This is a quiz: Gavin, Leonardo and Claire, JTT; extra points if you can name all five Spice Girls; extra, extra points if you know Buffy the Vampire Slayer's last name.
If the answers come immediately to mind: Rossdale, the lead singer of Bush; two movie stars, DiCaprio and Danes; Jonathan Taylor Thomas from Home Improvement, and Emma, Victoria, Mel C, Mel B and Geri, then there is no doubt you are very clued in, or under 17. (If you know that Buffy's last name is Summers, you've been watching too much WB.)
Just three or four years ago, pop music was dominated by angry rappers, and movies all starred some familiar thirty-something face on the cusp of making $20 million per. Now, an epochal change seems to be taking place. A long-anticipated younger generation has taken control of the stick shift of pop culture (and with a full tank of gas; thanks, Mom and Dad!).
Before you can say "MMMbop," they have shifted toward a blend of the 1950s and the millennium, with bright pop songs, interchangeable teen-age heartthrob stars and mindless yet ironic movies like Starship Troopers, about giant bugs, and movies like Scream, about slashers in the closet.
The most popular film in America for the last month has been I Know What You Did Last Summer, a campy horror picture aimed at 15- to 20-year-olds that stars a new crop of heartthrobs, like Ryan Phillippe and Jennifer Love Hewitt. Angst-free, chart-topping pop by Hanson, the Backstreet Boys and the Spice Girls -- whose second album, Spice World, was just released -- is back with a vengeance. Television shows like Party of Five and Buffy are stamping out legions of barely postpubescent actors.
Douglas Coupland, who labeled his age group with his 1991 book Generation X, said he has noticed the proliferation of "all these seemingly modular kid units flattening out the media-scape."
"At the core of pop culture these days we find Mentos, Goosebumps and Hanson," he went on. "And that's fine. The kids have got their own thing going. Good. 'The edge' is over. Adults can stop wearing leather jackets now."
Although young idols come and go with each generation -- remember New Kids on the Block? David Cassidy? Fabian? -- what is notable about the newest wave is that idoldom itself has moved front and center in the culture, in a way not seen since the youthquake triggered by the baby boom in the '50s and '60s. That is no surprise, given that today's teen-agers are the boomers' children.
They are variously known as the echo boom (born after 1982, under the sign of Baby on Board), the baby boomlet or Generation Y. Why not just call them the Tamagotchi Generation? They like things technological and cute (like the 1995 movie Babe); they are open to the global marketplace and insist on their right to irony. And unlike the electronic pets called Tamagotchis, the Tamagotcheratis will never die as long as marketing people are willing to push their buttons.
"We've already seen the impact of the baby boomlet in recent years, with the phenomenal success of things like Power Rangers or Beanie Babies or Tamagotchis, where savvy marketers have been able to build billion-dollar businesses based on the baby boomlet through their kids' years," said Richard Leonard, a vice president of the Zandl Group in New York, which does market research on young people. "Now that they are teens, there are future opportunities."
School enrollment in America last year broke the record levels previously reached in 1972. This year, 52.2 million children are in school; high schools and junior high schools are overflowing.
In the early '90s, fan magazines for teen-agers like Tiger Beat went into a circulation slump, but the genre has bounced back, and new titles, like Twist and Jump, are springing up. In February, People will spin off Teen People.
"Right now, the teen market is exploding," said Lisa Lombardi, the editor in chief of Twist, whose second issue is on newsstands now. "There are going to be more teens in the next 10 years than in the last 25. And teen-age girls have a lot of disposable income."
Although both boys and girls buy movie tickets and CDs, teen-age magazines are read almost exclusively by girls. Boys may drool over Daisy Fuentes dressed in hip-huggers on MTV's Singled Out, but they don't care about her favorite color. The hunger for such personal trivia, the province of the magazines, is mostly a craving of girls.
Antonia Pocock, 12, a seventh-grader at Hunter High School in Manhattan, reads Seventeen, YM, Teen, Top Model and Mademoiselle. She knows who Phillippe is. "He's cute and a good actor," she said. And thanks to her magazines, she knows he is going to be in a movie next year called "Studio 54." She added helpfully, "It's about a club."
Three thousand miles away, and three years older, some media skepticism creeps in. Vanessa Silverton Peel, a 15-year-old in the ninth grade at the Oakwood School in Los Angeles, said: "The idea of what teen magazines are into is so far off. Every other word is 'babe.' The headlines are '101 Ways to Tell if He Likes You.' Not very often is there an article on preparing for the SATs or something you would actually need. Their celebrities don't extend beyond Jared Leto and Jonathan Taylor Thomas, all the teen-age kids who are in bad sitcoms."
Still, she, too, is a fan of DiCaprio, the gold standard of heartthrobdom these days, whose new film, Titanic, opens next month. She also watches Sabrina, the Teen-Age Witch on television and listens to Tori Amos, Jewel and Fiona Apple.
Ms. Pocock and Ms. Peel may be members of an emerging new mass audience. Remember the complaint that pop music was too fragmented? That was before rap turned softer and Hanson, the Spice Girls and Aqua, who had an out-of-nowhere hit with "Barbie Girl," arrived.
"Pop music is back," said Carmen Cacciatore, the East Coast senior director of artists and repertory for MCA, who signed Aqua for distribution in April. "Kids are getting upbeat, quirky, fun music coming through the radio."
Right now, the cycle is feel-good pop that dwells on perennial subjects like "Quit Playing Games (With My Heart)," from the Backstreet Boys; though at its strongest it takes on issues like being raped at 12, by Fiona Apple, who is 20.
"The music now is in contrast to Nirvana or grunge, all the Angst-driven stuff," said John McDaniel, 28, the music director of KNHC, a radio station that is part of the Seattle public school system. "A lot of the music now doesn't have a negative energy. It's fluffy. It seems more a lighter note."
Why no Angst, the staple of many earlier teen-agers' tunes? In their book "Generations" (1991), William Strauss and Neil Howe predicted that the generation born after 1982 would develop a wholesome, upbeat pop culture, partly because of their parents' reactions to the cynical pop embraced by Generation X. The new generation, Howe said, "is being taught to be good citizens, not to think too deeply about the issues."
Roger Rosenblatt, an essayist for Time magazine and "The News Hour With Jim Lehrer," sees it this way: "This generation doesn't have a war. The economy is good. They have drugs a bit, but it's not attached to anything important. They have no political agenda. They have created pop culture lite. The vacuity of this generation, its manifestation, or the parody of it as in Scream, may all be a result of these young people wanting less."
The Tamagotchi generation -- for whom a serious crisis is "The cable's out!" -- clamors for hoots like Scream, or the media-savvy cool of movies like Clueless, the 1995 film that may mark the first expression of this cohort's buying power, or this year's Men in Black, a knowing send-up of science fiction.
Music and movies are where new stars can zoom fastest into youth consciousness, but the new cable channels are creating teen-age stars, too. There are innumerable shows on WB, Fox and UPN (networks most people over 40 can't even find) that star inexpensive unknowns, this generation's Mouseketeers, in shows like Party of Five. WB alone has Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Sister, Sister and Smart Guy, and in January will have Dawson's Creek, already being hailed as the next My So-Called Life, the show about high-school life that gave Ms. Danes her start. She has gone on to movies (Romeo and Juliet) and awards shows (the VH1 Fashion Awards).
Bari Nan Cohen, the 24-year-old entertainment editor of YM magazine, who has seen the pilot episode of Dawson's Creek on tape, said: "I'm nuts about this show. It talks about the experience of being a teen-ager in high school in the most honest and direct way." Perhaps not coincidentally, Dawson's Creek, which deals with issues like masturbation and romances with high school teachers, was written by Kevin Williamson, 32, who seems to be at the epicenter of the new culture. He also wrote Scream and Scream 2, opening next month, and I Know What You Did Last Summer.
Do baby boomers and Gen X'ers care about the teen-age idols? Yes, if the next Tom Cruise is among them. No, if Harrison Ford and Robert Redford will just keep making movies, and if Bob Marley's albums will continue to be released in new formats.
Paul Verhoeven is the director of Starship Troopers, which opened on Friday and stars a new generation of potential idols, like Casper Van Dien. Verhoeven sat in a midtown restaurant in Manhattan recently and read down a list of 40 names of hot young stars, like Matt Damon, Brendan Sexton 3rd, Melissa Joan Hart and Jared Leto.
"I only know 10 percent of those names," said the director, who admits that his two daughters, 23 and 25, have to clue him in on pop culture. His own film, he said, did not rely on stars. "Giant insects, that's the sell," he said.
But teen-age magazines put out 12 issues a year. Someone has to be on the cover, and it probably won't be a giant insect.
© The New York Times Company 1997