You couldn't help but tingle if you were in the audience at last week's Backstreet Boys concert at Kiel Center. The energy was palpable, the prepubescent shrieks both grating and contagious, the devotion the purest form imaginable -- the blind love of strangers. In addition to being the source of the biggest, most exciting crowd wave in the history of the world -- a tidal wave consisting of 22,000 participants, all of whom screamed and leapt with glee -- the mass (which will reconvene on Wednesday, Dec. 1, for the Ricky Martin fiesta at Kiel) was, according to the recent media-hook-of-the-moment, a small portion of the single largest pubescent glut since the baby boomers.
Get flustered, Dad. Here come the youngsters, and they're loaded: Proof being the line of limousines you paid for, seen dropping off gaggles of girlies at the front door. Proof being the Billboard charts last week: In the Top 100, seven artists aimed at this market, called the tweens, or Generation Y, or baby-boomer babies, or the Estrogeneration, have a combined total sales of 50 million records -- about half of all the Beatles records ever sold. That's a lot of youngsters going crazy over pop music.
If your cynical impression of said glut is that these artists are simply wearing different masks to cover the same insipid, pop-lite skull and that the only difference between B*Witched and the Backstreet Boys is that the former have boobs and the latter don't, well, there are vast differences among Ricky Martin, Britney Spears, Mandy Moore, Billy Crawford, Christina Aguilera, LFO and 'N Sync. Herewith, a primer.
Key words from record-company blurb: Hollywood dream come true; father in the military, violinist/pianist mother; 18 years old; hails from Wexford, Pa., a suburb of Pittsburgh.
Disney connection: Former member of The Mickey Mouse Club.
Essence of Christina: Playing the naive tart ("My body's saying go, but my heart's saying no.") with a deep, sultry voice, Christina's got more funk and soul than Britney, seems more hip with her beats than the competition and has this way-too-sexy squeal that she delivers at perfect moments. In a nutshell: jailbait.
Blurb extract: Killer singing voice, energy to light up a city, plenty of old-fashioned charm; 16-year-old dynamo; funky up-tempo romps and passionate ballads; natural flair of a born entertainer.
Disney connection: none (no half-Filipinos allowed?)
Essence of Billy: Dynamo is right: soft leather jacket, long hair and dangerous glare on cover suggest that Billy will take shit from no one. Over stupid bland beats and the lamest guitar solos ever recorded, Billy's faux-Michael Jackson grunts are ridiculous. This Billy guy, who opens the Pokémon soundtrack, needs a quick slap and a good shaking. He and Christina would make a perfect couple, until he dumps her for a hooker.
Blurb extract: Blurb extract: Enjoys being a girl. She loves colors that pop, romance novels and idyllic days at the beach; untamed and untarnished; hometown is Kentwood, La. (pop. 1,200).
Disney connection: Former member of The Mickey Mouse Club.
The essence of Britney: She's a princess and a plebe, a down-to-earth working girl with a pearl heart. Cover shot of her on her knees, staring at the camera with a "can-I-have-another-piece-of-cake" smile on her face, is at disturbing odds with the title, placed right above her left shoulder: Baby One More Time. Umm, what did you say, young lady?
Blurb extract: Harder, edgier sound; five extraordinarily gifted vocalists trademark harmonies; passionate heights; from Orlando, Fla.
Disney connection: Kevin used to perform at Disney World; Howie has appeared in Disney commercials.
Essence of the Boys: A couple of them seem like total bastards -- especially Kevin, whose facial hair is surprisingly satanic for a teen idol. They are, however, the perfect combination of tough and cuddly. They can't sing, but they can dance, and when they dance, they thrust their groins at the 10-year-old girls, which makes the little ones go batty with desire. This year they've sold 19 million records, so if you're thinking about buying one for your niece, don't bother: She's already got it, but she's not sick of it.
Blurb extract: She's just 15 years old, and she was meant to be onstage; honor student; poised performer of exceptional ability; fun-loving teenager; started out "jumping on my bed and singing"; from Orlando.
Disney connection: None.
Essence of Mandy: She comes and she gives without taking, but then she'll send you away. Oh Mandy. She'll kiss you and stop you from shaking, and you need her today. Oh Mandy. She opened the Backstreet show at Kiel, and she tore down the house. Oh Mandy. You need her with all of your heart and your money; Mandy's debut is called "Candy."
Blurb extract: First revealed his love of performing in school plays and choir; began appearing in television commercials at age 6; took acting and singing lessons; joined Menudo at age 12. "Ricky Martin marks the arrival of a superstar while signaling a brand new era in Latin music, a time when the whole world is "Livin' la Vida Loca'!" Hails from San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Disney connection: Former actor on soap opera General Hospital, broadcast on ABC, a subsidiary of Disney.
Essence of Ricky: He's a hunk, and he looks like he's having the time of his life. You got a problem with that, punk? Also, he's got both spunk and chutzpah.
Blurb extract: Overnight sensation in Germany; not just your flash-in-the-pan teen-idol act; five hunks.
Disney connection: JC and Justin appeared on The Mickey Mouse Club. (Curious side note: Joey appeared in Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America).
Essence of 'N Sync: In a rumble with the Backstreet Boys, they'd get their asses kicked pronto, though they could no doubt take the members of B*Witched handily -- but might end up bloodied. Ricky Martin could pummel the lot of 'N Sync. Actually, Martin could probably take the Backstreet Boys, too, except that that Kevin guy would probably start biting, scratching and pulling hair.
Blurb extract: From Dublin, B*Witched are twin sisters Edele and Keavy Lynch, along with two other ladies.
Disney connection: None. (The twins' brother Shane was a member of popular Brit teen band Boyzone).
Essence of B*Witched: Although their albums are as polished as the others', B*Witched manage to sneak in a banjo on a few tunes, which makes them the best of the bunch there for about 10 seconds -- until you realize that the banjo is fake and the twins are just teasing you. Bonus points for the cover of their recent Awake and Breathe CD. Of all the teeny-album covers surveyed, theirs is the only one that's not a cuddly closeup and the only one that has a setting. The others are boring. Theirs is pretty and thoughtful (they're sitting in a fake blue-and-green forest).
Blurb extract: The most original, energetic and engaging musical group on the scene these days; LFO's debut album showcases the trio's vocal and songwriting talents, which mesh to form a rich, unique harmonic blend of pop, hip-hop, rap and R&B.
Disney connection: None, though that Abercrombie & Fitch song is close enough.
Essence of LFO: Three quasi-tough guys from Boston who rap non sequiturs and carve a niche in Teeny-land with their use of a "purer" hip-hop sound, LFO (short for "Lyte Funkie Ones") are an insult, sure, but they don't suck as hard as the Backstreet Boys. They do suck, however, for stealing their band name.... All right -- you know, this is stupid. All these acts sound basically the same, save Ricky Martin, whose sound is much more propulsive and outwardly groin-centered than the others'.
Every single one of these artists' records owes its sound to one person: Michael Jackson. Be it the bouncy pop of early Jackson 5 or the faux-funky ditties of Jackson's solo work, you can hear him at every turn, and though, granted, all of them can sing, none of them does anything interesting with his or her voice.
The clincher? Line up the album covers side by side, and you'll notice one characteristic: All the artists are seductively staring through the camera and into your eyes, and if you look closely, you can see through their caked makeup and oh-so-innocent "fuck-me" looks and hear what's running through their collective mind: "Please buy me, oh please. I thought my career was ruined when The Mickey Mouse Club thing didn't pan out -- I was a has-been at age 14 -- and now I'm desperate. What will I do if you don't buy me? Who will love me? Will you love me? I want to fall in love with you. I want us to be best friends. And we will be, I promise, if you just buy my CD. Please? Pretty please? With sugar on top? And a cherry?"
(Actually, Ricky looks into the camera with a sense of humble resignation: I'm sorry. I know you have no choice but to buy me. I hope that you understand. I'm not trying to pull something over on you; it's just that this is what I do, and I'm quite good at it. So you might as well submit to me. I will treat you well.)
What do these artists and those 50 million records signal for the future of this generation? Nothing. Don't sweat it. They are, of course, David Cassidy and the Bay City Rollers and Rick Springfield and Debbie Gibson and Tiffany and the New Kids on the Block for a new, bigger, wealthier generation. So we'll just have to accept that we in other generations are basically screwed, pop-culture-wise, for the rest of our days. Let's just hope that of the 22,000 screaming chickies at Kiel the other night, a handful were thinking, "I know I'm supposed to like this -- and I'd never tell Katie or Victoria this -- but this stuff isn't that good. Those guys are cute and all, but I want something different." And when this handful figures out what this "something different" is, brace yourselves for a tidal-wave musical revolution. Until then, of course, we're all fucked.