French pop outfit The Teenagers’ scathing single “Homecoming,” with its nostalgia saturated teen flick video by hipster auteur Kinga Burza (click for the video at gbh.tv), is perhaps the most provocative of recent songs to portray adolescent sexuality. The twenty-something musicians tell the story of a European teen visitor who has a nasty fling with his California step cousin. The boy and girl exchange verses, giving a mini-Rashomon version of the teen sex farce – they boy is jaded (“I fucked my American cunt”), the girl insipidly romantic (“I loved my English romance”). There’s an element of cruelty here that I don’t find in most pop music (I’m certain it’s out there, but haven’t catalogued it exhaustively, for some obvious humanist reasons). The representation of the girl in particular is unsympathetic and frankly misogynist, particularly in the essentialization of the girl to her sexual parts and, perversely, her nationality, as though “American cunt” were a more savage put-down than any other gyno-phobic slur available. Also perversely, the song is relentlessly catchy, and as well-crafted a pop song as 2008 had to offer. The song ends with a bit of sung dialogue that suggests that both the cruelty and the insipidity go both directions:
Boy: It was so nice to meet you
Girl: Pleasure is mine I do like you /Come to Cancun for Spring Break
Boy: I’ll think about it, it could be great
Girl: Don’t forget to send me a friend request!
Boy: As if!
Pop music and youth culture have gone hand in sweaty nervous hand since the beginning of pop music, or of youth culture for that matter. And adolescent sexuality has always been one of the most popular, and potentially controversial subjects of popular music. The issue I take with this is probably the opposite of most who take issue with this sort of thing – I have no problem with frank depictions of adolescent sexuality in pop music, YA literature, or cinema (I think it’s far more destructive to feature violence or repressive sexual imagery in any of these media than to represent sexuality in a positive way).
My issue is that it’s generally adults who are choosing how to represent teen sexuality, and that these representations either white-wash the sepulchre of adolescent desire, or lacquer over the realities of teen sex positive and negative with a slick veneer of nostalgia and fantasy – grown-ups fondly remembering sex when they were young and thin, or fantasizing about adolescent sex or sex with adolescents. There’s something suffocating about the one, and absolutely sleazy about the other. Cinema and literature have similar problems when it comes to representing adolescent sexuality, but that’s another post, or more likely a couple of them.
I don’t have a particular agenda here except to point out something I see as a problem of representation – what one might call the figuration of adolescent sexuality in popular music – and to try to open up some dialogue about it that may inspire future posts.
When teen popstars do write their own music (which is sadly more and more rare) and write frankly about their own desires, adult critics recoil in horror because the music is either too frank, or too saccharine (recall the critical contempt with which Debbie Gibson’s homage to puppy-love “Lost in Your Eyes” was held back in ’89). Millenial teen queens Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera sang sexier songs written for them by adults, and performed in hyper-sexualized videos directed by adults with adult fantasy in mind (Spears’ Catholic school soft-core “Hit Me Baby”), in spite of the youth of their principal buying audience.
Teen male sexuality is more likely to be white-washed when the performers themselves are teens. Boy bands in the 90s catered to their tweener girl audience with soft-focus ballads and cringe-inducingly cheesy dance singles. Both Back Street Boys and ‘N Sync visibly rankled under the constraints of the boy band genre, and pushed the envelope of what was permissible in late career releases like the latter’s Celebrity, introducing more frankly sexual lyrics and eroticizing the dance numbers in their live shows. I recall a mother ushering her two very young daughters out of the ‘N Sync show at the Metrodome in Minneapolis on the Pop Tour back in 2002 because the action on the stage was a bit too PG-13 for her brood. Former ‘N Sync-er Justin Timberlake has continued to up the ante in his solo work, actively distancing himself from the sugar sweet image of his early career; and band-mate Lance Bass came out as gay after ‘N Sync broke up. Allegations of sexual misconduct by impresario Lou Perlman by other boys in his stable have further served to compromise the squeaky-clean hetero-normative image promoted by the boy band.
Queer sexuality is of course rarer in pop music in general, and in relation to teens is almost non-existant. The Pet Shop Boys’ 1993 single “Can You Forgive Her” placed adolescent gay sexuality in retrospect and behind a veneer of adult anxiety and shame:
Remember when you were more easily led
Behind the cricket pavilion and the bicycle shed
Trembling as your dreams came true
You looked right into those blue eyes and knew it was love
Much of the Boys’ oeuvre is about nostalgia for past fabulousness (“Being Boring”), with occasional utopian visions of the future (“Go West,” “Red Letter Day”) that seem somehow just as nostalgic as everything else (perhaps it’s the persistence of the disco strings as the melodic spine of their music that makes this so, or perhaps it’s the fact that I’ve been a fan since I was myself a teenager). Frank representations of queer adolescent sexuality remain on the fringes of the pop universe, though as electronic and dance acts like The Presets (see their anthemic single “This Boy’s In Love” – video here at gbh.tv) push closer to the mainstream, this may change.