Ricky Nelson and the Tensions in Male Teen Pop Songs

Earlier this month Alyssa Rosenberg discussed the current state of pop music by comparing popular new boy bands with those from the ’90s and looking further back into the history of American boy bands. In her article for The Atlantic, she argues that “The current contenders for the hearts and dollars of American girldom, One Direction and The Wanted, espouse a love-beats-all philosophy that’s actually squeakier, cleaner, and simpler than that of the generation of manufactured, male teen idols that preceded them a decade or so ago.” And she makes a pretty good point. Here I look at her argument and then trace it back to the first modern male teen pop star, Ricky Nelson, to show how the tension she describes (and others) have been a part of this music since it first gained popularity a half century ago.

If you replay that Backstreet Boys hit “I Want It That Way” in your head (and I know you can), you hear a less-than-optimistic discussion of love. Similarly, ‘N Sync’s hits like “Tearin’ Up My Heart,” discusses the singer’s doubts about his relationship, and in “Girlfriend” the song places doubt in the listener about her current relationship in order to win her over. (Of course this reading of ’90s boy bands is far from universal. I still can’t figure out what was going on with LFO and their delusions about fashion and the dangers of Chinese food in their 1999 hit.)

Compare this with the popular UK boy band One Direction, who in this clip sing their hit “What Makes You Beautiful” to a diner full of confused teenage girls. In the interview after the performance, the shaggy-headed moppet on the right says, “When we do it acoustic it’s nice to kind of slow it down and have like less people and just, you know, make it a little more personal and less about the atmosphere and more kind of about the people in the room.” However, there really is nothing personal about this song. It’s generic pop drivel in that it’s not for or about anyone specific, and is instead a blanket affirmation that allows the listener to imagine that the fawning adoration is meant for her. In reality it’s an empty message meant for no one.

There are probably a few interesting things one could say about this group as they were brought together by Simon Cowell for his television show The X-Factor in Britain where they were allowed to build up an audience before being brought across the pond and pushed on screaming fans in the U.S. Right now, however, I’m most interested in how they represent the friendly, worry-free expressions of love in male teen pop music, which contrasts with the more cynical, doubt-laden pop songs discussed earlier.

The tension between these two poles has been present in male pop vocal acts since record executives realized that there was a lot of money to be made by selling dreamy would-be-boyfriends to female baby boomers in the late 1950s. It also mirrors the musical tension between Tin Pan Alley and R&B that male pop music began wrestling with at the same time. I think you can understand a lot about these tensions by looking at the songs of Ricky Nelson, who was arguably the first male teen pop star on which most later ones would be based.

Nelson got his start playing himself first on radio and then on television in the sitcom The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. Like many kids his age in 1957, he was a fan of the Sun Records stars like Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins. He wanted to follow in the footsteps of his idols, and through his connections in the entertainment industry he was able to score a record contract. On April 10, 1957, Ricky Nelson made his debut as a singer by performing a cover of Fats Domino’s “I’m Walkin” on his family’s sitcom.

Like Elvis before him, Ricky is a white singer covering a song previously made popular by a black R&B performer (The practice of white covers of black artists has a long history, which has been covered extensively by others so I won’t delve into that much here). R&B songs were not typically written for a young audience, and suggestive lyrics would often be cleaned up for covers marketed to young white listeners. Domino’s song was already a crossover hit and did not have anything suggestive that needed to be cleaned up before Nelson could perform it on TV. Its content, however, suggests that it is coming from a much more mature and weathered perspective than the baby-faced Nelson seems capable of in 1957. Consider these lyrics:

I’m lonely as I can be, I’m waitin for your company
I’m hopin that you’ll come back to me.
Whatcha gonna do when the well runs dry
you gonna run away and hide
I’m gonna be right by your side
for you, pretty baby, I’d even die.

So while this is a fun, up-tempo song musically, it’s actually fairly dark in its lyrical content. The way this song addresses longing and lost love would fall much more in line with ’90s boy bands than today’s songs by groups like One Direction. In addition to the rock and R&B tunes that Nelson favored, his voice was also ideally suited to singing ballads. These came from songwriters more in the Tin Pan Alley mode and he had some success with songs like “It’s Up to You” and “Travelin’ Man.” Sometimes these ballads were fairly light-hearted (but nowhere near the light emptiness of “What Makes You Beautiful”), but they could also be pretty serious.

In 1958 Ricky Nelson recorded the ballad “Lonesome Town” written by Baker Knight. This is a very powerful and morose song often interpreted as being about suicide, and it is by far Nelson’s darkest song. None of the teen pop stars from this decade or last have had a break-up song that can hold a candle to Ricky Nelson.

As the 1950s came to a close and rock ‘n roll’s biggest stars disappeared for a variety of reasons, record executives needed new singers to fill the holes left by Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Buddy Holly. In looking at Ricky Nelson, they had a model for how a male teen pop star could be manufactured. As the next generation of teen pop stars like Fabian and Bobby Rydell were being pushed on young girls, the music had changed quite a bit. R&B covers were out in favor of songs written explicitly to appeal to young female fans. Songwriters in the Tin Pan Alley tradition such as Neil Sedaka perfected the formulaic teen pop song, and as a performer himself Sedaka had a series of hits in the early 1960s with songs like “Oh! Carol” and “Calendar Girl.” After The Beatles brought rock back to prominence, the teen pop formula had to change as well and The Monkees were manufactured to fit into the post-British Invasion world. Musically, however, it was very similar to what Sedaka had been doing as the Monkees performed songs like “I’m a Believer” by Brill Building songwriter Neil Diamond. R&B would come back to teen pop in a major way at the end of the 1960s with the Jackson Five. The 1970s would also see the rise of other family-based teen pop groups like The Osmonds and The Partidge Family. Then the formula changed again in the 1980s with the New Kids on the Block who were the model for the huge stars of the late ’90s that started this discussion.

The tension between vapid and empty (but sometimes catchy) love songs and more pessimistic songs with substance has been present in male teen pop throughout its history as a major part of the record industry. The tension between R&B and Tin Pan Alley pop styles can still be heard today as well. The increasingly common insertion of rap verses in contemporary teen pop can probably be understood as an outgrowth of that tension (Or maybe not. I’m still playing with that idea).

Ricky Nelson struggled with his legacy as a teen pop star for much of his life and died in an airplane crash in 1985. His song “Lonesome Town” became a minor hit again in 1994 when it was used in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.

I’ve focused my discussion here on male teen pop singers and groups, and there are both similar and different tensions faced by female pop stars. For an excellent analysis of the current crop of young starlets, specifically coming off of Disney’s assembly line, I suggest checking out the chapter “Wholesome to Whoresome: The Other Disney Princesses” in Peggy Orenstein’s 2011 book Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches From the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture.

Now I just have to ask myself: Are these new teen pop stars really as bad as I think they are or am I just getting old and cynical myself?

Wait, no. I’m pretty sure they really are that bad.

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