Crazy About You:
Reflections on the Meanings of Contemporary Teen Pop Music


Phillip Vannini
Washington State University

Scott M. Myers
Washington State University

Please address all correspondence to Phillip Vannini, Department of Sociology, Washington State University, Pullman, WA 99164-4020. Fax (509) 335- 6419. Email: [email protected].

We would like to thank the anonymous reviewers of an earlier draft of this article for their thoughtful suggestions.


Teen pop is a successful form of commercial music written for and consumed mostly by adolescents and pre-adolescents. Music and lyrics represent a system of meanings that consumers may use to define their self-concept and personal and social identities. Young listeners of teen pop may be especially likely to interpret the lyrics of this music genre and use their meanings to define themselves and the roles of others in their lives. In this paper we analyze the lyrical content of fourteen contemporary teen pop albums and argue that the thematic content of such music speaks of the changing cultural ideas of love, leisure, and consumption. We argue that the discourse of teen pop is neither a mirror of the existing zeitgeist nor an original creation but rather a reality that is socially constructed by the interplay among mainstream mores and values, consumption practices, and subjective interpretation of its meanings by its audiences.

Since the birth of rock and roll in the 1950s and continuing today, parent groups and political representatives have repeatedly been accusing popular music of fostering deviant attitudes and behaviors in its young audiences through the glamorization of violence, drug use, sex, and rebellion. Yet surprisingly little academic attention is focused on the cultural impact of music on the social and interpersonal context in which it is written and consumed (Hargreaves and North, 1997). The few existing empirical studies focus on only a few forms of popular music, mainly rap, punk, and heavy metal, while mostly neglecting other genres. Whereas the label ‘rock’ has often been used as an umbrella term to catch just about any genre other than classical, one particular style that has been largely ignored by academic observers is teen pop. The influence of teen pop in pre-adolescent and adolescent culture can no longer be ignored given its increasingly dominant role in music sales, TV and radio airplay, the proliferation of popular female performers and all-boy bands, and the integration of individual teen pop stars into advertising campaigns by Fortune 500 corporations (e.g., Burger King, McDonald’s, PepsiCo, Inc.)1.

In this paper we explore the characteristics of teen pop lyrics and their significance at the personal and socio-cultural level. In particular, we identify the predominant lyrical themes of typical teen pop albums and focus on describing the main ideas portrayed in these albums and their performance, that of romantic love and consumption. We then offer a number of observations on teen pop ideology and its meaningfulness for its consumers’ identity. The reader must keep in mind that given the absence of prior studies on contemporary teen pop this article is intended as an initial exploratory investigation of the lyrical content and possible cultural impact of the teen pop music genre2.

Popular Music and Society

Theodor Adorno was among the first sociologists to become concerned with the impact of popular music on society. Adorno’s observations were highly pessimistic about the role that music played on political and cultural beliefs. While on his exile in the United States from Nazi Germany, Adorno (1976) found the increased availability of music recordings and diffusion to be leading audiences to mass consumption and the uncritical adoption of consumerist culture. According to Adorno, while different in character, the function of music was reminiscent of German Nazi propaganda as a system of cultural domination and manipulation of consumer minds. In his view, standardized and repetitive character of music led listeners to regress to “child-like” consumption, which he called “quotation listening” (Adorno, 1991: 44-45). In the quotation listening mode audiences reach an even less critical level of consumption that is characterized by a trance-like state of effortless thinking focused on accepting and obsessing with a song’s hooks—the catchiest and most recurrent verses and melody passages. Some of the characteristics of popular music that Adorno observed are still typical of popular music today, especially teen pop with its emphasis on repeated chorus lines and catchy hooks.

Adorno’s model of passive use of music spurred great interest and solicited numerous critiques including those of David Riesman (1990). In 1950 Riesman found listeners to be differentiated in two main groups: a majority group sensible to popular idols and a minority group which was composed of small clusters of active fans who adopted a highly critical stance toward commercially popular music and developed an elaborate and sophisticated taste and understanding of alternative music genres.

These alternative music genres and its role in structuring its audiences’ identity have received much attention in particular by the Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) in Great Britain. As the studies on cultural identity and music subcultures of the CCCS testify (e.g. Hall and Jefferson, 1976; Hall et al., 1980), music represents a symbolic activity that youth cultures construct and utilize to locate themselves in the existing social structure. Punk music for example (Hebdige, 1979) has long stood as a cry for authenticity, rebellion to anonymity, and rejection of normative mainstream beliefs (especially in regard to consumer culture). At its onset the CCCS undertook the project of dispelling the lingering behaviorist bias implicit in early Critical Theory analysis of mass communication without depriving culture studies of its critical stance. Stuart Hall (1980) remarked that the content of any form of communication is not “like a tap on the knee cap” (p. 131) but rather a component of a complex structure articulated in distinctive moments. Hall, following Marx’s approach to commodity production and consumption, suggested that the communication process is a continuous circuit specifiable in five phases: production, circulation, distribution, consumption, and reproduction. The clear advantage of this model is that it does not presuppose audiences to be cultural dopes gawking while waiting to be fed information. Rather, the CCCS clearly distinguished the process of production from that of consumption and posited that the act of reading (or seeing) is a complex semiotic act. Meanings are communicated in the form of symbolic messages of a specific kind through specific codes operating in the general realm of discourse. At the production level these meanings are ‘encoded’ in symbolic vehicles and circulated outside the apparatus of production. Once distributed these discourses must be decoded by audiences. The decoding process is a process of translation of discourse into social practice. Meaning is derived when a message is ‘consumed’ but given the possibility of endless interpretation it is untenable to assume that a ‘preferred reading’ will take place. While it is true that some teen pop acts have achieved universal fame it would be foolish to conclude that all of their audiences receive them with a favorable (and especially the same) impression. If this was the case there would be no possibility for cultural criticism or for the existence of alternative productions. Indeed the work in which critical students of culture engage is not too different from the everyday interpretive hermeneutical practices of lay audiences. Stuart Hall (1980) hypothesizes that there are three positions from which decoding of communication takes place, the dominant-hegemonic, the negotiated code, and finally the oppositional code. Without reinstating the surpassed analytical distinction between denotation and connation of the early Barthes, Hall suggests that at the oppositional code level viewers/listeners/readers “detotalize the message in the preferred code in order to retotalize the message within some alternative framework of reference” (1980: 138). This is not to deny the presence of hegemonic discourse, rather it is to account for audiences’ agency. Hall and British Cultural Studies, however, have made a considerable effort to study the hegemonic properties of discourse. Hall (1980: 137), following Gramsci, defines a hegemonic viewpoint as having two components:

a) that it defines within its terms the mental horizon, the universe, of possible meanings, of a whole sector of relations in a society or culture; and b) that it carries with it the stamp of legitimacy – it appears coterminous with what is ‘natural,’ ‘inevitable,’ ‘taken for granted’ about the social order.

Whereas it makes sense, as the CCCS has done, to examine some forms of music consumption (such as punk) as ‘resistance through rituals’, while we acknowledge the role of agency in audience’s choices it makes less sense to think of contemporary teen pop fans as strong ideological oppositional force. For instance, in The Sociology of Rock Simon Frith (1978) identified a group of fans who were particularly sensible to commercial music idols. This group was mainly composed of young girls who consumed pop singles and albums as much as they consumed magazines, clothing items, and other products marketed in relation to their pop idols. These teeny-bopper cultures and their rituals, Frith observed, revolved around girls’ bedrooms and the activities taking place there. Frith (1978) believed that young girls’ limited freedom of movement outside the home increased the chances they would spend their time indoors gossiping, talking, trying on clothes and makeup, and listening and perhaps dancing to readily accessible music tunes aired by the radio or TV. A highly meaningful symbol in this culture was the pop idol – identifying with a particular music star meant (and arguably still means) relating to specific peer groups. In addition to capturing these girls’ gaze through their good looks, pop music stars helped these ‘teeny boppers’ manage the sexual tension and emotion their age and gender roles carried: “music and musical idols provide a focus for girls’ hopes and fantasies as pop and film stars did for their mothers and grandmothers” (Frith, 1978: 67). In sum, Frith (1978), without making an overt structural-functionalist argument, believed that the meanings of teen pop were much less countercultural than other genres in vogue at the time such as reggae and punk.

The Political Economy of Pop

While there exist obvious continuities with the production, distribution, and consumption strategies of the past, contemporary teen pop has assumed peculiar characteristics due to recent globalizing trends in the exchange of goods and ideas (Burnett, 1996). In the past popular music was transmitted to the masses mainly through the radio and somewhat limited circulation of phonograms. Increase in buying power and innovations in recording and listening hardware prompted a few major corporations to expand their economic interests in the music industry in the late 1950s (Burnett, 1996). These business expansion trends of the 1950s and 1960s eventually found their completion in the early 1980s when a handful of major international corporations became able to control music from production to distribution. At writing time the music industry in the world is largely controlled by six multinational corporations: Time Warner, Sony, Phillips, Bertelsmann, EMI, and Matsuhita. In 1994 these corporations controlled 90% of the gross sales of music-related products in America and an estimated 70 to 80% of global sales (Burnett, 1996). Today we hear or listen to pop music everywhere, from the car to the airplane, from the shopping mall to the workplace, from the living room to the doctor’s office, from Mexico to Thailand. Popular acts like Britney Spears, N’Sync, and the Backstreet Boys, for instance, have come to occupy an important place in the lives and households of many teenagers and younger children and families across the world through the aggressive marketing strategies of BMG (Bertelsmann Music Group), their German distributor3. The exposure of these acts is far from being confined to the concert or music video stage, however, for their image is marketed on clothing lines, cosmetics, school items, books, movies, foods, drinks, and more.

Adolescent consumers of teen pop are growing up in an era different than that of Adorno and Riesman and even Frith, and indeed different than that of any other generation of adolescents. While the expansion of teenage buying power, technology, and mass media has historically rendered music more easily accessible, today the key to growth is broader product diversification and specialized diffusion. An increase in the number of radio stations, music videos, specials, concerts, streamed web-based performances, and the multiplication of recording forms, including the recent explosion of freely downloadable MP3 computer files, magnifies the mass influence of popular music. Centralized corporate production insures continued consumption through pervasive distribution, vast output volume, and structured product obsolescence (Gitlin, 1981) while strategies of careful manufacturing of the image and sound of pop icons ascertain that audiences are treated as ‘targets’ and ‘market-segments’. Take for example the case of Britney Spears. Her image and sound had been first controlled by Disney as a pre-teen Britney worked as a host of the Mickey Mouse Club. Subsequently her schoolgirl image was spiced up to appeal to the 12-16 age group and her videos were made to occupy a steady spot in the rotation of Zoog ABC and the Disney Network. Now, with her continued biological growth her image has been recreated as sensual and provocative and formatted to meet the demands of MTV. As this takes place new ‘Britney’s’ mushroom on the market to appeal to different targets: Jessica Simpson to Christian teenagers, Mandy Moore to preteens, Jennifer Lopez to Latinas and older fans. Producers’ control extends from songwriting to image-packaging and personality development (Frith, 1978). Any boy-band act is put together to appeal to various personalities and life outlooks of fans as each band includes a member portrayed as cute and sweet, one funny, one good-looking and mysterious, one creative and goofy, one talented and motivated, one dark and tough, and such. Bands are created with the consumers’ demand in mind4, for example LFO target through MTV an older adolescent urban audience with their hip-hopish sound and sexual innuendos, while S Club 7 and Aaron Carter target preteens through Fox Family and ABC Family. This is an example of the diversification of products that allow producers the broadest appeal possible and the highest profit margin.

Notwithstanding the commodity character of musical expression, music’s many diverse styles still constitute the ideological backbones of various youth cultures and subcultures. Young listeners become members of a specific social groups vis-à-vis music and form a personal and social identity consistent with the meaning of this music and group membership through what music they consume (Frith, 1978). We recognize that today’s teen pop may have much in common with the styles of past years, yet we also believe that an analysis of this genre in its contemporary form and characteristics is of much cultural and intellectual interest. The celebration of love in particular is an important component of pop or folk culture, whether old or new. Outside of clear stylistic differences, the painful longing for love of the Blues or of a young Elvis Presley for example is not that far from the lamentful crooning of Justin Timberlake from N’Sync. Yet, the idea of love, as all ideas and cultural values do, has changed with time (Beall and Sternberg, 1995). Even though many analyses focus on the early history of rock and roll or pop music, no attention has been dedicated to contemporary teen pop.

Constructing Identities Through Selective Consumption: What’S All the Fuss About Music About?

Music occupies an increasingly larger role in its younger audiences’ identities. In 1995 teenagers represented the largest groups of buyers of music and music- related products in an industry whose sales topped twelve billion dollars and steadily growing (Wright, 1997). Even though the consumption of music can be considered a private activity, music is particularly meaningful to adolescents because it represents a vast source of meanings for the definition of a personal and social identity (for a review see Frith, 1996a). According to Grossberg (1986), the consumption of music has three important aspects: (a) Music functions as a sub-discourse in a larger cultural context of which it is at one time product and manufacturer; (b) Listeners derive from their favorite music genre a system of meanings that help them structure and define their everyday sense of reality; and (c) One’s music genre of choice defines who one is within youth culture.

As youths look for sources of information, emotional understanding, and cues for the expression of their emerging social and personal identity, they often find music to provide them with valuable meanings (Zillman and Gan, 1987). As adolescents begin to refer to music genres to organize their sense of self and reality, they begin to consider themselves as members of cultural communities. These associations provide them with the emotional benefits of belonging, the possibility of expressing affiliation with similar peers, and differentiation from opposing taste cultures. Following a logic of conspicuous consumption (Veblen, 1899), adolescents then utilize one’s musical style of choice to express themselves with “membership-defining attire, hair style and mannerisms” (Zillman and Gan, 1997:173).

Grossberg’s (1986) hypothesis that adherence to a specific musical genre shapes a listener’s identity has received broad empirical confirmation (Frith, 1996a,b; Hargreaves, 1999; Zillman and Gan, 1997). The study of identity formation in relation to music exposure has been informed by the development of social psychological principles of social cognition (Fiske and Taylor, 1991). Social cognition theory stresses the study of “how people make sense of other people and themselves” (Fiske and Taylor, 1991:14) in a particular social context. Frith’s (1996a, b) observations are particularly illustrative of the mechanisms of the interactive process of identity formation and music exposure. According to his model, the aesthetic experience of listening to one’s music of choice results in the construction of a mobile and fluid identity. This identity is continuously shaped and modified as an individual interprets and assigns meaning to musical and lyrical content, and consequently defines oneself by elaborating on one’s place in a social context.

In light of these observations, what is the relevance of contemporary teen pop? As we have remarked teen pop is mostly concerned with ideas of love and leisure. If teens indeed do use teen pop to derive their sense of social identity then the following reflections must be considered. First, the increased importance of love and leisure in young people’s lives seems to be reflective of the move toward expressive individualism and the leisure ethic, a move that arguably began in the late 1950s and continue unabated today (Bellah et al., 1985). The values of fun and love are then crucial in the development of a youth’s identity. Second, the importance of conspicuous consumption cannot be underestimated. As writers such as Illouz (1997) have pointed out, the contemporary idea of love has been influenced by the hedonistic consumption of leisure and sexuality with the result of confusing the boundaries between romance and commodities. One’s sense of social identity in youth culture must then by necessity be mindful of one’s potential to attract and even possess others in order to enhance one’s social status. Third, given teen pop’s lyrical rendition of love as ‘lack’, interested observers must reflect on the consequences of such ideological position for the development of its audiences’ identity. Indeed if we understand love as a need, or better yet as a want, we can begin to see how the logics of consumer culture are used to construct the meaning of the self and the idea of significant others in individuals’ lives.

The Present Study

What exactly is teen pop? Following Denisoff (1975) we define teen pop as the musical genre that is most popular with teenage audiences. Teen pop is indeed mostly produced for and targeted to adolescents and pre-adolescents, social groups whose buying power has constantly and greatly increased over the years. Teen pop is to be intended as a subcategory of pop music, as the latter can be said to be inclusive of diverse and often opposing styles (Rock and Hard Rock, Hip Hop, R&B, Rap, Dance, Country, etc.) that become commercially successful enough to be featured on the Billboard Top 200 charts and hence become popular.

In our analysis we included all the artists featured on the Disney Channel Network (hereafter, DCN) during the third week of December 2000 in order to draw a broad sample of contemporary teen pop performers. We chose the DCN because it is one of only two TV cable channels whose programming is dedicated exclusively to pre-adolescents and adolescents. In contrast to the Cartoon Network in the United States, which features mainly cartoons, the DCN has launched a series of music shows targeted to an audience mainly of 8 – 17 year olds. The DCN is comprised of a web site, one main cable and satellite TV channel, and a cable and web radio station through which fans can watch videos and shows, listen to songs, and have access to information on the following 14 featured performers: Britney Spears, N’Sync, Backstreet Boys, Christina Aguilera, S Club 7, 98 Degrees, LFO, Jessica Simpson, BBMak, Abba Teens, Aaron Carter, M2M, Hoku, and Youngstown.

Of course young music fans are exposed to their favorite stars through many media outlets beside the DCN. However, as a confirmation of the validity of using the DCN to draw a somewhat representative sample, consider that these 14 artists and groups also dominated the 2000 Billboard Top 200 Album Chart Sales. Indeed, albums by N’Sync, Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, and Christina Aguilera ranked 1st, 2nd, 4th, and 8th on the 2000 chart, respectively. As mentioned, other performers cater to teenage music audiences, and many more continuously mushroom up on this market. However, in order to draw a composite sample we chose to limit our analysis to these 14 featured artists on the DCN. For each of these artists we selected their latest release in the form of a full-length album. A total of 14 albums including a total of 169 songs were included in our analysis. Once the sample was collected, we analyzed the lyrical content of each song, as traditional content analysis research on music’s meaning has focused on lyrics (Frith, 1996b). Even though we feel that popular music is a broad form of discourse encompassing various communication forms and diffusion practices (e.g. videos, advertisements, etc.), we chose to report on the lyrical content to simplify our analysis and offer the reader our reflections on the ideology of this music genre.

In our sample, 155 songs out of 169 contained narratives of romantic love stories. Other themes characterizing the remaining 14 songs included dancing, partying, and friendship. It is worth noting that all teen pop albums have much in common. The same writers are often shared by multiple artists, as in the case of the Swedish composer Max Martin who has written songs for N’Sync, the Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, and more recently Christina Aguilera. Even when the writers are not the same, all of the songs analyzed here have much in common in terms of style, imagery, and themes. Yet, all the albums analyzed seemed to feature a clear and distinct template-like menu of a song or two about a breakup, one or two about a first encounter, one about jealousy and betrayal, another about the celebration of a relationship, another one about a crush and so forth. Within each album, it is impossible to read across songs as a unified and coherent whole, rather it makes more sense to think of an album as a collection of songs as commodities destined to appeal to various fans and their life’s vicissitudes without trying to alienate any of them. The love lost in one song, is not the same found in the next track, or the one lost again in the following tune. However, as we will observe next, the spirit remains the same, that of a painful and obsessive sensation of love.

We present a number of brief excerpts accompanied by our observations in order to give the reader a sense of the love narrated in teen pop music. It was not our intent to arrive at a formal quantitative content analysis of mutually exclusive and exhaustive thematic groups and sub-groups of these lyrics. Instead we offer a few descriptive examples that we believe will help our readers get a clearer idea of what teen pop represents.

Love in Teen Pop Lyrics

In teen pop, love is something to be craved after. Longing is here an intense experience of wanting love or a beloved person. This is an overwhelming and painful experience of desire, both at a physiological and psychological level that is generated by the presence or the fantasy of a love object.

All I want is you (you make me go crazy), all I want is you (you better cross the line), I’m gonna love you right (all I want is you), I want you, I need you (Christina Aguilera, 1999).

I wanna be the only thing you need, be the oxygen you breathe (…), and there’s nothing more that I would ever ask for than to be with you, just to be with you (Hoku, 2000).

These cravings are also often generated by loneliness, boredom, depression, or stressful situations.

Watching lovers walkin’, hand in hand they pass me by, wish I was one of them, wish I had somebody waking up beside me, looking into my eyes at night, I want a love to call my own, I want somebody that I can hold, want somebody wanting me (Christina Aguilera, 1999).

It seems as if these feelings of longing to be cared for or to care for someone are so overwhelming to distort one’s sense of reality. The lovers depicted in these songs often experience illusions such as knowing and feeling what a romanticized partner wants and pretending that their needs be met.

Boy, I’ve been watchin’ you, and you’ve been watching me, I know you want me baby, I’m gonna make you see, I’ll give you whatcha need (Jessica Simpson, 1999).

High on Love

Just like a potent drug, the love of teen pop offers a good feeling fix. This sense of getting high off of love may come from fantasizing about or actually meeting a love object. Many of the songs we analyzed contain examples of these emotional ‘hits’ of being swept away.

Today I saw a boy, and I wondered if he noticed me, he took my breath away (…), he smiled, and I thought my heart could fly (Britney Spears, 2000).

The first time that I saw you, I knew it from the very start, you had a deep place in my heart (Aaron Carter, 2000).

We found many stories of love at first sight described as a powerful and often irresistible force that is ravishing and captivating. In these narratives, often encounters come after a period of longing for love in fantasies, illusions, and daydreams. As the fantasy then materializes, love at first sight seems to cause loss of control, the suspension of critical reasoning, and the beginning of cravings of immediate gratification.

I knew the moment that we met, I had to be inside of you, someone you won’t forget (Youngstown, 1999).

These encounters sometimes happen after love is frantically sought ‘in all the wrong places’ until the search is successful and ever so rewarding.

I was walking down the street one day, then I saw you I didn’t know what to say, your eyes were shining, your smile was so kind, when I saw you I wanted you to be mine (M2M, 2000).

And suddenly you’re naked standing right in front of me baby I see you (…) girl you got the mouth, the lips girl I pick to kiss, all your body is made for pleasure, you make me feel like a man should feel like a man of steel, you’ve got a hidden treasure (LFO, 1999).

It seems as if the experience of such an overpowering sensation causes an individual to suspend consciousness of their individuality and feel ready to surrender their life to the object of infatuation for the sake of love. We speak of this characteristic of love as a high because it seems as if these lovers really lose their boundaries in the intensity of the moment. Yet love is far from being only such a pleasant sensation. Many songs narrate of painful cravings, a characteristic which we examine next.

Love as Lack and Obsession

The experience of obsessive thoughts and feelings and the compulsion to act out the forces behind one’s urges are common aspects of the love portrayed in teen pop. Obsessive thinking surfaces as one fears losing one’s loved object or as one experiences anxiety and loneliness. These obsessed lovers seem to lose functionality and become isolated in painful and insistent thinking while retreating into unending fantasies.

I can’t get him off my mind, and it scares me, because I’ve never felt this way (Britney Spears, 2000).

I’m not ashamed to tell the world that you really messed up my mind, girl, to me you’re like a dream come true, I would rather hurt myself than to ever hurt you (…) I’ve never known before a girl I wanted more, the way I want you now, I admit you are the best, and with you I am obsessed and I could never do without (Aaron Carter, 2000).

Love assumes the character of a prophecy that must be fulfilled at all costs, often for the sake of coping with loneliness and feelings of insufficiency. Love is then a response to the perceived lack of something. The presence of love makes up for the painful feeling that meaning is absent in life, and can only be found by possessing and consuming love. This aspect is quite interesting for it reflects the idea that love is a need; without love one cannot live. Hence, lovers in these songs may become fixated or even enraged enough to ‘make’ their relationship work at all costs in order to possess love. Often the relationships narrated in the songs are marred by maniacal jealousy, possessiveness, lack of reciprocation, and the imposition of excessive demands.

You want to run, you want to break free, what you want ain’t what you need (BBMak, 2000).

Don’t ask me to walk away, wanna stay tonight (…) I can’t stop until I make you mine (98 Degrees, 2000).

It appears as if all that matters to these obsessed lovers is the guarantee that somehow they are no longer alone. Romantic companionship is so critical for their existence that they could not fathom surviving without the loved object.

I will be there till the end of time, I will be with you until the day that I die, I’ll be yours, I’ll be yours (Aaron Carter, 2000).

You know that I adore you, wanna be there everyday for you, to satisfy your every needs, my baby (Backstreet Boys, 2000).

In certain songs, these lovers feel what they want is sacred and they must obtain it, incapable as they are of controlling their obsessive instincts. The following excerpts epitomize this loss of control.

I don’t know how, but I suddenly lose control (Abba Teens, 2000).

When you put your hands on me I feel ready and I lose my self-control (Christina Aguilera, 1999).

Love as Dependency

The lovers whose pains and pleasures are narrated in these songs are extremely dependent on their objects of romantic fantasy or actual partners. Indeed many lyrics speak of the impossibility of living without love. Here are some examples of this dependence on love from our sample.

Without you in my life, baby, I wouldn’t be living at all (N’Sync, 2000).

Life’s too short to live without you, you’re my life and I live for your love that you give.

(…) When I think, I’d be lost without you, makes me wonder what I did before you (S Club 7, 2000).

People who experience normal forms of loving attachments may find the thought of losing a partner painful and readily admit that their romance plays a critical role in their life, but the lovers of teen pop are so infatuated that they seem to lack a life outside of their relationship. Consider the following verse:

Cause girl you are my queen, you’re my everything, and I swear you’re the air that I breathe, baby, how can I go on? I’ll be your everything, fulfill your every dream (Youngstown, 1999).

While reading these lyrics we encountered numerous stories of obsessive thinking, potent feelings of attachment, and mentions of much emotional and physical support received and offered through care and sex that seem to guarantee these lovers vital stimulation and freedom. In short, dependence on love seems to be a form of perceived self-insufficiency, a feeling that one cannot bear one’s existence by oneself. Teen pop music writers and performers narrate vividly the details of these feelings of insufficiency.

I want to be somebody to somebody who loves me, spending all my time on me, where is that someone who I can give my time to (Christina Aguilera, 1999).

It seems as if the constant stimulation of love works much like a ‘hook’ for these dependent lovers. Without their source of pleasure they seem to precipitate in a downward spiral of boredom, anxiety, depression, and loneliness.

Without you in my life, I guess the whole thing would be empty (LFO, 1999).

I lie awake and die, I try but I can’t deny, that I can’t make it without her (BBMak, 2000).

The freedom love affords these lovers is that of liberating them, in their perception, of their feelings of emptiness and personal worthlessness.

Just one kiss from you and suddenly I see the road laid out in front of me, you give me strength, you give me hope, and when you hold me in your arms, you make me whole (Britney Spears, 2000).

The way you make me feel inside, you complete me girl, you’re my heart, my soul, my everything (Backstreet Boys, 2000).

Love Is Never Enough

Similarly to addicts, the lovers of our songs find that becoming accustomed to their “hits” forces them to pursue new intriguing activities, or to require more from their passions.

Baby, baby, we can do more than just talk (N’Sync, 2000).

Don’t wanna leave you here, I wanna come inside and kiss you where you like (…) Fill your cup with gin and juice, we’ll give you what you need (LFO, 1999).

Becoming somewhat tolerant to love is not the only problem with this idea of romance. In fact, many songs narrate stories of painful break-ups, sources of extreme grief for the love addict. This withdrawal from love carries meanings of abandonment, betrayal, and feelings of injustice. Lovers in these songs fall prey to depression, anger, and anxiety attacks, and even seem to experience suicidal thoughts when left to themselves to come to terms with a lonely and empty life. Consider the somber tone of these verses:

No more carefree laughter, silence ever after, walking through an empty house, tears in my eyes, here is where the story ends, this is goodbye (Abba Teens, 2000).

Baby set me free from this misery, I can’t take it no more, since you ran away nothin’s been the same, don’t know what I’m livin’ for (BBMak, 2000).

Withdrawing from love saps these lovers to the point of being unable to live normally.

…waiting for someone who needs me (Christina Aguilera, 1999).

Gender, Love, Leisure, and Consumption

As said, the greatest majority of the songs we analyzed narrated the pains and pleasure of the experience of love, while other song lyrics differed somewhat in character. These songs are mostly upbeat dance hits that seemingly incite audiences to ‘get on the floor and party’:

Thank God it’s Friday night and I just. .. got paid. Money, money, money, money…Oh Yeah, oh just got paid friday night party hoppin’ feeling’s right booty shakin’ all around pump that jam while I’m gettin’ down. Check the mirror lookin’ fly. Round up the posse. Jump in my ride radio rockin’ hottest jam feel the rhythm pump up the sound feelin’ so good (N’Sync, 2000).

The importance of fun and leisure in the ideology of teen pop cannot be stressed enough. These ‘feel-good’ hits are targeted to youths presumably unaware and unconcerned with the problems of everyday society. Youths are symbolized as mainly in growing up while having a good time. This emphasis on leisure is of interest to the academic observer for its historical and sociological significance. The growth of the leisure class and the increasing importance of the value of entertainment in everyday life have been accompanied by the dislocation of the role played by youth in the social structure (e.g. Frith, 1978). Contemporary youth are no longer expected to find steady full-time employment early, but rather become socialized to adult roles through extended schooling and peer-based socialization. In addition, the family of origin has lost much of its past influence on mate selection and romance has assumed the place of self-fulfillment and emancipation from family control. As adolescents’ growth is marked by romantic experiences, the search for a romantic partner has increasingly been coupled with the idea of leisure and consumption (Illouz, 1997). In light of these observations we can understand the ‘bubble-gum,’ carefree joys of music listening, dancing, and having fun as resolutions of age and role demands and conflicts (also see Frith, 1978). Teen pop is then to be understood as neither than ‘mass culture’ nor ‘folk art’, but rather as popular culture, a culture whose symbolic resources are highly meaningful for the people who consume it. Future empirical studies must address the important issues of analyzing the composition of consumer groups and their consumption strategies. For example, is it still true as Frith pointed out in 1978 that girls represent the largest group of consumers of teen pop? Arguably, this might still be the case. Boy-bands seem to be produced with the intent to win over girls’ sympathies and their song lyrics seem to reflect a rather feminized idea of relationships5. Female pop stars instead seem to be produced with a dual purpose: to attract the male gaze and to inspire female fans. Britney Spears for example epitomizes the self-made, hard-working spirit of the American protestant ethic. This girl-next-door seems to inspire her young female fans for she is after all ‘just another girl from Middle America’, a simple girl made to look like a star through fashionable clothes, neatly applied makeup, physical conditioning and dieting, all products that Britney markets and that fans may purchase to ‘become just like her’.

As the logic of capitalism and consumer culture have expanded onto the realm of romance, leisure and love have become more and more dependent on consumption (Illouz, 1997). Consider the subtle message implicit in these lyrics:

Crazy little party girl how I love her. Partying around the world – she wants to dance. Crazy little party girl There’s no other party party. Always ready to dance (Aaron Carter, 2000).

In this ethical system based on leisure and self-fulfillment the world seems but a boundless dance floor to be cruised in search of the best party. This is of course a fantasy, but its implications are not to be dismissed. Travel is the ultimate global form of conspicuous consumption. The spirit of postmodern tourism is that of borderless leisure; the whole world and life assume the character of unlimited possibilities of fun and experience. And travel is of course always a unique romantic experience; it follows that, as Illouz (1997) suggests, commodities are romanticized and romance is commodified, as in the following lyrics:

You can call me when you want me, if you need a friend you got me I’ll be your everything, fulfill your every dream We can do it automatic, I can freak you with my gadget I’ll be your everything. You’ll see I’m everything you want and more I’ll be your gadget, the one you call to make magic, most rap stars live lavish. Got you a Benz for a carriage and even a rock, about 8 to 10 carats but you almost forgot. When we both went to Paris, and you took shots, cause of you, look at all the drinks I got. Think back and look at all the minks you rocked and I know you’ll be impressed from the things I got ‘cause I’m Mr. Gadget (Youngstown, 1999).

When romance is thus constructed human qualities become confused with material possessions, and the implications of such phenomenon for the study of identity and culture cannot be overlooked:

I was hangin’ with the fellas. Saw you with your new boyfriend and made me jealous I was hopin’ that I’d never see you with him. But it’s all good cause I’m glad that I met him, huh. Cause now I know the competition’s very slim to none. And I can tell by looking that he’s not the one. He’s not the type you said you liked. His style is whack, clothes are bad. Come on girl; let him go, I want you back (N’Sync, 2000).


A firmly established traditional dichotomy in the way of looking at artistic expressions has identified music to be either a mirror of the prevailing zeitgeist, or a way of manufacturing beliefs and cultural trends. The distinction of music as a foreground or as a background is inevitably misleading, and can be perceived to be a reflection of a simplistic mode of thinking biased toward linear causality (Negus, 1996). Grossberg’ s cited observations on the cultural relevance of music transcend both Adorno’ s view of the music industry as manipulative of passive listeners, as well as, for example, Iain Chambers’ (1985) opposing approach to the production, performance, and consumption as active cultural innovation.

Following Frith (1978, 1996a, b) and Grossberg (1986, 1992), we hold that musical discourse resides in a larger social and cultural context of which it is expression, and on which it can and does exert its own influence. Music, as a system of meaning, cannot be said to be either a dependent or an independent variable of popular culture, but rather to be a social construction that is part of a specific cultural context. As such, its producers and consumers are interpreters belonging to the same social context in which music content and cultural values interplay to constitute socially constructed realities. It is this dual capacity of music to be at one time both reflective of common popular beliefs and influential in moving and shaping the same beliefs that makes it such an important cultural agent. In the case of teen pop the music industry does attempt to promote and sustain particular styles over others, but these marketing activities are dependent on the industry’s interpretation of trends already existing with the public. While marketing is often successful in maintaining these trends and shaping taste, at times corporate music production runs into dismal failures.

Interpreting the discourse of popular teen music is then an exercise of tremendous importance for sociologists, musicologists, historians, psychologists, and cultural anthropologists. Teen pop is a music genre that has been around for many years, but only recently has assumed the enormous commercial influence and some of the typical style characteristics that make it so deserving of close scrutiny. By examining a broad and representative sample of the most popular contemporary expressions of this genre and by exploring some of the main theoretical aspects of music consumption, we offered the following arguments: (a) Teen pop music is a system of meanings used by its young listeners to develop a sense of self and identity, as well as to interpret information about the realities of leisure, love and interpersonal relationships, and (b) Teen pop, defined as a musical expression produced for and targeted to adolescent and pre-adolescent audiences, is characterized by a thematic content describing a vision of love as ‘lack’ while emphasizing the importance of a lifestyles of leisurely consumption.

It is not our contention that teen pop consumers are inevitably bound to uncritically absorb the ideas portrayed in the lyrics of their favorite records. We follow Stuart Hall’s (1980) hypotheses in his previously cited encoding/decoding article in concluding that music listening is an agentic choice, however influenced by hegemonic discourse. The deterministic position of Adorno or psychological behaviorism, however sensationalistic and arguably popular with traditional detractors of popular music on the conservative or progressive side, is clearly oblivious of the active role many listeners take in interpreting their music’s message in a particular social context. Of course it is just as erroneous to assert that writers, performers, and producers of teen pop have somehow machinated a brainwashing agenda capable of driving young audiences to consume love and leisure and feel miserable when they lack the capability to do so. As argued, we believe that popular music is shaped by existing attitudes while at the same time it helps shape those attitudes.

We also agree that teen pop is certainly not the only factor liable for the explanation of a particular identity formation or the construction of cultural ideals; other social agents must obviously be considered. We do however remark that the increasing influence of teen pop may have important effects at both the individual and global-cultural level by playing a role in shaping its audiences’ identity, and by helping define cultural ideas, values, and gender roles. Future research must address the role of the greater discursive realm of popular music, for example by studying videos as meaningful cultural symbols, and by studying the salience of music identity at the social psychological level.

Researchers of gender, interpersonal relationships, and love in particular must look at teen pop in the near future. If young teenagers are highly sensitive to the value of love, it is perhaps because our cultural belief system emphasizes in so many ways that the idea of romantic love is somewhat necessary to give life meaning (Dubrow-Eichel, 1993). Teen pop music is a commercially successful industry because it offers love as a product (or at least its representation) to a target of consumers that are in dire need of the existential security it so easily affords. This research represents the first step in understanding some of the meanings of teen pop in the lives of adolescents and contemporary culture.


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1. Combined sales for the ‘big three’ of teen pop – Britney Spears, N’Sync, and the Backstreet Boys – totaled 120 million albums and more than $400 million in concert tickets between 1998 through 2001 (Leeds, 2002). Britney Spears’ album “Oops I did it again” ranked 4th in the year 2000 Billboard Top 200 album chart sales; N’Sync’ s “No strings attached” ranked 1st; Christina Aguilera’s eponymous ranked 8th; Jessica Simpson’ s “Sweet kisses” ranked 51st; 98 Degrees were ranked 25th on the top 200 artist chart; LFO were ranked 71st top artists; BBMak were ranked 36th hot new artist; M2M were ranked 92nd hot new artist; Abba Teens’ album “The Abba generation” remained 31 weeks on the Top 200 charts; Aaron Carter’ s album “Aaron’s party” was ranked 27th in the last week of December 2000; the newly released “Black and blue” album by the Backstreet Boys was ranked 2nd in the last week of December 2000. Billboard, Dec. 30, 2000.

2. It must be noted that in his classic The Sociology of Rock Simon Frith (1978) reserved considerable attention for teen pop producers and consumers. We believe that Frith’s contributions to our understanding of the teen pop phenomenon are very important yet his observations need be re-contextualized given the numerous historical variations occurred in music and society over the last quarter of decade.

3. Jive Records publish Britney Spears, N’Sync, and the Backstreet Boys records but BMG (Bertelsmann Music Group) distributes these across the globe. In addition BMG owns 20% of Jive (Leeds, 2002).

4. The structure of consumer demand is an important concept to keep in mind. As Frith (1978) suggested producers’ ability to shape needs is limited. Why or when a style becomes popular or unpopular remains a conundrum for the music industry. It is much easier for any producer to stay with one genre or act after it has become popular and produce endless imitations than experiment with new formats or shape consumer demand. Record industries still find very few acts highly profitable, while the majority of albums produced and distributed hardly bring any profit at all (Burnett, 1996).

5. Arguably it is no accident that any boy band crooner prefaces almost every other lyrical passage with ‘baby’ or ‘girl’. Any superficial look at the audience composition at a teen pop concert will confirm the suspicion that girls are the intended target and boys may tack on perhaps only to ‘hang’ with the girls they like.

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