Wham! Wham! Thank You, Ma'am

MTV sells rock stars to teen girls

Bruce Springsteen's fans got a closer-than-usual view of singer last night when he ventured into audience during his concert at Seneca College gym, Canada,December 21st, 1975 Credit: Dick Darrell/Toronto Star/Getty

In the late fifties, if you snapped on the black-and-white Philco Predicta in the waning minutes of the week's adventure with Ozzie and Harriet, you might see dreamy Ricky lip-syncing to his latest platter, pony-tails swinging at his feet. Not every episode, just every now and then. And maybe, every couple of months, you'd catch Ricky, along with Fabian or Frankie, doing the live guest shot in the middle of the dance party on Bandstand. That was serious exposure.

These days, MTV's like a Bandstand without the kids, just the guest stars, all day and night. Wham!'s on maybe six times a day, every day, month after month, and not just lip-syncing, but hanging out, messing around in three-minute movies. As the means by which you can answer the all-important question — is he cute? — television has always been the crucial link between pop music and girls, and the fallout from round-the-clock rock videos has descended: never have there been more teen idols, more durable teen idols and more old guys held to the budding breasts of very young girls.

In his "Dancing in the Dark" video, Bruce Springsteen wiggles with a brunette who looks like a teen waitress from the local Dairy Queen, not a woman in her midthirties, his age. He deepened the demographic of his record buyers after that pas de deux and turned from hockey-rink player to baseball-stadium act. The fourteen-year-old girl was always a mighty and mysterious player in the pop-music game, but never before has anybody had so much access to her, and where she's really weak — TV. When John Cougar Mellencamp stopped playing a toughie and started dancing in his videos, his new status as cute guy drove his album sales through the roof. From the looks of the crowds at his live shows, it wasn't his peers discovering him in greater numbers; it was the teen and preteen girls. Ditto for Huey Lewis. The girls have turned a slew of worthy older rockers into heartthrobs and made their records go crazy into the platinum figures, guys you'd think would be too mature for them: John Fogerty, Don Henley, Bryan Adams, Sting, Billy Joel and David Lee Roth among them.

Now everybody's getting marketed to the little girls, who're busy putting their money where they wish their mouths were. They showed just what they'd do for old-style teen idols like the British pups Wham! and the Nordic hunks A-ha, boy models with long eyelashes: both groups had Top Ten hits with their debuts. They embraced Madonna as the Eighties' Annette, turning her into a full-blown idol and trendsetter, just as they took to Tina Turner, who's almost old enough to be Grandma. And apparently finding him too ambiguous or too androgynous or just too short to be a real threat, the girls love Prince, who bridges the gap between their parents' nostalgic recollections of the Sixties and their own taste in paisley prints.

Teen idol used to equate with flash in the pan, but no more. With the constant recycling of older videos, the teen heroes have a new kind of longevity in the market: witness the durable Duran Duran and their spinoff, the Power Station. The second Duran Duran LP finally sold big almost two years after its release, once the girls had eyeballed John Taylor, and the love hasn't faded away.

MTV has revived a link that fell apart during the psychedelic days, when all the drug references kept the music off TV, and stayed broken through disco and punk, when neither form proved acceptable to a majority of viewers, disco because it was black and punk because it was ugly. By 1980, radio, let alone TV, was hardly speaking to the girls: Top Forty stations had splintered into AOR, male-oriented music from Elvis Costello and the Clash to Journey and Styx, and adult contemporary, flaccid stuff like Olivia Newton-John. There was no outlet for the new white dance music from England by acts like Visage, Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran. But they were tailor-made for girls: they were good-looking, nonthreatening, and they dressed up. They'd made videos for the British dance clubs, so when MTV started, in 1981, and the station needed product, these bands became its stock in trade. Suddenly, the girls were once again the key to pop-star marketing plans, and the big winner was Michael Jackson, a soft spirit and great dancer, who had the best videos going. Conversely, the failure of the wondrous single "Candy Girl" to break New Edition on the crossover charts three years ago can be blamed on MTV's reluctance to offer up other black acts.

On the basis of his being a swell soul singer, Paul Young at first sold weakly in the United States; then his record company got smart and pitched him as a cute guy. Not surprisingly, his enormous hit this year was a cover of a song by Daryl Hall, the most venerable superwimp. At thirty, Young's no wimp himself, no Bobby Rydell, but he now attracts only the innocents who know him from TV: the audiences on his latest tour were teens who tote stuffed animals to wing at him whenever they recognize something from the videos. They screech when they see the outfit he wears in the videos and when he re-creates any little movement from the videos, like his patented twirls. Screams for video memories.

Still, you wonder a little how these thirty-to-forty-year-old guys manage to come off as sex symbols to girls from ten into their teens. But as has always been the case in rock & roll, it's not a question of age but of dressing right, acting hip. Bruce, in his T-shirts and jeans and leather jackets, doesn't seem old to anybody; he's just cool. And what could be sexier to a teenager than, say, a Don Henley, even if he's almost Dad's age, when he wears those Ray-Bans and sulks around the beach house. They dress cool, they use makeup and lighting to take off a few years, they hang out with young babes in the video scenarios, and they put a hook in the grooves — so they pass.

Also, MTV provides no historical context. Fogerty whizzes by, then Henley, then the Power Station, and it's all one big swirl of heavenly hash. "Rock and Roll Girls" doesn't send them back to Creedence; "The Boys of Summer" doesn't make them ponder the time passed since the demise of the Eagles; and hearing "Bang a Gong" doesn't make them dig out the T. Rex albums. Their sense of the firmament of stars is different from ours. They know no hierarchy because MTV's so incredibly democratic. The videos are presented without judgment, and the kids add none of their own: after all, nobody has critical instincts at ten, few have them at sixteen. (That's why, for twenty-five years, Dick Clark's asked kids what they thought of a record and nobody's ever come up with anything to say — except, of course, it has a good beat.)

"I know it's true," John Fogerty was singing this year, " 'cause I saw it on TV." The tube pronounces them rock stars, new ones delivered like they've already arrived. They hit their target instantaneously, not via the poky grapevine, like it used to be. They can be global teen idols faster than you can say Tears for Fears.

And the little girls will be sitting there, tuned in, cooing, "He's so cute." TV has always sold to the girls best; they can see who's crush-worthy. Of course, it's love on a two-way street. It isn't lost on them that Bruce Springsteen still does what he does to win the heart of a girl.