Kathie Lee Gifford must be fuming. Pay some Honduran kids to earn an honest living cranking out clothes for Wal-Mart back in 1996 and you're called a child-labor pariah. Sign their American counterparts to multimillion-dollar record deals a few years later and make them sweat to canned synth-pop tracks and you're called a producer. What's the diff? Apparently, nothing but some choreography and better PR. Teen artists seem to be retaining their albeit tenuous hold on pop this summer--'N Sync and the Backstreet Boys will be kicking it live later on--but it's not like it's a new trend. Both the Osmond and Jackson families found better living through puberty back in the 1970s, and there wasn't much of a ruckus raised about that. And anybody who drank deep of '80s MTV can summon shuddering memories of Menudo, Musical Youth and Debbie Gibson. Of course, quality is a matter of taste, though even pop purists won't say that "...Baby One More Time" can rise up against "I Want You Back" even with the support of a D-cup bustier.
But then there's a preteen munchkin like Aaron Carter. This little brother to the Backstreet Boys' Nick Carter--and brother to opener, Leslie; like, wow--likes to kick it New Edition/New Kids on the Block old school. He's certainly perky, and he'll be dancing his mess around during his 45-day tour. (C'mon, what'd you do during your summer vacation?) And in today's throng of soccer-mom-chaperoned tykes and tots with disposable incomes, when you can score a hit single off the Pokemon: The Movie soundtrack, well, that's just not even playing fair. Born December 7, 1987, in Tampa, Florida--think about it; this kid hasn't been alive as long as Fugazi's been around--Carter is the youngest male artist ever to have four Top 40 singles. Granted, his Nickelodeon kitsch strives for sass with (yet another) cover of "I Want Candy," but he's usually mired in the MMMM-less bop of "Bounce."
Maries Sernerholt, Sara Lumholdt, Dhani Lennevald and Amit Paul--the Stockholm-raised kids that form openers the A*Teens--camouflaged their feckless youth in the perfect balance of PG-rated camp and precocious irony on their debut, The ABBA Generation. What's not to like about a bunch of Swedish teens getting Olivia Newton-John physical all over "Dancing Queen" and "Take a Chance on Me"? Unfortunately the cheeky spell was broken when they abandoned the Björn Borgs of pop for original material--with their latest, Teen Spirit--which smells like manure any way you slice it.
Of course, many a cynical rock critic can't wait for these mighty kids to fall, much as closet pedophiles are anxiously expecting Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen to reach those troublesome Dana Plato years and crop up in a Roger Corman movie. Until then, those pervs the world over will have to rely on the early output of one truly gifted teen star, Traci Lords.