Teen idols are a special kind of rock star – their popularity may fall as fast as it rises, but it tends to rise higher and inspire more ecstatic adoration than any other kind of artist. Musical styles and images change, but the passion of young fans is as much a part of the backbone of rock & roll as the blues. Here are the top 25 teen idol breakout moments of the rock era.
In December of 1942 Frank Sinatra was booked for a series of shows at the Paramount Theater in New York City. The 27-year-old singer had recently parted ways with Tommy Dorsey and was unsure if he'd make it on his own. Much to his shock, a small army of teenage girls swarmed the theater on the first night and went absolutely crazy when he took the stage. "The sound that greeted me was absolutely deafening," Sinatra recalled years later. "I was scared stiff. I couldn't move a muscle." The fans were labeled "Bobby soxers" because they were forced to dance at clubs in their bobby socks so their shoes wouldn't damage the floor. This mania around Sinatra occurred more than 20 years before Beatlemania, and it was the country's first glimpse of how the teenage culture would evolve in the second half of the twentieth century.
History has not been kind to Johnnie Ray. In the early 1950s the pop singer became one of the first teen idols with huge hits like "Cry" and "The Little White Cloud That Cried" – even though he was partially deaf. Girls loved his huge displays of emotion (he often cried onstage), but he had the misfortune of breaking right before the rock & roll revolution. His songs seemed hopelessly dated after "Rock Around The Clock" came out, let alone "Hound Dog" or "Maybelline." If that wasn't bad enough, an ear surgery in 1958 robbed him of even more of his hearing. Then in 1959 he was arrested for soliciting sex from an undercover male police officer. Dexys Midnight Runners definitely got it right in their 1982 classic "Come On Eileen." "Poor old Johhnie Ray sounded sad upon the radio/he moved a million hearts in mono."
America had never seen anything like Elvis Presley when he burst onto the scene in the mid-1950s. His dance moves were so sexually suggestive that he was filmed from the hips up during his debut appearance on the Tonight Show. If anything, the censorship made him even more irresistible to teenagers across the country. Everyone wondered what exactly was going on underneath that camera. Nationwide mania for Elvis lasted until he joined the army in 1958, but it peaked in 1956 when he scored Number One singles with "Heartbreak Hotel," "Don't Be Cruel," "Hound Dog" and "Love Me Tender." Regardless of how badly he squandered his gift in the 1960s and 1970s, the image of Elvis gyrating his pelvis on national TV is permanently planted in the memories of an entire generation. Countless artists decided to devote themselves to rock & roll in that very moment.
Many parents found Elvis too sexually charged for their children, but they had no problem with Ricky Nelson. America watched Nelson grow up on television as the younger brother on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. In a 1957 episode of the popular family sitcom Ricky performed a cover of the Fats Domino song "I'm Walkin'." It became a huge single for the 16-year-old, who went on to score a series of hits through the early 1960s. His career dried up around the time the Beatles hit America in 1964, but Nelson managed a brief comeback in the 1970s with his anti-nostalgia song "Garden Party." He continued to tour until he died in a plane crash in 1985.
Rock & roll reached a real low point in the very early 1960s. Elvis was in the army, Buddy Holly was dead, Little Richard found Jesus, Jerry Lee Lewis was marred by scandal and Chuck Berry was in prison on a trumped up racial charge. Enter Fabian, Frankie Avalon and Bobby Rydell. They were extremely non-threatening young men with hits like "Kissin Time," "Kissin' and Twistin'" and "Venus." With no other teen idols to cling to, teenage girls learned to make do with these guys – fueled by their frequent appearances on American Bandstand. Then the Beatles came and these guys were forgotten in an instant. None of their individual breakouts would earn a place on this list, but as a three-headed teen idol monster, they manage to sneak in. They also tour together to this day, and even some of their fans have a hard time remembering which one is which.
Just three months after John F. Kennedy was gunned down by an assassin, the Beatles landed at New York's JFK Airport. America was ready to feel joyful again, and people lost their freaking minds over these four guys from England. Girls literally pissed their pants when they caught a glimpse of their car driving down the street, and some even ate the grass they walked on. It was level of teenage mania the country had never before seen – even at the height of Elvis Presley. Girls screamed so loud at their concerts that nobody could even hear the music. During the initial wave of Beatlemania in 1964 few people could have predicted the groundbreaking music the band would release as the decade went on. Unlike many other teen sensations, this was a group that truly deserved the screams, cries and soiled pants.
The success of the Beatles inspired a group of television executives to take a chance on a script about a struggling group of musicians that had been kicking around Hollywood for years. They cast two young actors and two musicians and created the Monkees. From the release of their first single "Last Train To Clarksvile" in late 1966, they were a huge hit. The Beatles had stopped touring (and even declared themselves "bigger than Jesus"), so it was time to scream for another group. In 1967 the Monkees sold more records than the Beatles and Rolling Stones combined, but they never shook the impression that they were a fake band and by 1968 the whole thing started to crumble very quickly.
In the late 1960s Motown took a chance on five brothers from Gary, Indiana. They hit it big almost immediately, scoring with "ABC," "I Want You Back" and "I'll Be There." On their first national tour the group experienced insane crowds of screaming girls. The attention thrilled the older boys, but absolutely terrified 11-year-old Michael. The group's career waned as the 1970s wore on, but Michael went solo in the early 1980s and became the most successful recording star of all time. The mental damage from his first burst of fame (coupled with an abusive father) proved to be too much to overcome, and Jackson's career faded amidst increasingly bizarre behavior and horrific allegations of child abuse. He died in 2009, but this summer the surviving members of the Jackson 5 are going on their first tour since in nearly 30 years.
The success of Ricky Nelson and the Monkees proved that television was a great way to create new teen idols. The Partridge Family did the same thing for David Cassidy. From the second the Partridge Family began airing in 1971, David Cassidy was an icon to legions of teenage girls. Like many other teen stars, he had soft, feminine features, looked a bit younger than his actual age, and was extremely non-threatening. At the height of Cassidy-mania, he was headlining stadiums and scoring hits with songs like "I Think I Love You" and "I Woke Up In Love," but it inevitably ended after a few years and Cassidy found himself a has-been before he was 24.
They were a group of Scottish teenagers who picked their name after a dart they threw at a map landed on Bay City, Michigan. They slowly built up a following in the UK in the early 1970s with a series of goofy (but extremely catchy) songs, and in 1975 they hit Number One in America with their hit "Saturday Night," which (bizarrely enough) inspired the Ramones to write "Blitzkrieg Bop." A handful more hits followed and they even had a variety show on NBC for a few months in 1978, but as was inevitable, they completely collapsed by the early 1980s.
Six years after David Cassidy broke through came Cassidy 2.0: his half-brother Shaun Cassidy. This one was even cuddlier than the original, and somehow he came off as even less threatening. The late 1970s was a time of intense 1950s nostalgia (Grease, American Graffiti, Happy Days…) and Shaun cashed in on the craze by releasing a cover of "Da Doo Ron Ron" that went to number one. He also stared on the Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries on television. It all ended after about three years, but Shaun continued to act on Broadway and on television, occasionally even working with David.
Leif Garrett took Shaun Cassidy's winning formula of recording oldies to the next level. In a single year he charged with "Surfin' USA," "Runaround Sue" and "The Wanderer." Leif got his start in sitcoms like The Odd Couple and Family before breaking into music. His time at the top was brief, and he got into hard drugs in a major way. He's been arrested time and time again for drug offenses over the past 30 years.
This five-piece British pop act were the first band broken by MTV. The young cable network was desperate for videos, and they aired "Girls On Film," "Hungry Like The Wolf" and "Rio" incessantly. It turned the group into superstars in America, though they took a hiatus in the mid-1980s and never quite regained their momentum – even though they scored comeback hits with "Ordinary World" and "Come Undone" in 1993. Every couple of years they try to make a comeback, but they have enough old hits to sell out concerts until the end of time.
Over a decade after the Jackson 5 broke big, this five-piece from Boston landed on the charts with bubblegum hits like "Candy Girl," "Cool It Now" and "Mr. Telephone Man." Breakthrough star Bobby Brown left in 1985 for a solo career, but the group soldiered on and managed to continue making hits. Bobby's own career prospered for a few years, but by the 1990s he was better known as Whitney Houston's crazy husband than as a pop star. New Edition has reunited many times over the years, and are on tour right now. The sight of six middle-aged men signing "Candy Girl" may be a little weird, but it's still quite profitable.
Unlike most teen pop stars, Debbie Gibson actually wrote her own songs. Sure, "Electric Youth," "Foolish Beat" and "Lost In Your Eyes" haven't aged very well, but these were all huge hits in the late 1980s – and they were all written by a teenager. In the 1990s she changed her name to "Deborah Gibson" in an attempt to be seen as an adult, but she's now back to Debbie. She recently starred in a movie and went on tour with former arch rival Tiffany, and also appeared on the Celebrity Apprentice.
The New Kids on the Block got about as big as it's possible for a pop group to get. They were selling out multiple nights at football stadiums, landing hit after hit at the top of the charts while stamping their image on everything from lunch boxes to cereal to dolls. They also had the formula down: the bad boy, the young one, the quiet one, the sweet one and, um, Danny. There was even a 1-900 number fans could call to learn more about the group. Basically, they realized this wasn't going last long and they wanted to make money through every means possible. In 1994 they branded themselves NKOTB and tried to make a more "adult" album. Needless to say, it didn't work. The went their separate ways, but in 2008 they came back for a hugely successful reunion tour that's still going. They also set the template for the boy bands of the late 1990s.
There wren't a lot of teen idols in the early 1990s. It was a time when kids bought albums by Pearl Jam and Dr. Dre and Bush. But the alt-rock era was rapidly ending by 1996, and the success of these five sassy British gals proved it. "Wannabe" hit the American charts in early 1997, and pretty soon seven-year-old girls were arguing over who got to be the "Baby Spice" within their group of friends. The group got so big that they even made a major Hollywood movie, but in 1998 Geri "Ginger Spice" Halliwell pulled a Bobby Brown and quit the group for an ill-fated solo career. The group briefly kept going as a quartet before splitting in 2000. A reunion tour in 2007 was extremely lucrative, and all five members remain incredibly famous in England.
Just three months after the Spice Girls reeled “Wannabe” in America, a group of three brothers from Oklahoma dropped a new song called “MMMBop.” To this day nobody knows what exactly it means, but their long blonde hair and sweet melodies made the girls swoon and their third LP Middle of Nowhere began selling by the millions. Personal appearances at record stores turned into absolute chaos when girls spotted a glimpse of the trio, and they even landed a book on the New York Times Best Sellers List. New, slicker teen pop acts soon emerged on the market, but many fans never let go of Hanson and they continue to pack clubs and theaters to this day.
In the summer of 1997 a confusing song hit the radio called "Everybody (Backstreet's Back)." It repeatedly stated that something called "Backstreet" was back, but nobody knew that Backstreet was around to begin with. It didn't really matter. The Max Martin-produced song was incredibly catchy, girls fell in love with the five-piece boy band, and a new sensation was born. (They'd already had success in Europe, but that's beside the point.) They were led by an obese, immoral Svengali named Lou Pearlman. He played a big role in breaking them, but they later sued him for stealing their money. Unlike most boy bands, the Backstreet Boys never really broke up. Kevin Richardson quit the group for a six-year spell, but they just kept touring and releasing records to smaller and smaller audiences. They had somewhat of a revival last year when they teamed up with The New Kids on the Block for a world tour, and this year they welcomed Kevin back into the fold.
Say what you will about Lou Pearlman, he was certainly no dummy. He knew that somebody was going to create a clone of the Backstreet Boys and cash in – so he just did it himself. This didn't sit well with the Backtreet Boys, but the market proved there was more than enough room for two boy bands. N'Sync's audience grew at an incredible rate, and they soon found themselves headlining stadiums and scoring hit after hit after hit. It soon became clear that Justin Timberlake was the most talented one of the bunch, and a solo career seemed inevitable. After working like a dog for five years, Timberlake took an indefinite hiatus from the group that turned out to be permanent. The remaining members briefly thought about carrying on as a four-piece, but they wisely decided to just end the group.
The success of N'Sync and the Backstreet Boys begged an obvious question: When will a girl enter the teen pop scene? Mickey Mouse Club vet Britney Spears was initially in talks with Lou Pearlman to join the girl group Innosense, but a solo deal soon presented itself in 1998 and she found herself in Sweden recording with Max Martin before she even turned seventeen. The minute she appeared on MTV dancing in a naughty schoolgirl outfit to "…Baby One More Time" it was obvious she was a superstar. Needless to say, she's gone through a lot of ups and downs, but she's proved remarkably resilient. Every time people count her out, she emerges with a new album of hit singles and a sold out arena tour.
By 2007 the teen pop scene seemed pretty much dead. N'Sync were long gone, the Backstreet Boys were a shell of themselves and Britney had gone batshit crazy. Lou Pearlman couldn't exactly create a new group. He had bigger problems to deal with, like fleeing to Indonesia to avoid arrest for multiple counts of fraud. But then Disney stepped up to the plate and gave the world the Jonas Brothers. Like Hanson a decade earlier, they were a clean-cut trio of teenage brothers willing to do what it takes to become superstars. Appearances on Hannah Montana and other Disney shows introduced them to millions of young girls, and their albums started flying off the shelves. Unlike N'Sync and Britney, no actual adults found anything remotely appealing about this music, but to 12-year-old girls it was the greatest thing they'd ever heard. Their tickets started selling faster than a Led Zeppelin reunion concert, but the boys started taking time off to launch solo careers and they fell off the radar – especially after a new kid named Justin came on the scene.
Like Ricky Nelson fifty years earlier, Miley Cyrus made her name playing a fictionalized version of herself on television. Like Ricky Nelson, her actual father acted alongside her in a television show that introduced her to America. The similarities between The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and Hannah Montana pretty much stop there, but both shows lead to huge hit singles and they created teen idols. Miley's rise was meteoric. Tickets to her 2007 Best of Both Worlds tour sold out faster than any tour in memory, and her show had monster ratings. It seemed like she was poised to become a more stable version of Britney Spears – especially after singles "The Climb" and "Party In The USA" crossed over to the adult market, but then things started falling apart. Her 2010 LP Can't Be Tamed failed to produce a hit, and Cyrus seemed over-eager to present a more adult image. Parents were horrified by Miley 2.0, and at the age of nineteen she already seems like a has-been. There's plenty of time for a comeback though.