girls.
The teenage pop starlet boom of 2000 has given rise to a passel of virginal sluts -- navel-exposing divas who proclaim that they are saving themselves for marriage while they shimmy across stages in second-skin white leather and spangled sports bras and the tiniest of belly chains. Crooning their come-hither lyrics from behind bleached-out tresses and blackened raccoon eyes, Spears, Christina Aguilera and their ilk have become style icons for a generation of teenage girls who acquire -- before they're even ready for training bras -- a somewhat misguided education about fashion's sexual message.
The world according to these painted pretties is a place in which good girls can pretend to be bad girls without having to worry about bad boys. And while these dingy divas sport a lot of modern "attitude," their message is as old as their mothers' mothers: It's all about gettin' yourself a man and, girls, he is gonna looove what those stretch bell-bottoms do for your butt.
Aguilera embodies this frightening lollipop aesthetic, with her strawlike Barbie hair peroxided to a glow-in-the-dark hue and her Skittles-bright tight leather with cutouts and brass studs. The most distinctive thing about Aguilera is her stomach, which is never, ever covered up -- even when she's dressed down, her T-shirt's knotted precisely 5 inches above her bellybutton. She is Kmart grafted to Versace; if her clothes were made from vinyl and polyester instead of leather and satin, she would be pure trailer trash. Instead, she's merely a high-class hooker.
But if Britney, Christina, Mya and Dream are sex on toast, their boy-band counterparts are pure milquetoast. 'N Sync, Backstreet Boys, 98 Degrees and their faux homeys are so sexually whitewashed as to be more like teddy bears than men. In voices just this shade of falsetto, they croon lyrics that read like the longings from a schoolgirl's diary. These are guys who dress in identical outfits and perform perfectly synchronized dance moves onstage -- moves that, when performed by anyone but a soulful '70s quintet, look more silly than sexy.
It is an odd and paradoxical dichotomy: sluttish-looking teenage girls and the androgynous boys they pine for. The aesthetics of teen pop music neatly flip the dominant adult sexual paradigm on its head, presenting teenage girls with a world in which you can look as nasty as you wanna be, and still snag the nice boy who will hold your hand and whisper placid nothings in your ear. It's a pretty dream designed to stave off the dirtier realities of teen sex and all its messy fumblings. (Sadly, it is so retro that it probably won't do much to improve the messy moment when it actually happens.)
Not that this is a brand-new phenomenon, in particular when it comes to the fine tradition of teen heartthrobs. Since the days when doo-wop crooners ("Why must I be a teenager in love?") and, later, the Beatles busted the boy band into mainstream pop consciousness and sent teenage girls into screaming swoons, boy bands have been tinged with sexual ambiguity. From the pretty-boy femininity of Shaun Cassidy and Bobby Sherman to the androgyny of Prince and Michael Jackson in their frilly shirts and velvets and sculptured faces, the objects of teenage female lust have often been the antithesis of their sexpot female counterparts.
But the simultaneous rise of 'N Sync, Backstreet Boys and assorted diva nymphets has elevated the dichotomy into a kind of aesthetic art form with an even more stiflingly narrow template, a formula that now dominates not just MTV but radio airwaves, TV Christmas specials and Rolling Stone covers. If the teen pop phenomenon is a religion, then MTV's pop video show "Total Request Live" (known by its sycophants merely as "TRL") is its temple, with koala bear host Carson Daly, and his tarty girlfriend Tara Reid, as the bubble-gum priests. And Lou Pearlman, the oversize slob behind the bands 'N Sync, Backstreet Boys and Take 5, is the high priest.
Pearlman's latest band, O-Town, has publicly exposed the crafty formula behind this adolescent pop aesthetic. Last season's "Making the Band," which chronicled Pearlman's attempt to build yet another singing, dancing collection of male mannequins, captured the cellophane structure behind the boy bands that strut their stuff on MTV. After scouring the country for five boys who could belt out tunes while doing the splits, Pearlman assembled a clean-cut collection of effeminate white and Latino-looking boys, all pink cheeks and crew cuts with peroxided tips. Just like the Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync, there's the cute blond guy, one with curly hair, the dark one with big dimples, the guy with the funny facial hair and the less cute, but really sensitive, guy.
Pearlman herded them into a tiny apartment, forcing these guys in their late teens and early 20s to share bedrooms (hey, less opportunity for illicit sexual activity -- at least with the opposite sex), and forbade them to stay out past midnight. He dressed them in coordinated red and silver "rave" outfits and spoon-fed them sugary-sweet lyrics like "Would I cross an ocean just to hold you ... Would I give up all I have to see you smile?" And then he set them loose on concert halls full of 12-year-old girls, who dutifully screamed their lungs out in a kind of mass orgasm fueled by all that scrubbed-clean testosterone.
Robert Thompson, founder of the Institute on Popular Culture at Syracuse University, describes the resulting boy-band product: "This is the ultimate dream -- a nonthreatening but dreamy guy. Dressing all together makes these guys look like fuzzy little pets instead of someone who might slip something into your drink."
How sexually threatening, for example, can one consider a group of men who appear at the American Music Awards in coordinated trench coats? A group of boyish men who never, ever grab their crotches, but instead pull woolly hats over their bleach-blond curls and wear shiny T-shirts as they harmonize about their true-blue love for you? Men who, when appearing on a date with a pop star diva wearing a denim patchwork ball gown, wear a matching denim patchwork suit, complete with distressed-denim cowboy hat? How very Ken doll.
Even when they attempt some kind of cool -- which the Backstreet Boys seem to be striving for with their latest mock-bad-boy makeover -- it seems to mostly involve growing a few extra inches of hair that they wash less often, and wearing a bit more black leather. (But of course, it's still coordinated black leather.) The boy bands are, as Thompson puts it, "eroticized and sexualized, but kind of as the kind, gentle boy you know is not going to hurt you when you decide to lose your virginity to him."
Compare this to Spears, who struts through her new video, "Stronger," in a slit black lace dress looking like a deranged streetwalker, and who has a disturbing habit of ripping off her ball gown during music award performances to reveal two strategically placed band-aids cut out of someone's chintz curtains. Or look at the video for "Come On Over Baby," which features Aguilera's youthful bosom, swathed in an unzipped yellow jumpsuit and matching yellow lace bra, being fondled by a swarthy half-naked man.
And like so many generations of fans before them, the girls obligingly mimic their pop star heroines; as the "Popstars" tryouts make clear, slutty looks are simply de rigueur these days for aspiring starlets. Maybe it is an afterburn of the same drive that pushed teenagers in the 1960s to tease their hair and don white lipstick in imitation of the Ronettes, and in 1980s to tie up their hair in nylons and stack their arms with rubber bracelets, à la Madonna.
But the message these days is more paradoxically mixed. While Madonna's lyrics matched her looks -- she was no virgin, that was clear -- these days we get teenage pop stars who proudly jump-started their careers in the Mickey Mouse Club and still sing safe, if suggestive, lyrics, but who have jettisoned the good-girl looks in favor of breast implants and Lycra. Their looks are merely a shade cleaner than the throwback Playboy sex fantasy of Pamela Anderson, but the message is that they are nice girls, virgins, role models who happen to be hip chicks and big fans of God. It's no wonder that their audience is composed completely of girls -- with their cartoonish sexuality, they (and the fans who imitate them) probably paralyze with sexual anxiety the teenage boys who are still secretly engrossed with their World Wrestling Federation figurines.
Contemporary teen pop stars simply channel the current zeitgeist, mixing WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?) chastity with a dash of feminism and the most gaudily offensive fashions. In the oversexed, overripe new millennium, no wonder a teenage girl can fantasize that she could dress like a seductive hooker without having to act like one -- this, after all, is the positive message third-wave feminism has been deftly propagating to younger generations over the past decade: You, like Britney Spears, can don leather and lace and bat those mascara-caked eyelashes like an adult and still end up with a nice, safe boy like Justin Timberlake (the most-adored member of 'N Sync, whom Spears is reputedly dating). Like all teenage girls who want to "trade up" -- dress and look half a decade older than they really are -- girls now seem to want to tart themselves up like Spears and test out the presumed power of their blooming new breasts.
But of course, that's just the dream world of the prepubescent. Third-wave feminists may argue that girls should take agency over their sexuality and tart themselves up if it makes them feel good: Breasts are powerful; use them to your advantage. But the Woodstock rapes and Central Park attacks of the past few years have made it clear that despite the sexual liberation of female fashion, Aguilera look-alikes in hip-huggers and sports bras will probably still get more attention from the bad boys than from the Justin Timberlakes. That's the shame of it all: There's really nothing new in the messages teen pop sends about teen sexuality. Sure, the idea that slutty-looking girls can get the nice boys may be a step forward. At least it says that women shouldn't be victimized because of their appearance. But Spears cavorting half-naked while surrounded by guys also reinforces the traditional idea that it's still all about snagging dream boys with your looks, not about high self-esteem or being really good at physics. These days, it's about looking like the whore for the boys while still being the good-girl virgin for Dad the trad and Mommy the old-school women's libber.
Of course, by the time the girls lose that coveted virginity, the boy bands and screaming fits and Britney Spears look-alike contests have become a thing of the past. The shelf life of these bands' demographics ends somewhere around 15, when girls start fudging on their virginity pledges and dabbling in oral sex.
Maybe the mixed messages of Spears et al. constitute the perfect soundtrack for adolescence -- lyrics, beat and dress-up clothes for a period of tumultuous biological destiny. What is puberty if not a loud blast of irritating and familiar noise, sexy costumes and hormonal mayhem? If art is going to imitate life, then a sensory overload of virgin/whore madness probably will always (and rightfully) be enshrined in pop culture. And if Britney and Justin and Christina confuse the hell out of little girls, maybe it's just training for the real thing, baby.