In retrospect, the video for Mandy Moore’s first single, “Candy,” doesn’t seem particularly controversial: The camera pans over a generic suburban neighborhood—an ice cream truck, kids riding bikes, a young girl on a swing — before entering the then-fifteen-year-old singer’s bedroom through the window, like a kidnapper. But the most salacious part is the cartoonishly voluptuous way Moore mouths the song’s lyrics, which are rife with what can only be called single entendres, including the chant of the opening line: “Give it to me.” Nevertheless, it felt suggestive enough back in 1999 that my friend Sean, upon first seeing it, turned to me and said, “There is something really, really weird going on in our culture right now.” At the time, we were only a couple of years past adolescence ourselves, but, I instantly understood what he meant. The thing that’s so disturbing about that clip — and about the video for Britney Spears’ “…Baby One More Time,” released eight months prior — is that it highlights the subjects’ youth, making it an integral part of their purported comeliness (at least, to one segment of the audience: adult men). Of course, even then, this wasn’t exactly a new trick. What’s probably best known, albeit reductively, as the Lolita thing — after Vladimir Nabokov’s brutal 1955 novel — has been around for ages. But, the phenomenon did seem to be reaching a fever pitch in the late 1990s. As the writer Steven Daly says of Spears’s infamous first Rolling Stone cover, “I do think, in a way, that a line was crossed. The genie was out of the bottle.” Daly wrote the story that accompanied David LaChapelle’s remarkably prurient pictures in the music magazine’s April 15, 1999 issue, although he didn’t actually see the images — which included a shot of the singer pushing a little girl’s pink bicycle, dressed in a shiny pink halter, and a pair of white booty shorts that said “BABY” in rhinestones on the butt — until the issue hit newsstands. If he had, he says, he would have addressed them. Instead, he opened his story by quoting Spears as she strenuously denied that there was anything sexual going on in her debut video; it comes off, in context, as a little disingenuous. But Daly isn’t sure that it was. He visited Spears in her Kentwood, Louisiana home a few days before the photographer and his team descended upon the town, and he says that when she broached the topic of the shoot, her ideas were notably old-fashioned.
“She had a whole thing in her mind, involving this neighbor lady’s antique furniture. She was thinking porch, lace, rocking chair, Laura Ashley.” Instead, she ended up lying on fuchsia satin sheets in a black push-up bra, clutching a Teletubby. (In a subsequent interview with Rolling Stone, LaChapelle confirmed, quite shamelessly, that there was at least a little coercion involved: “I said to her, ‘You don’t want to be buttoned up, like Debbie Gibson. Let’s push it further…”) This would be nothing more than an interesting anecdote were those pictures not, as Daly says, “literal ground zero for what you’re talking about.” Prior to the teen pop boom of the late 1990s, mass media portrayals of adolescent sexuality often teetered between the implicit and the explicit: During the Beach Party era, for example, Annette Funicello’s persona was buxom, but not bawdy; two decades later, fifteen-year-old Brooke Shields’ come-on to her much-older audience was clear to pretty much everyone (except, she’s claimed, herself). When the images tipped too far towards the graphic, hand-wringing, if not full-on outrage, ensued…except in the countless cases in which it didn’t. Often, the general public was unaware of the youth of the girls photographed for ads like Shields’, particularly if they were models, but there may have been other factors, too: I recall very little concern over the perceived purity of the members of Destiny’s Child during the period when people were regularly working themselves into a lather over Britney, Christina, et al, despite the fact that Beyoncé and Kelly were precisely the same ages. But today, things have shifted. Subsequent teen stars, like Miley Cyrus, grew up observing Britney and her ilk, on MTV, sure, but also on the Internet. When they decide to go go blue, if they do, it reads as a calculated attempt to appear grown-up; overt, intentional signifiers of their immaturity, like knee-socks, are largely absent, even if everyone in the audience knows exactly how old they aren’t. The schoolgirl fantasy has been jettisoned in favor of the schoolgirl’s fantasy of adulthood. (Whether or not this constitutes an improvement is a matter of opinion.) Jenna Lamia, an actress/screenwriter who worked on the 2008 reboot of 90210, confirms that the kinds of stories told about teenagers on television and in film have likewise “changed drastically.” On the original Beverly Hills, 90210, she says, “there were storylines about, like, Brenda going out with a college guy while she was in high school.” (And, even that seemed scandalous when compared to the standards of previous eras…the raciest The Brady Bunch got was when Marcia developed a crush on her dentist.) On the new version, conceived in the wake of The O.C. and Gossip Girl, “It was: Of course they were drinking, doing drugs, and having sex. And it’s even more pronounced on Awkward,” she adds, referring to her current MTV show.
“Sometimes we have to check ourselves in the writers’ room because we’ll completely project our mid-30s lives onto these kids. We’ll write a scene where they’re waking up in bed together, and then we’ll be like, ‘Wait, they’re in high school. What bed are they in?’” It’s tempting to look back across the decades in the hopes of identifying a “better” time, but my survey of this phenomenon seems to indicate, at least to me, that the current moment isn’t much worse than any other recent era. While it might be nice if teens could chose from a few more genuinely good shows and movies that reflected something closer to their actual experiences — like the dearly departed series Friday Night Lights — I doubt that seeing a more “advanced” version of teenage life is leaving them any worse off than the millions of kids who, two decades ago, tuned in for the original 90210 and then stayed for its utterly twisted spin-off, Melrose Place. At least today, teenage stars are perhaps a bit less likely to be unknowingly offered up as sexual objects to adult men. As Daly says of Britney, “She was just a little girl in a rural area, completely square, completely clueless. There’s nobody like that left.”