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.

"We were just trying to be clever around what the show was about: this teenaged girl who's always ready to save the world at the beep of her cell phone," says Lerios, who's racked up a successful second career scoring TV movies and shows (including all 12 years of the Baywatch franchise).

Nevertheless, Lerios admits, the ditty, "Call Me, Beep Me (If You Want to Reach Me)," which has also become a surprise hit single for singer Christina Milian, is propelled by some fast-flowing word play in the chorus that just begs to be twisted around by both pre-adolescent boys and middle-aged sadomasochists.

"There is a gray area there," he says of the lyrics. "When we were doing the recording, we had to make sure Christina really enunciated the p' in beep.' 'Cause it does sound a lot like beat me.'"

Wikström, too, insists he doesn't try to put any words in his young artists' mouths that they don't quite "get" themselves.

"Sometimes an artist doesn't care," he explains from his own studio in Stockholm. "They already buy the song as is. But sometimes an artist doesn't really feel the song, and react like it's kind of being forced upon them. And then we have to sit down and discuss what's wrong. We know that if an artist records one of our songs, it's gonna be their song. They're going to have to live with it."

Wikström feels the mere presence of so many aspiring boy bands and girl groups around Sweden — a hotbed of teen pop since ABBA in the '70s and, more recently, the string of hits produced at Midas-touched Cheiron Studios for the Backstreet Boys, *N SYNC and Britney — gives him and Thomander some first-person insight into the thoughts and feelings of the young artists they work with.

"We don't just write for these young acts," he says. "We meet up with them and record vocals and do all these things together. So it's real easy to see if an artist likes a song or not, or whether or not they can relate to the lyrics."

Still, Disney's Jones, who probably listens on a daily basis to more bubblepop fodder than anybody, is creeped out by a lot of the songs that get submitted to her network for consideration.

"The funny thing is, you've got all these adult A&R guys giving these teen and tween bands these lyrics," she says. "And these singers are very young; they're not used to thinking about what they're singing. They're just thrilled to be making a record.

"But it's creepy sometimes," she adds, "the lyrics these older guys give them to sing."


For Michelle Branch, one of a handful of new young singer-songwriters determined to bring self-penned songs back into fashion, it's about time for the songbirds of her generation to start speaking for themselves.

"It's funny, because here are all these 16-to-18-year-old girls who are buying these records where there's an 18-year-old girl singing, but the songs are written by these 40-year-old guys from Sweden!" she says, laughing. "And they're writing about how it feels to be an 18-year-old girl.

"But here I am, a real 18-year-old girl, and I can write songs about that. And I guess it just sounds more realistic."

The Sedona, Arizona, native, chatting on a recent stop in Phoenix, finds it curious that she's managed to become a bit of an "It" girl by simply taking the stage armed with an acoustic guitar and a batch of original songs.

"That's just what being a rock star has always meant to me: somebody who writes their own songs and plays an instrument," she says, shrugging. "But it seems like we've been so saturated in the past couple of years with young singers who don't write their own music that now real singer-songwriters stick out more than they ever have."

Indeed, the success of Branch's debut Maverick album, The Spirit Room, has already turned some heads around at the major labels, who now appear bent on discovering more poetry-penning girls with a couple years of guitar or piano lessons behind them. Vanessa Carlton's personal twist on all those Aaron Copland classics she apparently studied, "A Thousand Miles," is positive proof Branch's example is already being followed by others.

"When you write your own songs, you can perform it with the most genuine emotion," she explains. "Because when you write a song that you're going to sing, you know the emotion you want to convey because you know what you wrote it around. Instead of going, Okay, how am I supposed to sing this guy's song? Was he happy? Does he want me to sing it sad?' And so on. It's so much easier to get it right when you know personally where the song came from."

Does the emergence of young do-it-yourselfers like Branch, Nelly Furtado, Alicia Keys and Carlton signal an end to the hit factory approach that's dominated teen pop for the past few years? Hired pens like Anders Wikström, understandably, hope not.

"I think it's a good thing to see young people taking the approach of writing themselves," he allows. "But there's always gonna be a lot of artists needing help from outside. Because it's very hard to write an album of good songs if you're gonna tour in between and do all the promotional work that you have to do. It's very hard to take the time to do the hard work of writing and producing."

That all depends on how you spend those rare moments of free time, counters Branch, who's already toured most of the States and Europe since the release of her album late last year.

"I've been writing constantly on tour," she insists. "A lot of people ask me, What do you do to kind of get a break from everything?' Well, I write songs!" she says, laughing. "Writing is just something that I always do, and that I'll always be doing."

She pauses for a moment, then adds, "It's how I know I'll always sound the way I want to sound."

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