Into the Mouths of Babes

How graying scribes are turning teen pop ballads into songs of experience

Imagine, for an instant, that you've been granted a wish to vault back in time to that mortifying moment back in middle school when you finally got up enough guts to ask that hottie in Social Studies to your first school dance.

Only this time, instead of mumbling some lame pickup line in a nervous voice about as intelligible as Scooby-Doo's, you get to spout some carefully crafted couplets gleaned from 20 years' worth of poetic ruminations on the incandescent blast of youth's first crush. And this time, instead of delivering those lines as the awkward geek that was (let's face it) you at the edge of 13, you get to voice that slick verse as "the hunky one" in O-Town.

Welcome to the rarefied world of the teen pop songwriter, where middle-aged song-for-hire craftsmen and washed-up "Where Are They Now?" rockers get to relive their misspent wonder years with the aid of 20/20 hindsight and the best faces, clothes and hairstyles Lou Perlman's money can buy.

Songs of innocence: Does the emergence of young singer-songwriters like Michelle Branch signal the end of the hit-factory approach to teen pop?
Songs of innocence: Does the emergence of young singer-songwriters like Michelle Branch signal the end of the hit-factory approach to teen pop?

It's no accident that today's teen pop offers such an irresistible mix of self-aware schoolyard journaling and blissfully bubbleheaded song and dance. Pop music's hit-making machine has become a lavish, multicolored parade float populated by smiling, waving Seventeen cover girls and boys but driven, under the obscuring blanket of sweet-smelling roses, by graying, well-seasoned songwriters who know the twists and turns of growing up like the backs of their own hands.

"It's great having the young voices to work with," says Anders Wikström, who, with his partner Fredrik Thomander, has written a string of hits for Dream Street, the A*Teens and LMNT as half of the Swedish songwriting duo Epicentre. "We really like writing solid pop songs, with good hooks and big choruses," he says. "Music with a good drive and lots of energy. And to have those songs sung by these young groups, with all those soaring high harmonies and that natural enthusiasm, is the perfect match."

For Wikström and Thomander, who fronted their own struggling rock bands in the '80s, writing for teen pop stars gives them the chance to finally have their songs about young love and longing brought to life by the perfect pick of vibrant voices and fresh faces.

Wikström believes being older (he only admits to being in his 30s) lends his tributes to teendom an air of poignancy that you simply wouldn't find if the kids wrote the songs themselves. The young voices, on the other hand, make the emotions in the songs sound more urgent and genuine. Only an aging baby boomer raised on such classic ear candy as the Archies' "Sugar Sugar" and the Ohio Express' "Chewy Chewy" could pen lyrics as deliciously tongue-in-cheek as the lines he and Thomander spool on "Sugar Rush": "Baby you're my sugar rush/I get weak and talk too much/You're the sweetest thing I ever tasted." But when sung in solid pre-adenoid harmony by the girl-crazy choirboys of Dream Street, the winking wistfulness of the lyrics feels as fresh and unadulterated as a sloppy slurp on a just-unwrapped Baby Bottle Pop.

"A lot of kids don't know how great it is to be a kid," Wikström reflects. "We can put it into words for them. And they can sing it like we never could."


Of course, the world of teen pop songwriting is also open to a host of lecherous Lotharios who have no reservations about slipping some sly double-entendres into the pouty, unsuspecting lips of the latest Britney, Mandy or Christina.

For some, like Max Martin, the fortysomething Swedish Svengali behind almost all of Britney Spears' big smashes (her first, ". . . Baby One More Time," had to substitute an ellipsis in the title for the lyrics "hit me"), working the coy innuendo into those "not that innocent" lyrics has proved an unbeatable formula — and the key that gives teen pop its appeal beyond the middle school set. Behind all those kiddy odes to oral gratification that seem to dominate teen pop, from "Sugar Rush" to Aaron Carter's update of "I Want Candy" to Billie's "Honey 2 the B," lurk thinly veiled lascivious metaphors that routinely give Radio Disney's program director some major migraines.

"B*Witched's first hit, C'est La Vie,' had a line in it where the girl was comparing her playhouse to the boy's treehouse, and it said, I'll show you mine if you show me yours,'" says Radio Disney program director Robin Jones. "Well, we couldn't play that line. To a kid, it's just about a playhouse and a treehouse. But to someone older, it means something different. And the songwriters know that."

To their credit — and probably because the majority of these older writers have impressionable preteens of their own — most for-hire songwriters do a good job of reining in their own latent Lolita fantasies.

Corey Lerios, the former keyboard player for the mid-'70s AOR band Pablo Cruise ("Whatcha Gonna Do," "Love Will Find a Way") recently tapped to co-write the theme for the new Disney Channel cartoon Kim Possible, was careful to keep his first foray into teen pop songwriting innuendo-free.

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