At the cusp of the end of the second millennium, a teen pop wave hit the United States (and other parts of the world, too, of course). Pushed by the success of Britney Spears and her debut album, …Baby One More Time (1999), and boosted through TV shows like TRL and Music Mania, the phenomena consisted mostly of female singers and groups comprised of all boys, all girls, or a mixture of both. (All of them were majorly white, too.) The newer—or less popular ones—would open concerts for acts such as Spears herself in-between performing at malls and acting in Disney Channel movies like Model Behavior (2000), as was the case for all-girl group Nobody’s Angel. (Disney, by the way, had a big role in the craze, as many of the era’s biggest names—like Spears, Christina Aguilera, and *NSYNC’s Justin Timberlake—had a background as Disney shows stars.)
It wouldn’t take long for the media to label the sensation “Britney mania”, thereby evoking the Beatlemania of the 1960s and cueing critics and scholars to describe the acts and singers as “manufactured ‘teenybopper’ pop acts”. Given the bubblegum pop sound and the family-friendly image, it was easily tempting to underestimate these artists’ musical skills and passion, not to mention credit their appeal to Disney and factory pop. However, when it comes to format and sound—especially for the girl groups—what’s less often acknowledged is that their appeal can be traced back to the rise of early to mid-1990s R&B girl groups like TLC and Destiny’s Child.
The same can be said of the signature Timbaland production beats that became famous through Aaliyah’s One in a Million (1996), as well as Timbaland and Missy Elliot’s co-penned melodies. While Aaliyah can hardly be considered “teen pop” (even if she was, indeed, a teenager when she started recording), it’s hard not to think of songs such as “One In a Million” or “Are You That Somebody” (1998) when listening to Britney Spears’ “Don’t Go Knockin’ on My Door” (2000), Jessica Simpson’s “Hot Like Fire” (2001), and even lesser-known names and tracks like Myra’s “As If” (2001).
It’s not that there wasn’t direct involvement from Black hip-hop artists and producers, or R&B songwriters, on these teen pop groups (at least to some extent). One of them, Dream, was even produced by P. Diddy (then known as Puff Daddy). But for most of them, R&B came more as an inspiration, with one of the clearest cases being all-girl group P.Y.T. In fact, their very name was inspired by Michael Jackson’s iconic 1983 track, “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)”, even if now and then the group would use it as an acronym for the motto “Prove Yourself True”.
Consisting of Ashley Niven, Lauren Mayhew, Lydia Bell, and Tracy Williams—four teenagers from Florida who’d been friends since childhood—P.Y.T. was formed in 1998 (originally as Glory) to participate in a Teen People contest. They ended up signing with Epic Records; releasing a single, “Something More Beautiful”, in 1999; and then fully debuting with the Down With Me LP in 2001. (Its producers included duo the Wasabees, made of Tony Battaglia and Shaun Fisher, who also worked on the records of another teenager who found success singing pop music in the late 1990s and early 2000s: Mandy Moore.)
Going back to “Something More Beautiful”, its pounding piano recalls Britney Spears’ “…Baby One More Time”, with an undeniably more angelical vibe than what P.Y.T. would put out later.
Undoubtedly, P.Y.T. was a balanced equation of delicate and powerful voices. Lead singer Ashley Niven’s timbre was full-bodied and hard-driven (in the style of Mandy Moore but also capable of higher notes and more sugary execution). In contrast, Tracy Williams’ delivery most resembled what you typically hear in R&B, whereas Lauren Mayhew sang both lower and high notes comfortably and Lydia Bell was a soprano who sang the highest. They were perfectly equipped for the sound they were making, going from bubblegum pop to danceable R&B (or “urban pop”, as it was called at the time).
Their vocal range is heard right away on Down With Me‘s opener: a renamed cover of the Jackson 5’s “Who’s Loving You” (1969) with lyrics adjusted to the point of view of the abandoned lover who’s moved on. Besides reinforcing Jackson as an inspiration (he was a part of the Jackson 5, after all), P.Y.T.’s “Who’s Lovin’ Me” is a perfect sample of what P.Y.T. was; it was also an appetizer for what listeners would get with the following tracks. (Maybe you think that their vocals here are too sweet, but you can’t deny that the girls could sing.)
The second track, “Same Ol’ Same Ol’ (Remix)”, was one of P.Y.T.’s only two singles from the record. It featured the rapper Sarai and was co-written by Christina Millian (who, years later, would become an accomplished singer, actress, and TV host via songs like “Dip It Low” (2004) and movies like 2003’s Love Don’t Cost a Thing and 2009’s Bring It On: Fight to the Finish).
In the music video for “Same Ol’ Same Ol’”, you can see their rendition of “Who’s Lovin’ Me”—which then transitions to “Same Ol’ Same Ol’”—with footage of the girls attending a party, singing, and performing choreography alongside other party people (such as now-famous singer Jhene Aiko). In true 2000s fashion, Ashley, Lauren, Lydia, and Tracy are seen wearing tank tops, tight pants, curly-waved hair, colorful head streaks, and the USA flag stamped in their outfits. It’s almost weird to watch today, as wearing a flag on your body has become synonymous with a right-wing, national supremacist ideology. Yet, in the early 2000s, it was but a fashion trend and a normal thing for American pop stars. ( Even Britney Spears used a USA flag on the stage when performing in Brazil for 2001’s Rock in Rio festival, for which the audience booed her.) “Same Ol’ Same Ol’ (Remix)” is an enjoyable tune, and was a moderate dare for its time and the PYT girls’ age.
The other single that the LP rendered was “PYT (Down With Me)”, whose titular self-reference was emblematic of a kind of a formatting trend between artists like P.Y.T. (for instance, Nobody’s Angel had a song titled “Nobody”, Dream had a song called “In My Dreams”, all-boy band Dream Street had a song called “Dream On”, etc.) In a pre-streaming world in which using Google wasn’t the norm yet, finding these songs online was a bit of a nightmare.
The Timbaland/Missy Elliot/Aaliyah-type beats and melodies can be heard overtly on “PYT (Down With Me)”, as well as on some of the record’s best tunes: “Weak”, “Simple Things”, “You Don’t Know”, “Ain’t No Ifs Ands or Buts About It”, and “Call Me Anytime”, the last of which now holds historical value for how it samples the polyphonic ringtone of an old phone that’s now a relic of technology. Down With Me also pays homage to R&B icon Hi-Five via a cover of their #1 hit, “I Like the Way (The Kissing Game)”, from 1991.
It has its romantic moments, too, with “Sweet Kisses” and “A Girl Can Dream”. “Sweet Kisses” is a bubbly pop song with quite innocent lyrics about daydreaming of a stylish and classy guy who’s a good kisser. Judging by the music and lyrics, it almost feels like this is the type of song that could only belong to a year like 2001; actually, though, the songwriting approach of pieces like “Sweet Kisses” is still very much alive in K-pop and similar markets. Specifically, Korean girl group Twice’s “Strawberry” (2019) vaguely recalls “Sweet Kisses”, although “Strawberry” is a bit sassier. The ballad “A Girl Can Dream” is even more sentimental than “Sweet Kisses”; it seems fit to showcase the girls’ voices, and its words about platonic love are an interesting contrast to the more aggressive tone in the lyrics of, say, “PYT (Down With Me)”, where they openly call somebody they have a problem with for confrontation.
Down With Me was P.Y.T.’s only full-length release. The group did not enjoy the same commercial success or longevity of Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Jessica Simpson, or Mandy Moore, but the album still stands as representative of the sounds that shaped one of the most effusive moments of popular culture — and probably one of the last albums from that time. From 2002 on, almost no sugary-R&B teen pop was produced (if any was, no big hit came from it).
The teen pop era that combined the sugar of Disney movies with the spice of Aaliyah’s sound lasted, basically, from 1999 to 2001. (Other groups, such as the Backstreet Boys, *NSYNC, Westlife, and A*Teens, always leaned towards dance music and romantic ballads the most; in contrast, P.Y.T. were better framed alongside early Britney, Jessica, Mandy Moore, Dream, and less remembered or heard of acts such as Myra, Mikaila, and Nobody’s Angel.)
After all, 2002 saw another producing duo—Pharell Williams and Chad Hugo as The Neptunes —beginning to shape the sound of pop for more years to come. With the help of The Neptunes’ magic touch, Justin Timberlake kicked off a prosperous solo career (that, too, embraced R&B) with Justified (2002). The Neptunes produced three out of four of Timberlake’s mega-successful singles: “Señorita”, “Like I Love You”, and “Rock Your Body”. Interestingly, the other single from the album, “Cry Me a River”, was produced by Timbaland, proving that besides molding the sound of late 1990s R&B, his style still resonated with audiences in the new millennium.
Timberlake wasn’t the only ex-Disney icon that Pharell Williams helped catapult into this new era of “urban pop”; he also remixed Britney Spears’ “Boys” in 2002 and helped make her music more palatable for R&B and hip-hop fans.
Of course, it wouldn’t be the death of teen pop (youth culture never dies; it just takes different forms and thrives in different faces). In 2003, Hilary Duff, star of the Disney show Lizzie McGuire, would gain the world with her second album, Metamorphosis, whose pop was closer to rock than the R&B that inspired the previous teen pop generation. The success of Duff opened a precedent for many other young Disney shows’ leading actors to sign deals with Disney labels and build successful music careers (notably, Miley Cyrus, Demi Lovato, and Selena Gomez).
Some of the members of P.Y.T. would form or join other girl groups (such as Lydia and Lauren’s Turning Point, which didn’t release any music) and UC3 (a girl group that Tracy joined and recorded a few tracks and music videos with). Outside of continuing to work in music, Lauren Mayhew pursued a career in acting and appeared in Raise Your Voice (2004) with Duff. As Ashley Niven stated in a 2019 interview with Voyage Denver, the four P.Y.T. members remain close friends; nevertheless, Down With Me remains the only record on which we can hear them together, just like pretty much all of the albums released during those short and intense years of the teen pop wave.
Discogs. PYT — Down With Me.
Ong, Lie Shia. (2000, August 20). Teen pop queen wows subjects. HeraldNet.
Voyage Denver. (2019, August 28). Life and Work with Ashley Niven.
Wald, Gald. (2002, March 1). “I Want It That Way”: Teenybopper Music and the Girling of Boy Bands. Genders (1998–2013).