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.