And, in this post-Britney era, it appears that the message is getting a bit more family-friendly
With the Jonas Brothers tour crossing the country, there'll be much parental chatter about how this latest craze is affecting our kids. Adults love to fret about the chilling effect of Miley Cyrus' bared shoulders or of Joe Jonas' crucifix-adorned purity ring. But there's also music to consider.
No matter how many backpacks they help Target sell or photo spreads they do in Vanity Fair, tween stars like the Jo Bros and Miley Cyrus (in and out of her Hannah Montana costume) have music at the center of their identities. These young stars tend to write (or at least co-write) their own material, and their hits contain some interesting lessons about both life and pop.
Today's tween pop is tasty and nutritious and just a bit tart, like a protein-packed smoothie. Anyone over 12 will enjoy its flavor but find it not quite a whole meal. It's a lot like rock but not quite rock — that old drop of poison, of boundary-challenging risk, is necessarily absent. The sounds of Radio Disney and Nickelodeon — whose stars completely rule the Billboard Kid Audio charts — are made to be tolerated by parents nervous about the messages pop music sends, especially in the wake of meltdowns by former teen stars like Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears.
No longer is teen pop based on the Lolita principle. Instead, it's a tool for learning, transforming the individualism and irreverence of the rock era into good-girl-and-boy self-empowerment.
Spears sent scintillating mixed messages in songs like "... Baby One More Time"; Cyrus and the Jwo Bros make things perfectly clear. Tween emotions are confusing. Tween pop acknowledges this, but it exhorts kids to believe in themselves anyway and not to play games with anyone's heart.
Miley/Hannah's hit of last winter, "See You Again," recounts how she "freaked out" in a favored boy's presence but ends confidently: "I will redeem myself/ My heart can rest 'til then." "S.O.S." by the Jonas Brothers offers the other side of the conversation. These boys crave nothing more than honest talk and clear commitment: "Don't wanna second guess," Nick Jonas sings to his girl, who's hiding behind coy text messages. "This is the bottom line."
In both songs, feisty little riffs underscore the lyrics about standing up for yourself and respecting others.
Nickelodeon's stars are a bit more sophisticated. Miranda Cosgrove, the Carly of the sitcom "iCarly," sings with the cute va-voom of Stockard Channing in "Grease" (or, for that matter, Ashley Tisdale in "High School Musical"). Nat and Alex Wolff of the wonderful Naked Brothers Band muse existentially in songs like "Body I Occupy," sometimes even questioning adult authority. But never do they inappropriately feign adulthood.
Growing up is the subject of tween pop, and nobody wants to skip the process. While some songs acknowledge brewing hormonal desire — the new Jo Bros single is called "Burning Up" — none encourage kids to equate sex with power. Girls who tease and boys who are too possessive get the boot. "This is real, this is me, I'm exactly where I'm supposed to be now," Demi Lovato sings in this summer's smash "Camp Rock."
A decade ago, boy bands like 'NSync and girl-women like Spears projected adult sexuality even when expressing youthful emotions. Tween pop goes back one more incarnation, to Hanson and the Spice Girls, whose breakthrough hits sent forth positive vibes on waves of power-pop sunshine.
There's a message here about music too. Tween pop is all about rocking out, even if "Burning Up" aspires toward blue-eyed soul (with a cameo rap, no less!). This is a major change from the Britney phase, when teen artists firmly embraced R&B — from the early Disney franchise, built around former "Cosby Show" star Raven-Symone. Tween pop is selling rock to a new generation and repackaging it for their parents.
Since hip-hop came to dominate the sound and feel of Top 40 pop, mainstream rock has gotten somewhat stuck, banished to various subcultures or reduced to a nostalgia trip. Tween pop, influenced by pop-punks like Fall Out Boy and Avril Lavigne, lightens up the basic rock sound without abandoning its classic elements.
With tween pop's rise, mainstream rock goes even further toward becoming family fare — a status already partly secured by the popular efforts of nonsectarian Christian rockers such as Daughtry and the defanging of transgressive elders like Gene Simmons of KISS.
No matter what the Jonas Brothers do next, they're still easier to explain to your kid (or for your kid to explain to you) than Kurt Cobain.