25 Teen Idol Breakout Moments: Jackson Five, Justin Timberlake, - Rolling Stone
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The Top 25 Teen Idol Breakout Moments

From Frank Sinatra and the Jackson 5 to Britney Spears and One Direction, a look at the singers and performers who have shaped generations

teen idols

Miley Cyrus, the Jackson Five and Frank Sinatra were all breakout teen idols during their respective decades.

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.

New Kids On The Block

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New Kids on the Block – 1989

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.

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Spice Girls – 1996

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.


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Hanson – 1997

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.

backstreet boys

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Backstreet Boys – 1998


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.


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N’Sync – 1999

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.

britney spears

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Britney Spears – 2000

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.

jonas brothers

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Jonas Brothers – 2007

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.

miley cyrus

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Miley Cyrus – 2007

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.

justin bieber

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Justin Bieber – 2009

Justin Bieber is the first teen idol to break through because of YouTube. He was discovered singing on the site by Scooter Braun when he was just 13. After teaming up with Usher (who saw huge potential in the kid), Bieber was recording his debut album and gearing up for world domination. In late 2009 he released My World, and landed a hit with "One Less Lonely World." Girls across America took their Jonas Brothers posters off the wall and put up Justin photos. It's nearly three years later and Bieber is still king. His new single "Boyfriend" crossed over to the adult market, and his relationship with Selena Gomez has turned both of them into bigger stars than they'd be on their own. It's unclear where things go from here, especially since a new five-piece act from England is threatening to steal his thunder.

one direction

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One Direction – 2012


In 2010 the five future members of One Direction auditioned for the UK X-Factor. None of them made it on their own, but guest judge Nicole Scherzinger had the bright idea to put them together into a group. It was a good plan. England fell madly in love with the boys, and after a brilliant marketing campaign, the rest of the planet soon fell in line too. Over the past few months One Direction became the biggest boy band in America since N'Sync. When they were in New York to play on Saturday Night Live, girls camped out for days to get into the studio, and their hotel was mobbed Beatlemania style. They have no time free for a long summer tour in America, so they took the unprecedented step of selling tickets for a 2013 American summer tour. It's quite possible some girls that bought tickets to those shows will have moved on by then, but One Direction's managers know you have to cash in while you can. These groups tend to have short shelf lives.

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