We probably all know of one. Maybe we’ve even been caught up by one. The teen idol phenomenon in popular culture is a relatively new one. But as the phenomenon has developed, it has often been co-opted by marketers and promoters to create idols that are not all that genuine. Let’s consider a little of the history of the teen idol.
The first recorded instance of the teen idol phenomenon was probably Franz Liszt, a Hungarian pianist who was very popular among young women of the 1840’s. Yeah, you read that right, it was in the 1840’s. He was ahead of his time.
His performances caused intense levels of hysteria in the audience, which led to the coining of the phrases “Liszt fever” and “Lisztomania”. Think of the Beatles 1965 U.S. appearance at Shea Stadium in New York City, only with classical music. If there hadn’t been Lisztomania we probably wouldn’t have called it Beatlemania.
You have to fast forward to the 20th century to find the next teen idols. The American opera singer Geraldine Farrar inspired a following of young women called “Gerry-flappers” in the early 20th century, and Rudy Vallee had quite the following among teenaged girls around the same time.
Vallee is often credited as the first performer to have a “star vehicle”, a movie (The Vagabond Lover) specifically produced to showcase the popular icon, intended to appeal to Vallee’s audience. This could be considered the “shot across the bow” by marketers and promoters, since the film was quite successful. Frank Sinatra’s early career was marked by his appeal to “bobby soxers”, the young women who gave us the term “sock hop” for a teen dance in the gymnasium of a school.
As American pop culture wound its way through the 50’s and 60’s and 70’s, a time when disposable income was rising dramatically, marketers and promoters began to see a potential windfall in creating teen idols. Frankie Avalon, Paul Anka and Connie Stevens are three such creations.
There was also great potential in television stars, already well known faces, moving into idol status, such as Annette Funicello and Ricky Nelson. There were entire television shows whose sole purpose was to generate teen idols, such as the Monkees and the Partidge Family. And television began to create its own idols, like Sally Field of Gidget and Barry Williams of The Brady Bunch.
And we fast forward to today. We have developed an entire industry (Disney in the early 2000’s?) devoted to finding and promoting (exploiting?) the next teen heartthrob, complete with its own press and awards ceremonies. They don’t even need a particular talent. That can be added in post-production.
The next generation of teen idols may well come from YouTube, which I’m sure will honk off the marketers and promoters. What, no merchandising? Where’s the money in that?
And just as quickly as they come, they go. Some are able to make the jump from teen idol to mainstream popularity, but some fade quickly into obscurity. Some we wish would fade. Are you listening, Justin Beiber?
See what you have wrought, Franz Liszt?