Seventy Years of Pop Idols and Audiences

After The Revolution?

Through the decades, pop idolatry has had significance beyond the personal. Scholars Barbara Ehrenreich, Elizabeth Hess, and Gloria Jacobs, looking back at Beatlemania, see it as a training ground for the more coherently articulated political protests of the late '60s and '70s. In the early 1960s, as in the '40s, marriage was the only appropriate outlet for sex, and it was girls' responsibility to make sure that she and her boyfriend didn't "go too far"—though how far was too far was a blurry line and a difficult one to hold. The authors write that in a context in which girls were expected to be responsible for their own purity and their partners', "[t]o abandon control—to scream, faint, dash about in mobs—was, in form if not conscious intent, to protest the sexual repressiveness, the rigid double standard of female teen culture. It was the first and most dramatic uprising of women's sexual revolution" (85). 

Seventy Years of Pop Idols and Audiences CONTINUES...

The women's movement declared that the personal is political, and in doing so, made women's sexual expression a civil right. By the 1980s, it was much more acceptable for women to express their sexuality in public—though how much more acceptable continues to be a point of contention. Music, and particularly MTV, has been one arena in which these debates are held. Most visibly, Madonna built a career on the controversy she could cause by being female, sexual, and powerful, all at the same time.  She wasn't the only one; in the 1980s, Cyndi Lauper, Tina Turner, Cher, and other adult female performers staked out a place in mainstream pop in what looked like an empowering, self-styled way.

In the next decade, performers like Spears, Aguilera, Mandy Moore, and Jessica Simpson entered pop in a postfeminist, post-Madonna world. If the presumptive relationship between adolescent girls and male pop idols has been one of prescient heterosexual longing, girls as objects of idolatry shift the relationship to one of identification and imitation. Adults presume that girls in the audience will begin to do what their girl idols do—and when that includes the expression of a sexual self, then female pop idols became the focus of unprecedented scrutiny.

Britney Spears is the best example, as the preeminent teen pop idol of the early 2000s, and a direct descendent of Madonna's controversial style. Spears was, during her first years in the spotlight, the most famous virgin in America, at the same time that her performances and videos were informed by a knowing, teasing sexuality that suggested that she was, as her lyrics intimated, "not that innocent." A few years later, after having an emotional breakdown extensively covered by the media, Spears became pop idolatry's cautionary tale.

In today's firmament, the preeminent teen pop star is Miley Cyrus, who has spent the entirety of her teenage years as the most valuable live-action commodity in the Walt Disney Company empire. Throughout her professional career, Cyrus and her manager-parents have come under criticism for seeming to push an adolescent into an adult sexuality. Her first public relations explosion revolved around a set of photos for Vanity Fair in which the seventeen-year-old Cyrus was wrapped in a blanket, her back exposed; to some, this flirted too closely with sexual exploitation. Since the Vanity Fair issue, commentators have cautioned that Cyrus could become "another Britney." The logic behind the warning is spurious; the implicit assumption is that being sexual and teenage together is to lay the first bricks down on the path to ruin.

For adolescent girls living in the post–sexual revolution, sexual mores are less restrictive than they were in the '40s, '50s, and '60s. But they are also less clear-cut. Today's Seventeen magazine (Cyrus is on the December/January cover) assumes that at least some of its adolescent readers are sexually active. Advice on how to be attractive sits alongside articles reinforcing the need to be aware of the consequences of sexual activity, including the continued spread of HIV/AIDS. The latest issue also features an article profiling girls who have been the victims of online abuse. Hurtful language is based on perceived sexual activity—victims were called "whore" and "skank." If Spears and Cyrus are sending mixed messages about their sexual maturity, it's largely because the cultural terrain of adolescent girls' sexuality is strewn with paradox.

At twenty-eight, Britney Spears has passed through this terrain, and the now-seventeen Miley Cyrus appears to be making attempts to move swiftly away from the tweens who made her a household name. This is part of the ritual, too. Starting with Sinatra, the pop idols who have built long careers have retreated from their adolescent fan base—or have had the fan base retreat from them—and subsequently reestablished themselves with a more general audience. It has become a truism that this generation's idols will not do for the next. And who will be the next big thing? If you want to know, you'll have to watch the Grammy Awards, and see whom the girls are shrieking for.

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