One Bare Shoulder: The Effect of Dream Street on the Sexual Identity of the Teenipopper
To the teenipop subculture at the turn of the century, youth's dizzying optimism and heart-racing infatuation were all that mattered. For most of these young girls, Dream Street would be the center of their first pubescent sexual desires.
The first time I saw Dream Street was on July 8, 2001. I was 14 years old, and I was watching cartoons with my sister, who was seven at the time. The average older sister that I was, I didn't enjoy spending time with her, but I was grumpy that day, because it had been almost a month since I'd heard from my boyfriend. I sat with her and watched television. We'd been kicking each other across the sofa all through the insipid Hey Arnold! on Nickelodeon when a commercial break came on and I saw the boy in the center, singing and dancing in a shining blue camouflage T-shirt and dark, baggy shorts. He had spiky brown hair, a tan, and a blindingly white smile. He was the most perfect boy I could have imagined.
Discovering Dream Street is one of the flashbulb memories of my life. In under a week, I had begun my own fansite, an amateur non-for-profit website that functioned as a massive shrine to the band, and within a month, I had become deeply immersed in the teenipop subculture. Like other teenipoppers, I dreamed of traveling to swinging London to become a royal and find a cute musician boyfriend, like Amanda Bynes' Daphne Reynolds in the film What a Girl Wants; of crashing a music video shoot and earning both a dancing role and a kiss beneath the mistletoe like Lizzie McGuire; of jet-setting to swank European countries and going on unlimited shopping sprees with beautiful boys to a soundtrack of my favorite music like the peppy Olsen twins. I knew immediately of the actions of Dream Street, those beautifully stylized youths who could lift themselves, and me, in my infatuation-addled mind, from humdrum normalcy.
* * *
"There's an endless supply of 12-year-old girls waiting for someone to sing to them," wrote Emily White in her December 2002 New York Times article concerning the end of the band. By the end of 2002, when Dream Street's final hurrah was earned -- the honor of a feature story in the Times -- the boy band scene was reviled. The music scene was changing rapidly from effervescent, pure pop (*NSync's eponymous 1998 American debut or Britney Spears' ...Baby One More Time in 1999) to cloudier, more R&B-influenced or post-pop punk fare (Sum41's Fat Lip in 2001, B2K's 2002 album Pandemonium). The goals of mainstream pop had changed.
In its heyday, the ideal boy band image was best summed up by Salon.com writer Janelle Brown as "a handful of clean-cut boys next door...turned...into fuzzy, desexualized plush toys that you'd feel safe leaving with your 14-year-old daughter". The androgynizing of the boy band was, at least until 2000, money in the bank. However, by late 2002 the image of this milquetoast masculinity was no longer considered desirable as music groups like *NSync and Backstreet Boys had taken on a harder image and no longer found fame singing swooning lyrics that read like prepubescent blog entries. For most of America, the boy band era was over. Twelve-year-old girls no longer wanted the nice boy who crooned sweet nothings in her ear.
Throughout these changing times, Dream Street represented something different than the mainstream. The crowd to whom Dream Street sung, winked, and pointed was holding onto more outwardly clean-cut ideals. They still wanted that special someone to sing to them, they wanted -- to quote Dream Street's album -- "someone to hold [them] tonight". Dream Street was a boy band, yes; it followed the formula set forth by management whiz Lou Pearlman, the creator of *NSync and Backstreet Boys: the blond baby brother, the dark-haired crooner, the sensitive quiet one, the tease most famous for his distinctive hair, the athletic All-American. They danced synchronized suggestive movements onstage as they sang of true love. They arrived together in coordinated outfits to awards shows and charity benefits. But they were not of the same creed as the *NSync, Backstreet Boys, or even O-Town of the '90s for one major reason: they were genuinely boys. The members of Dream Street were only a year or two older than their average fan. As such, their fans were rabid, rivaling Beatlemaniacs in their intensity if not their number (which was admittedly meager). They were almost ubiquitously female, high-school aged, and a member of the incomparably peppy teenipop subculture.
The teenipop subculture was part of a lineage peculiar to the American 20th century: girls, increasingly younger with each incarnation, who strove for nothing more than unabashed happiness -- and often projected their desire onto young, idolized males. As Lisa A. Lewis, editor of The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media, notes, this behavior is not unusual: "In fandom, moods and feelings become organized and particular...personas take on significance. By participating in fandom, fans construct coherent identities for themselves. In the process, they enter a domain of cultural activity of their own making, which is, potentially, a source of empowerment in struggles against...the unsatisfactory circumstances of everyday life." Teenipoppers took this to the extreme, looking to their idols as a way out of their own lives, a precedent set for them by the ultra-fans of the 1960s, Beatlemaniacs who came to be known as Perky Girls.
Too square to be mod and too kooky to be square, the consummate Perky Girl was described by Teen Magazine in May 1963 as "a Peter Pan type with a daybreaking smile and mischief in her eyes, and she's finding it hard to believe she is living in a real world, what with one fabulous thing after another happening to her!... She loves life, she lives joyously, she thinks positively."
In her teenaged to early-20s body, the Perky Girl took a step towards perpetual childishness. According to pop-culture experts Jane and Michael Stern, "unlike their high-hemmed spiritual forebears, the flappers of the twenties, Perky Girls did not reek of 'It'.... In fact, sex in all its sweaty, fleshy heat was antithetical to Perky Girls' squeaky-clean personalities". That is not to say that Perky Girls were not sexualized: Goldie Hawn, the Giggle Girl on Laugh In! and model Perky Girl, posed in teeny bikinis; skirts were shorter than ever before; an endless stream of Perky Girls slept with Herman's Hermits, the Rolling Stones, and -- the consummate Perky Boys, at least until 1967 – the Beatles.
The news footage shows police lines straining against crowds of hundreds of young women. The police look grim; the girls' faces are twisted with desperation or, in some cases, shining with what seems to be an inner light... Looking at the photos or watching the news clips today, anyone would guess that this was...a demonstration...until you look closer and see that the girls are...wearing...Bermuda shorts, high-necked, preppie blouses, and disheveled but unmistakable bouffant hairdos. This is...1964, and the girls are chanting, as they surge against the police line, "I love Ringo".
--Barbara Ehrenreich, Elizabeth Hess, and Gloria Jacobs
In their magnum opus on fandom, "Beatlemania: A Sexually Defiant Consumer Subculture?", Barbara Ehrenreich, Elizabeth Hess, and Gloria Jacobs detail a Beatle Mob in deservedly epic terms. Beatlemania was one of the first celebrity-based subcultures, and still remains the most studied. It was fearfully called epidemic in its time, the symptoms affecting young Perky Girls who displayed the sickness upon even mere mention of the Fab Four by going berserk. Social psychologists, both during the zenith of Beatlemania and since, have placed at the root of Beatlemania what Ehrenreich et al call the "strikingly sexless quality of the early-1960s queen bee". Through the Beatles, Perky Girls found a safe and -- for most Beatlemaniacs, though not all -- abstinent way to indulge in their sexuality: "One of the most common responses to reporters' queries on the sources of Beatlemania was, 'Because they're sexy.'... In itself, this explanation...was rebellious.... The Beatles were the objects; the girls were the pursuers.... The girls were the ones who perceived [the Beatles] as sexy and acknowledged the force of...lust." There was still a line drawn deeply in the sand for Perky Girls, an expectation to be both pure, as in earlier generations, but also to be a hip, swinging girl of the 1960s sexual revolution. Perky Girls were particularly adept at this dual role, as they were meticulously groomed for purity but playfulness. Perky Girls could flirt, tease, cavort, inspire, even demurely have clean, perky sex -- but all the while, cuteness, not sexiness, was the goal.
Cuteness was youthful and youth was the greatest commodity of all to the Perky Girl culture, for nary a woman over 30 could get away with the look and lifestyle of the Perky Girl with any modicum of dignity. British fashion designer Mary Quant, who popularized the miniskirt, observed: "Suddenly, every girl with a hope of getting away with it is aiming to look not only under voting age but under the age of consent.... Their aim is to look childishly young, naïvely unsophisticated."
It was in this goal for youthful cuteness with sexual undertones, and in the goal given via the newly restructured Cosmopolitan magazine -- "to have a life NOW" -- that Perky Girls most parallel teenipoppers. Just as, in the words of the Sterns, "Perky Girls personif[ied] that giddy time...when the world seemed to bubble over with endless expectations of good things to come", teenipoppers were the living, teenaged personifications of the hope of a new millennium. They were unafraid of Y2K, embracing all of the possibilities that came with being a Girl of the Future just like early teenipop idol fictional Zenon Carr, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, clumsy, and mischievous fashion plate from the Disney Channel's Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century. While the Perky Girls of yesteryear rushed through life clad in crisp Dollyrocker creations and leaving a scent of Love's Fresh Lemon behind her on the air as she flitted from gay adventure to gay adventure, teenipoppers attached to an ideal and clung on, matching their sequined dELiA*s jeans to gardenia pink ruched T-shirts and a pervasive smell of LTD2 Applicious glitter perfume everywhere she hung her newsboy cap.
Many teenipoppers were tween (and young teen) consumers, but very few tween consumers were teenipoppers. "Tweens" are defined by the marketing world as children between ages eight and 12, their name derivative of "between child and teen". Most teenipoppers were slightly older, between 12 and 16 years old, but highly responsive to tween marketing techniques, in part due to their age and in part due to their ideological beliefs: popularity did not matter, happiness was found through experience, childhood was a blessing, love was the ultimate possession. Mirroring others in their age group, teenipoppers were subject and receptive to total media advertisement inundation: everything from television commercials and highway billboards to Lunchables wrappers and book covers. Indeed, Dream Street itself was marketed to its target audience via a magazine and commercial saturation on top-ranked tween network Nickelodeon, airing an average of 700 commercials for its debut CD over 60 days in June and July of 2001.
It was before the commercial consumption had taken place that the demarcation between mere "tween" and "teenipopper" occurred. The teenipop Dream Street commercial was quantifiably a successful marketing tool, resulting in the Dream Street album selling a record-holding 32,000 units opening week and reaching #1 on the Billboard Independent Albums chart. According to Dream Street creator Louie Baldonieri, at the time of the album's release, the highest-selling independent album had moved 15,000 units its opening week, making Dream Street's album sales unprecedented. However, despite its success in the teenipop demographic, one non-teenipopper tween described her reaction to seeing the Dream Street commercial: "When I first saw their commercial on TV, I thought they were gay little boys, and WAY too young to be in a boy band. Like little ten- and 12-year-olds, who sang like little eight-year-old girls trying so hard to make it. I called them 'Wannabe *NSyncers'."
In contrast to teenipoppers, the average tween responded to the advertising culture of "anxiety" chronicled by New York University professor of Media Studies Mark Crispin Miller: "It's always telling them they're losers unless they're cool." In an interview with PBS, Miller noted that marketing to the "cool teen" -- the goal of both tween and teen marketing was the affectation of the popular crowd -- "has...become nastier, less and less utopian over the decades. If you compare advertising from the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s with advertising since the mid-1970s, you're struck by how much crueler, how much more self-centered the values tend to be. There's less of a pretense of an interest in camaraderie. There's less sentimentality. It's less pastoral. It's less escapist. It's much grimmer, and it's more about you and how you look and how cool you are. It's more ironic."
Coming from young teenage girls, the willingness to subvert from localized popularity to attain an ideal only serves to show the strength of teenipop ideology. The pursuit of those ideals trumped all other social pursuits, leaving most teenipoppers in the middle echelons of their social stratospheres, comfortably unpopular without being undesirable. This mediocre status was positively modeled within teenipop media, most notably in the Olsen Twin film Passport to Paris (1999) and in the female protagonists most of the Disney Channel's original TV series of that era. The media of teenipop showcased girls who exemplified the ideals of teenipop in all but the realm of celebrity idol-worship, most likely to increase the cross-fandom marketability of the characters themselves. These exemplars, just like their followers, were white or Asian-American girls between the ages of 12 and 16 who lived within nuclear families in middle- to upper-middle class homes, generally in the suburbs, and who had conflicted status in their immediate social hierarchy but who always possessed at least two tight-knit friendships. With the optimistic acceptance of her social status and the emotional pillars of these best friends, the seminal teenipopper set out to celebrate her youth, purity, and happiness, seeking around every corner for a potential great adventure.
Teenipoppers believed, as their ancestors the Perky Girls did, in youth, adventure, and happiness above all else. One of the greatest tenets of teenipop was searching within every moment for that Magic Day that her life would be changed: friends preserved, adventure had, love found. This idea was reinforced by teenipop hero Lizzie McGuire (played by real-life teenipopper Hilary Duff). Lizzie McGuire found hers in being kissed by Aaron Carter at a video shoot or again, in teenipop's seminal film, in getting to play as an Italian popstar in 2003's The Lizzie McGuire Movie before realizing her love for nerdy best friend and teenipop heartthrob David "Gordo" Gordon (played by Adam Lamberg, who was the oldest teenipop idol at a feeble 19).
Most teenipoppers projected their own desire for happiness or self-actualization onto males, particularly the famous young boys of whom they were fans. The teenipopper plastered her bedroom walls with posters -- usually tear-out centerfolds from magazines like Popstar! or M -- to surround herself with the image of the boy who, in her mind, would inevitably find and love her, taking her away from the wholly unglamorous existence of middle or high school.
Continuing the trend of their subcultural lineage, teenipoppers were young girls struggling with adolescence in an increasingly sexualized, drug-saturated culture. They did not aim to become walking pastiches of Britney Spears, nor did they want to be outcasts in their localized social strata. The teenipop subculture was unique to the wants of these girls, as no one involved was older than 18 -- and not a soul was aiming to be a "grown up". Teenipop celebrities, advertisers, and marketing buffs reinforced that an older image was not necessary for happiness. Staple teenipop publication Popstar! even asked Dream Street member Chris Trousdale in 2002, "Would you rather be a popstar now or when you're 20?" He replied, "At this age, because this is the time when you are at your prime." To teenipop, youth was more valuable than record sales or box-office statistics. To teenipop, youth and its accompanying feelings of dizzying optimism and heart-racing infatuation were all that mattered.
For most of these young girls, Dream Street would be the center of their first pubescent sexual desires. Dream Street was clean-cut, clean-spoken, and eloquently impish. They got into televised pie fights, taught CBS anchors to dance, and were chastely chased across Central Park by a battalion of screaming fans. They wore their hair short and shiny, their underarms conspicuously hairless beneath their fitted tank tops, dressed in patriotic red, white, and blue for a month after 9/11. They sweetly called each other "brothers", laughed at their own jokes, and blithely answered questions about their Elvis-impersonating, soap opera-starring, Broadway performing pasts for adult interviewers. For fans, they always had a Nautica Cologne scented hug and scream-inducing wink, still the kind of boys who, in the words of Robert Thompson, founder of the Institute on Pop Culture at Syracuse University, were "eroticized and sexualized, but kind of as the kind, gentle boy you know is not going to hurt you when you decide to lose your virginity to him".
That was, of course, the ultimate goal of all teenipoppers: the sexual conquest of that popstar. While maintaining a childlike physical look and purity of outward spirit -- what Janelle Brown calls the "lollipop aesthetic", the turning of a group of tween girls into "a passel of virginal sluts" -- teenipoppers reacted strongly towards the sexualization of their equally young teen idols. Dream Street was the most overtly sexual of the teenipop performers. Their lyrics, contrasting with the squeaky-clean image of the boys themselves, contain turns of phrase like, "Make you wanna shout / Make you wanna scream / Gonna make it last, gonna give you everything / Make your body sweat / Make you feel so right... / Let's get funky tonight" and "I got a sweet tooth / And a taste for you / And it might be too obvious / But I (I, I) can't help myself from what I do... / You're the sweetest thing I've ever tasted." Their dance moves traveled the realm of body rolls and pelvic thrusts, including a short sequence in the choreography of their second single, "I Say Yeah", of simulated masturbation. Lead singer Greg Raposo danced a teenaged striptease to the Beatles' "Rain" in an insertion to Dream Street's composition "Feel the Rain" at concerts, throwing his sweat-soaked shirt to the crowd. Dream Street fan Kimberly Kaplan remembered the number fondly in Dream Street magazine: "I adore[d] the "Feel the Rain"...[Greg] took off his little jacket...and teased the crowd with it. He finally threw it, and the girls were fighting like crazy over it." Louie Baldonieri recalls Greg's onstage sexuality as laughable: "He used to do...that stupid fuckin' thing with the shirt falling off one shoulder, he had that one bare shoulder all the time...and he was like, 'No, you don't understand, it's sooo hot!' I mean, I guess you girls liked it."
And like it teenipoppers did. Fansites included massive galleries with photos of the teens captioned "Sexxxy" and "Lickable", and magazines were likened to porno mags: "Covers of [teenipop magazines] advertise 'LOTS OF HOT PINUPS'." In 2001, The Biz magazine interviewed the members of Dream Street -- who ranged in age from 14 to 17 at the time -- about their fans and they rhapsodized,
Jesse McCartney: We get crazy posters...
Greg Raposo: (quoting) 'If you were homework, I'd do you!'
Jesse McCartney: (laughing, quoting) 'Frankie [Galasso, another member] be my first!'
The juxtaposition of obscene messages being showcased at concerts sponsored by RadioDisney, whose audiences were "younger, with a lot more families", according to Lauren Mayhew of P.Y.T., who performed at the Radio Disney First Birthday Bash with Dream Street in 2001, is a perfect example of the dichotomy of teenipop: sexualized childishness. For Dream Street, the Lolita Syndrome would have serious repercussions: the group was very publicly dissolved in a secretive and sealed court case at the New York State Supreme Court chronicled in a New York Daily News article that called the group "a nightmare of porn, babes, and booze". While that is not an entirely factual assertion, as the case actually dealt with a breach of contract, the perceived-salacious breakup of Dream Street by the public served as the final nail in the coffin of teenipop.
Just as the Perky Girl seems unimportant now, in the scheme of the '60s as that era of protests and LSD hallucinations, the teenipopper is easy to forget or dismiss as frivolous at the beginning of the 2000s. In the overall scheme of the decade, the sheer number of black-haired emo kids in mainstream culture overshadows the teenipopper. While the media en masse in the early years of the 21st century depicted large-scale images of burgeoning war in Iraq, terrorism on US soil, and teenage violence in the aftermath of the Columbine shootings, teenipop embodied colorful cheerfulness, successfully preserving a bubble of innocence. Teenipoppers are a breath of fresh air in the bleak history of America at the beginning of the Second Millennium, a pretty, happy underground subculture of teenaged girls who saw widespread fear around them and channeled it into optimism, actively choosing to desire nothing more than effervescent happiness, a few good friends, and the fleeting gaze of a clean-cut, hunky popstar.
Dream Street was the apotheosis of teenipop subculture. They were also a turning point. Prior to Dream Street's release, true teenipop was rare and fairly limited to Aaron Carter and Christian teenipop outfit Jump5. Dream Street was the Beatles to Carter's Elvis Presley and Swedish girl group Play's Supremes, changing the shape of the music and ushering in a long parade of new artists, most notably Play, 12-year-old vocalist Stevie Brock, and the early singing career of Hilary Duff. But there was only one teenipop boy band: Dream Street. Dream Street was a media darling, bridging the gap between the understood realm of pop and the isolated neverland of teenipop. They were a familiar format, a boy band, not nearly so foreign to the mainstream audience as a 12-year-old white boy rapping (though this did happen in Dream Street's "Hooked on You") or so uncomfortable as scantily clad girls so young that even MTV gurus felt awkward. Dream Street was peerless in its teenipopstardom.
While the reigning mainstream "pop" culture in America was already well into its rapid decline by the time Dream Street's first album was released in 2001 -- perhaps due to the aging of Backstreet Boys, the image change of *NSync from sweet young crooners to leather-clad men trolling online for a "Digital Get Down", or the increasingly adult sexuality of Britney Spears -- after the fall of older Mainstream Pop acts, teenipop fed the need for sugar-sweet music to teenipoppers just below the MTV radar. Dream Street and its myriad disciples, other young teenage performers, flooded the RadioDisney and Nickelodeon airwaves and kept the carbonated pink current of teenipop strong and effervescent. Despite the quick growth of the movement, within a few months of the court's verdict and breakup of Dream Street, the entire subculture that it had fed so sweetly withered to a vague societal memory.
Teenipoppers themselves never forgot the ideals that had helped to see them through the turmoil of Columbine, Y2K, and September 11, nor did they forget the band that they say "shaped who they are". Participating in the fandom of Dream Street during the crux of adolescence, a time for forging self in itself, helped teenipoppers to create both coherent ideological identity and sexual identity, paving the way towards self-empowerment. As fan Jacee Sellers recalls, "Dream Street was not just a boy band, but a way of life, an era."
V. Arrow is a Knox College undergrad with a major in 20th Century American History and a penchant for non-fiction writing. With the eventual goal of a Pop Culture Studies MFA, she aims to unravel the mystery of abject teen idolatry -- but in the meantime can often be found happily grooving to the sounds of teen idols from almost any decade.