Sunday night’s American Music Awards may have brought with a startling realization. We’re grown-ups, and we like Justin Bieber’s music. And also Selena Gomez. And Demi Lovato. Oh yeah, and Nick Jonas, too.
Watching the young performers dominate the performance portion of Sunday’s AMAs telecast was at once jarring and familiar.
It’s uncharted territory for most of us, to be legitimately enjoying the music of these former child stars. But it was also a déjà vu of sorts, a hard-to-shake notion that the new class of performers represents a second coming of the last group to have the same Disney-to-Billboard trajectory: Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and any assortment of boybands, though specifically the one starring a certain Ramen-noodled hair Tennessee boy who broke out on his own and brought sexy back while he was at it.
Generations, perhaps especially those who came of age in the ’90s and the turn of the millennium, cling to their nostalgia with the fervor of a JNCOs-wearing sk8rboi furiously scrubbing his CDs with anti-scratch cleaner, or a teen girl bopping her Limited Toos back and forth as she lies on her bed scribbling “Mrs. Justin Timberlake” in her diary with gel pen over and over again by the light of her lava lamp.
It’s a generation that, on a Saturday night, actively seeks out and pays cover charges—who even does that anymore—to enter so-called ’90s dance parties that play the tunes of, in their opinions, the last great class of teeny-bop pop stars.
That’s not to say there hasn’t been good pop music, pop music they’ve liked, in the years since.
The Lady Gagas and Katy Perrys and Rihannas and Maroon 5s have all been listenable and danceable and occasionally mammothly popular. Beyoncé became an icon. Usher and Chris Brown have all had hits, as have Bruno Mars, Adele, Lorde, and Taylor Swift. Pop music is not dead. In fact, it’s even thriving.
But there’s something different about Spears, Aguilera, and Timberlake, specifically.
They were three pop supernovas who blossomed from child stars on the Disney Channel, grew up at the same time as their target audience, and then matured into adult recording artists with then-current musical tastes that not just appealed to an aging fan base but earned critical respect and even changed the pop music landscape as a whole.
It’s been close to 20 years since Spears donned the schoolgirl skirt for “(Baby) One More Time” and exploded into one of culture’s most vibrant and relevant artists, if occasionally as much for tragedy and scandal as for her music, the mark of a true megacelebrity.
Aguilera’s “Genie in a Bottle” launched soon after, setting free a constantly evolving and reinventing vocalist who is among the greatest of all time. And Timberlake came into his own as a Michael Jackson descendant so prominent and powerful he remains one of the industry’s most influential artists.
All three started by wearing mouse ears.
As much as people obsess and analyze the child star-to-adult performer transition in the world of acting, it’s rarely talked about in the music industry… because it rarely happens.
It certainly does happen (hello, Michael and Janet Jackson). But performers who launch their careers attached to the Disney brand rarely explode in the way Spears’s, Aguilera’s, and Timberlake’s did after their years as Mousketeers. The teenybopper’s rising star burns fast and bright, and almost always leaves in its wake a cultural relic, a singer unable to mature in the spotlight.
Part of that has to do with the fact that a performer who begins their career catering to a fan base consisting of screaming tweens and prepubescent girls struggles to be taken seriously by a grown audience.
Justin Bieber was cute when he started, but his music wasn’t exactly respected. And did anyone think the early albums Gomez or Lovato released were anything more than vanity projects doubling as a money wire directly from middle schoolers’ dad’s wallets to the House of Mouse? And the Jonas Brothers? Could anyone over the age of 15 at the band’s peak even have named one of their songs?
But then there were Bieber, Gomez, Lovato, and Jonas on Sunday night on the American Music Awards stage, singing songs that were, well, good. Songs that, in bits and pieces over recent weeks I—and, probably, you—have downloaded off iTunes, added to a running playlist, or maybe even written about in 1,800-word reviews proclaiming that said singer has arrived as a respected, grown-up artist. (OK, maybe that was just me. I Beliebe!)
Sure, Bieber didn’t come of age on the Disney Channel—he did it on YouTube, arguably a medium that was, at least at the time, even more exclusive to young fans, many of whom would probably have had to explain to those even just 10 or 15 years older what YouTube was.
Now after years of ridicule—first for being an adolescent novelty act, then for being a petulant child star, and then for being a 20-something douchebag—Bieber isn’t for kids anymore. He’s for grown-ups, too, many of whom have called the medley of songs he performed (inexplicably in the rain… hey, millennials, Kelly Clarkson did that first) the best songs of the year thus far.
But as Bieber is probably the first to tell you, the Internet Age that first minted his career is often a young artist’s biggest liability.
Thanks to Google, it’s impossible to disappear a squeaky-clean child star past, creating arguably an even bigger hurdle for being taken seriously as a grown-up. Updating an image to appear sexier or more mature becomes a symptom of a child star cliché rather than any indicator of an artist’s true growth or reflection of their older spirit. (Though, hey, sometimes they really are just baiting us.)
Gomez has been positioning herself as the next Spears for years. The former Wizards of Waverly Place star even used to perform “(Baby) One More Time” at concerts as she tried to ditch lingering attachments to mouse ears and be viewed as the vocal-fried, overly sultry, style-over-substance pop diva.
A role in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers seemed desperate. “Come and Get It” was catchy, but the over-sexualization seemed exhaustingly calculated from a girl whose stint on Barney and Friends as a kindergartner is too-easily searchable.
But singing “Same Old Love” at Sunday’s AMAs, at least as part of a movement that encompasses former child stars Lovato, Bieber, Jonas, and even Ariana Grande and Miley Cyrus, Gomez might finally have arrived as some sort of successor to Spears—at least as much as there could be one in today’s industry, in which sales are a fraction of what they were when she was taking over the world. (And in which Spears’s musical Midas, producer Max Martin, is busy making songs with Taylor Swift and Adele.)
Then there’s Lovato. Lovato and Gomez are such the low-rent modern version of Spears and Aguilera it’s adorable. They’re both pouting sexpots, though Lovato, like Aguilera, classes it up with more vocal runs than are ever necessary in a single song.
Like Gomez, Lovato’s been leaping across stepping stones on her way to the kind of legitimacy she’s getting now for honest-to-god good pop songs like “Cool for the Summer” and “Confident,” which she performed at the AMAs on Sunday, as well as for being a respectably talented vocalist, which she showed off in her duet with Alanis Morissette at the awards show.
There’s a try-hard aspect to Lovato’s constant belting and melisma, like her vocal cords are one forced high note away from being like “that’s enough” and jumping out of her throat. But it’s what’s helped her evolve from sanitized schmaltz like “Skyscraper” earlier in her career to the grittier empowerment messages she’s trumpeting in her new material.
But something that is evident with all these young, spunky child stars-turned-grown crooners is the ever-necessary mix of ambition and opportunism. It’s one thing to herald this new class of pop stars, visually appealing people making innocuous bordering on excellent pop songs, on their merits. But you have to acknowledge the climate they’re in.
Not only are their predecessors Spears, Aguilera, and Timberlake M.I.A., but so are the dominant artists that would ordinarily be overshadowing the young’uns at a showcase like the AMAs. No Rihanna. No Katy Perry. No Beyoncé, or Lady Gaga. Taylor Swift didn’t show up. Nicki Minaj didn’t perform. There’s a dearth of new, good pop music, and kids are shaking what their mamas—and Mickey Mouse—gave them in order to take their place on the scene.
Nowhere was this more evident than the three-song showcase that was given to Jonas.
It’s the kind of awards show real estate that’s really only been given in recent years to the likes of Beyoncé and Timberlake. But Jonas seized the opportunity, singing “Chains,” “Jealous,” and “Levels,” three songs that I most definitely sing along to enthusiastically when they come on at da club (read: my Spotify at work) and are worthy of announcing Jonas as, if not exactly the next Timberlake, then a guy who’s making really good music and deserves his spot as a pop sex symbol in 2015.
As with any generation of performers, drawing a direct parallel between one group and the next crop of contenders is ridiculous. Gomez will never be the next Spears because Spears was a singular talent, the byproduct of a cultural moment that cannot be re-created.
But she, Lovato, Jonas, Bieber, and the aforementioned Cyrus and Grande—a Disney and a Nickelodeon alum, respectively, both now pop stars to be reckoned with—certainly merit credit as a new class of performers with parallels to the last generation, but an impact all their own.
Liking Bieber? These days, no one is alone.