Nov 27, 2012

The First Teen Idols, 1956-1963

Before 1955, most teens appropriated their music from Mom and Dad, who listened mostly to silky-voiced crooners like Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra. Then rock and roll exploded onto the musical scene almost over night, and suddenly dozens of young rock and rollers were aimed directly at teenagers, through jukeboxes at teen hangouts, hysterical praise in teen magazines, teen-oriented radio stations, and appearances on teen-oriented tv programs: Elvis Presley and Pat Boone by 1956, Paul Anka and Ricky Nelson (1957, Ricky only after he sang on his father's tv sitcom), Frankie Avalon  (left) and James Darin (1958).

In all, 19 major teen idols appeared between 1956 and 1963, with 243 charting songs, mostly with the same pitch.   There was little word play, little metaphor, not a hint of irony or ambiguity to detract from the clarity of the pitch: if you are a boy, get a girl. If you are a girl, get a boy. That is your reason for living, period.

There was no rampant heterosexual desire in the pitch. In "Travelin' Man" (1961), Ricky Nelson has girls in every port, and in "The Wanderer" (1962), Dion insists that he'll have sex with any girl who offers. But usually sex is not on the teen idol's mind; he is looking for The One, the "mate that fate created me for" (Bobby Rydell). Paul Anka (left) cries every night for the gods to grant him The One, so that his life can have meaning.

After finding the One, the teen idol finds all other girls forever repulsive, or is simply unable to notice them.  And even more, he cannot find any joy in any other relationship, interest, or activity.  He goes to movies, drives a hot rod, surfs only to be near her.  He gets a job only to earn money to buy her gifts.  If it were possible, he would spend every moment for rest of his life literally staring into her eyes.  Nothing else matters.

The reason for the pitch is obvious: to promote a heterosexist future of marriage and family to the biggest generation of juveniles in the history of the planet.

In spite of the "teen angel" cliches, none of the 243 songs mourn dead girlfriends, but The One breaks up with the teen idol (like Fabian, left) quite often, due to a family move, parental disapproval, or simple rejection.  This loss is much more painful in the pitch than it would be in real life, since even after The One is gone, the teen idol still finds other girls repulsive, or is unable to notice them.  Thus, he is constitutionally unable to find anyone else.  He will never have another girlfriend for the rest of his life ("I'll Never Dance Again," Bobby Rydell tells us.)

But the tragedy gets even worse.  Single people can find happiness and contentment with family and friends, a career, leisure pursuits, political activism -- but The One was the teen idol's sole joy in life, his sole reason for living, so he will never find any joy in anything else, ever.  His life is over.

In the pitch, the teen idols inhabit a world that consists entirely of girls.  Only 27 of the 243 songs mention boys at all, and in 22 of them, including "Staying In" (Bobby Vee), "Johnny Will" (Pat Boone), and "Pin a Medal on Joey" (James Darin), boys are reviled competitors, lying in wait to steal The One.

Of the remaining five songs, three merely allow the teen idol a buddy to commiserate with over the loss of The One: "Poor Boy" (Elvis), "Ten Lonely Guys" (Pat Boone), and "Drip Drop" (Dion).

The other two, a pitiably small number, allude to same-sex desire or practice.

In "Jailhouse Rock" (1957), Elvis evokes a dance at the county jail, an all-male preserve, and specifices that the prisoners vie for the attention of the most attractive dance partners"  "Number 47 said to Number 3,  'You're the cutest jailbird I ever did see!'"

More homoromantic is Bobby Darin's "Nature Boy" (1961), about a "very strange enchanted boy" from far away, "a little shy and sad of eye," like the sad, shy gay boys who linger at the margins of heteronormative myth.

Nature Boy visits Bobby on "a magic day," and, during their time together, tells him "the greatest thing you'll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return."  Perhaps the song managed to pass into the pitch because the "boy" could be read as a little boy, advising Bobby to find a girl.

But the original song, written by Nat King Cole in 1948, is about an adult, one of the long-haired sandal-clad Nature Boys, forerunners of the hippies, who wandered L.A. in the 1940s.  And Nature Boy never says "get a girl!"  He wants Bobby to love him.

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