November 1999
s m u g
back issues
by Joshua Allen

Teen Beat

I was talking with a friend (damn, now you already know this whole story is just a fictional conceit) the other day about marketing demographics, as I've been known to do after shooting up, and she was saying how in the early 90s, the target audience was college-age kids, what with grunge and slackers and whatnot, but nowadays everyone is aiming for the teen set - or even younger.

How did this shift occur? Is it solely because of the Backstreet Boys? Does it stem from The Great Teensploitation Film Revival? Are the promotional tactics of advertisers today so blatant and noisome that only half-formed minds, fueled by "extreme" candy and glitter-infused cosmetics, able to be suckered by them? Where did my "get off my lawn, you jackanapes!" anti-kid attitude come from? And, most importantly, why are these tykes suddenly so flush with cash that they're attracting the attention of Madison Avenue?

I looked to Teen Beat for the answers.

Never being a pre-pubescent girl (one of my many, many regrets - why does God hate me so much?), I was never an avid reader of Teen Beat or its ilk in my younger days. I did go through a Tears For Fears phase, however, and during their brief tenure as pop idols they'd sometimes appear on the cover of a teen rag and I would, helpless with platonic lust, emboldened by Janovian scream therapy, pick up a copy or two, not really to ogle the pictures of the pasty lads from Bath, but rather to enter a contest to meet them live in person or learn a few fun-facts previously unknown to me, like, say, eye color or height or favorite meal (invariably a lentil-based dish).

What struck me about Teen Beat was how it seemed wholly unchanged from the last time I took a peek, those many years ago. It still looks like it was assembled by 12-year-old girls, and I have to give "props," as the kids say, to the editors and writers and designers involved, because simulating work done by 12-year-old girls is no small feat. Teen Beat exudes an atmosphere of premenstrual preciousness, from the garish, stomach-churning, scrapbook aesthetic of the layout (looking as if it were assembled from pictures cut out from other magazines and clip art from junior high yearbooks by hands shaking with overheated obsession), to the star-and-heart iconography littering the background of many of the newsprint pages, making the typo'd text (which is, admittedly, irrelevant filler, there merely to take up space between the full-color posters) blessedly illegible. One exclamation point is never enough to convey the necessary enthusiasm.

I mean, you can't just waltz in off the street, fresh out of journalism school, and expect to write a header like: "Really Fun, Mind-Opening, Huge, Special Section: 'N Sync vs. BSB!!" You need to immerse yourself in the twisted and deluded psyche of your readership, essentially learn a whole new language where "cute" and "heart" and "date" provide the etymological roots. But the key to the Teen Beat language, the key to really mastering this type of communication, is to embed every single word with sexuality, but (and this is the tricky part!) a sexuality so muted and diluted and purified that you can't even smell it anymore, unless you really get in there and take a nice, big whiff.

It's this neutered longing that makes Teen Beat such a success. The magazine is basically presenting one pretty face (primarily male, naturally, though gorgeous best-friend types like Britney and Melissa make frequent appearances) after another, surrounded by completely innocuous factoids that the fans demand to know, like "Why does he always where the necklace with the tiger [sic; it's actually a lion, girlfriend!] on it?" and "What hair products does he use?" and "Does he have any hobbies besides playing basketball and collecting sneakers?" And sometimes that's not enough and the readers can only express their rabid feelings in verse: "I don't love one but all three of you / Even though Zac's younger than me, I love him too."

Wait a minute. Now things are starting to slip out. Woven into this tepid tapestry are hints of a darker purpose: "How young a girl would he date?" one eligible bachelorette would like to know. And how about this frenzied letter tucked innocently in with the others: "My name is Rachel and I am 12-and-a-half years old. I'm in love with the Backstreet Boys (especially Nick!). He's the hottest, finest, and sexiest guy in the world!" [italics mine] Nowhere else does Teen Beat allow "hot" or "sexy" to grace their pages. It is not about generating heat and is certainly not about sex. But it is, of course, and it creates that subtle tension by only copping to it once or twice. What's especially perverse is they let the 12-and-a-half-year-old do the work for them. Smooth.

So, then, what is the purpose of Teen Beat, aside from titillating its non-liquid readers? Where does it make its money? There are actually very few advertisements in the magazine, and they're all for either teen idol promotional goods, or the candy-coated makeup that will help the young women of today segue into Seventeen, and then Cosmopolitan. So it stands to reason that Teen Beat exists solely to promote whomever is the hot pop sensation of the day and cultivate tomorrow's megastars (note the "New Guys to Idolize" section and the catty comment about how Rolling Stone and People are covering Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise who "we covered long before they were established stars").

I'm going to go out on a limb, then, and say: Welcome to Kickback City. Teen Beat can't survive on its paltry advertising, so it has to be a Backstreet-backed. I mean, the Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync have been on every single cover since at least September 1998. There's always been something fishy about the overlong success of the boy bands, and my hunch is that Teen Beat and its sinister counterparts are on the payroll, just another cog in the relentless Orlando Machine. Does this worry me? Certainly not, because Teen Beat is not about journalistic integrity, it's about getting young girls hot and bothered and, dammit, I will never stand in the way of that American Dream.

[Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian.]



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