Seventy Years of Pop Idols and Audiences

Rock and Roll and Ritual

Rock and roll and television rose together in the postwar years, and the revolutionary content of the music was underscored by the behavior of audiences, most especially the girls who lost all control in the presence of the certain singers and bands. That is, girls screamed at the music that television was able to bring to them, and television looked wherever it found girls screaming.

Seventy Years of Pop Idols and Audiences CONTINUES...

No one illustrates the power of the new medium and the centrality of frenzied audiences more powerfully than Elvis Presley, whose pulsating body was as important as his undulating voice. Television, like radio, could capture the effect that Presley had on his audiences. When Elvis performed, directors cut to the audience to capture the bouncing, cheering teenagers, and they became part of the performance. Television captured, too, the flummoxed reactions of adults like the show hosts, who knew that something was happening because the girls in the audience had clearly lost their minds, but what, exactly, they couldn't fully grasp.

But like the bobby-soxers who practiced their swooning, girls' responses to their teen idols were part passion, part performance. A November 1965 appearance by the Rolling Stones on the television series Hullabaloo illustrates the relationship. In the show's opening, the announcer introduces the performers, and the outsized, piercing cheers in response to the Stones indicates that that band, the one exuding excruciatingly indifferent sexiness, was the one worth paying attention to. Later, during the Stones' performance, the camera cuts to the audience, filled with girls, who jump up, hollering not in response to "Get Off of My Cloud," but upon discovering that the camera is looking at them. They know what they're supposed to do in front of the Rolling Stones—they are performing, too.

On other music and variety shows on which young music stars performed, the audience response was as obviously canned as some of the laughter. It only makes sense; the technical crew watched television, too, and they understood that rock and roll wasn't rock and roll unless there were girls' screams drowning out the guitar.

Forty years later, this performer-audience dynamic was still central to pop music on television. It's only a short jump, visually, from Hullabaloo to MTV's Total Request Live, which was the essential television program for the pop idols of the turn-of-the-millennium. In the late 1990s, teen pop singers had overtaken the airwaves. Top 40 was filled with songs by the Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, 'N Sync, and a dozen other boys bands and girl singers who appealed to, or were constructed to appeal to, adolescent girls. They all appeared regularly on TRL, which kept its small Times Square studio filled with cheering girls. The show also often cut to the street outside the studio, where a boisterous crowd was always gathered. Like Hullabaloo, TRL depended on the excitement of female audience members to provide the energy of the show.

As rock and roll splintered and diversified, the constellation of pop stars continually changed. Presley competed with the likes of Pat Boone, Ricky Nelson, and the South Philadelphia-bred cohort of Frankie Avalon, Fabian, and Bobby Rydell. The British invasion of the '60s brought the Beatles, of course—but also Chad and Jeremy, Herman's Hermits, and Gerry and the Pacemakers; American-grown acts like the Beach Boys and the Monkees also sent girls into a tizzy. In the '70s, family bands—real and made-for-tv—provided objects for idolatry staggered by age, from the Jackson 5 to the Osmonds to the Partridge Family. In the 80s, boy bands proliferated, offering the R&B stylings of New Edition, the Latin-pop of Menudo, and the global domination of the New Kids on the Block. Whether their fan behavior was more passion or more performance, the latter half of the twentieth century produced generations of women who identify themselves and each other by the stars they idolized in their youth.

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