For the past 40 years, the hardest thing for any act to do has been to graduate from teen pop.
The Jackson 5, so hot in 1970-71, was cold within two years. The Jacksons managed sporadic hits during the ’70s, but it wasn’t until 1979’s “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground),” the first hit actually written by the group members, that the Jacksons/Michael Jackson hit streak was off and running.
The Osmonds, who rode the Jacksons’ template to their initial hits, went through various attempts to establish a “bold new sound,” (usually a common occurrence among teen acts, somewhere around year three or four of their career). The various extra permutations of the group (Donny solo, then Donny & Marie, then Marie solo) kept the chart presence going until the late ’70s. But when Donny made a late-’80s comeback for one song, he famously did so by not attaching his name to the initial pressings.
Rick Springfield managed an adult career in the United States primarily because his Australian teen idol status had never taken here. David Cassidy quickly went “more rock,” but had to settle for a few extra years of mega-stardom in the United Kingdom. Much later, New Kids on the Block became NKOTB and went for a harder hip-hop sound. Radio not only didn’t buy it, but it put the entire teen pop genre on punishment (except for R&B acts) for several years.
In the ’90s, The Spice Girls tried to go more R&B. Hanson was always perceived as not stereotypically teen pop in the first place (although “Where’s the Love” sounds a lot to me like when the Osmonds tried to rock out). In both cases, radio had already turned its attention to ’N Sync, Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears.
The next teen act backlash threatened to dispatch both ’N Sync and Backstreet Boys. The latter tried to go more AC with “Shape of My Heart,” alienating the bubble-gum fans and not fooling anybody else. ’N Sync went more R&B and it was initially an intriguing but not entirely successful attempt, but it did set up Justin Timberlake to make one of the few true transitions to adult hitmaker status, seemingly using Robbie Williams’ similar British career path as inspiration.
We know how Spears made her transition. Even so nobody believed her at first. But by the time Miley Cyrus made hers, the accepted route for female artists wasn’t just a provocative new sound, it was provocation. Mandy Moore, by comparison, made truly more adult music and hasn’t been heard from since.
Unlike Spears, Katy Perry didn’t wait four years. She opened with “I Kissed a Girl” and never had to deal with the teen pop stigma, even when “Firework” and “Roar” became teen empowerment anthems.
Justin Bieber already had the “bold new sound” thing working for him pretty well. He didn’t really need to follow Spears into the tabloids. Conversely, Joe Jonas’ relatively tame consumer press provocations have, if anything, only served to underscore lack of interest in him as an artist.
Then there was One Direction. “What Makes You Beautiful” had stalled just on the cusp of “real hit” status during its run on the airplay charts, but was eventually ratified during the years largely by its staying power at AC radio. After that, the fan base could be counted on to rapidly push each new single to the middle of the charts, right into an onslaught of PD resistance. “Best Song Ever” seemed only to confirm that pattern.
Instead, radio received “Story of My Life” almost immediately as “the One Direction song for people who don’t like One Direction.” Other 1D songs struggled to get out of the low teens on the charts. This one is hovering just outside the top five. It is almost certainly headed for the same sort of afterlife at adult top 40 and mainstream AC that powered “What Makes You Beautiful.”
So how did One Direction do it? Think back to its one-time rivals, the Wanted. “What Makes You Beautiful” was identified at the outset as too bubble-gummy. The Wanted’s “Glad You Came” sounded like any of the other “turbo-pop” hits of the time and was thus perceived as grown-up. “Story of My Life” isn’t shy about invoking other recent hits—“Home,” “Wake Me Up!,” “Counting Stars.” (Despite this, PDs don’t seem to have any trepidation about scheduling it next to, say, “Counting Stars.”)
I root for One Direction (and I root for teen pop in general, because top 40 usually does better when it’s present). It sends a strange message that the best way to be taken seriously as an adult artist is to show that you can do exactly what everyone else is doing on the radio. But at least nobody had to dance suggestively with a teddy bear.