So how often is “teen pop” music written and produced by actual teenagers?
That’s barely a rhetorical question. Really. This is something I am working through my head right now so any answers anybody might have would be fantastic.
But I think it’s a fair question. What I refer to “teen pop” here, I am referring to music that is often written, produced, and distributed by adults. To make money off of teenagers. Money that, more often than not, they get from their parents. Kind of insidious. Kind of evil.
I mean, let’s run down the list, here. Boy bands like the Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync were masterminded by shady business types (Lou Pearlman) and superstar monolithic producers/songwriters (Max Martin). Usually only one or two members of those groups were actual teenagers, with some of them actually pushing 30 by the time they started generating actual hit singles. Solo pop stars like Britney and Christina, same deal, entering their 20s by the time they hit it big. The Spice Girls and S Club 7 were Simon Fuller pet projects, whose members were mostly all in their 20s. Aaron Carter was like 13 but he is not worth talking about. If we’re talking more recent pop stars – well, okay, Taylor Swift seems pretty in control. But despite all being actual teenagers (for a while), the Jonas Brothers and Miley Cyrus were Disney creations, and I don’t think Justin Bieber has much creative control over his music outside of a few songwriting credits here and there.
It’s all about money, here. Teenagers hand over their allowances for music that is designed specifically to appeal to them. Adults receive this teenager money. Rich adults. It’s a very simple process, and it doesn’t matter if said product is coming from actual teenagers. Teenagers are too dumb to care, right??
OK I’m really trying to not come across as cynical, here. Honestly, I love teen pop so fucking much that the fact that it is generated and profited from by people who might be actual Snidley Whiplash-level villains does not bother me even a little bit. It doesn’t! I am listening to music incubated deep, deep in the slimiest bowels of Capitalism and I don’t even care. I don’t know what this says about me. I can’t dwell on it.
(jesus christ Pearlman, you psychotic ponzi-scheming jailbird, I love all of your boy groups SO much)
What I’m trying to say is, knowing where teen pop comes from and who benefits from it, it’s almost impossible to toil in the genre and create something that actually relates any level of sincerity or feeling. And when someone does, it’s a big fucking deal to me, the biggest idiot in the world. I’m the one sitting here swallowing this music up, foot by foot, waiting to hear something I can relate to on a fucking human level. And most of the time it does not happen.
But when it does, hey. Hey. It’s great. A few artists here and there have managed to overcome the intrinsically evil nature of teen pop music and create something that hits me in the heart, something that communicates youth in a way that doesn’t feel chintzy or dumb. Robyn’s “Show Me Love,” for example. Hanson’s goofy early stuff. And, welp, M2M.
M2M were a Norwegian duo formed by childhood friends Marion Raven and Marit Larsen in the late 90s. Well, I say “formed” in the late 90s ’cause that’s when they settled on their name and got a record deal – considering that the two had been writing and playing music together since they were like 5 years old, we could argue that the commercial entity known as “M2M” came into existence as early as the late 80s. They were best friends who stayed best friends long enough to create definitive best friend teen pop music.
I honestly don’t know how well remembered M2M are nowadays, even by people who had their radios turned on at all hours of the day during the late 90s/early 2000s (like myself). They only had one significant chart entry in America with “Don’t Say You Love Me,” a top-40 Billboard hit that was memorably featured on the Pokemon: The First Movie soundtrack in 1999. Their 2000 debut album Shades Of Purple sold reasonably well, but was not a major hit by any standard except maybe in Southeast Asia. Their 2002 follow up The Big Room managed an occasional critical nod here and there but was a big flop commercially, to the point where the duo were embarrassingly kicked off of Jewel’s tour halfway through due to lower-than-anticipated sales. They broke up in 2003 and both pursued solo careers, with Marion collaborating with Max Martin and Marit pushing for a more singer-songwritery vibe. Both have nailed down a few big hits in their native Norway (and other parts of Europe) since then, to the point where they might be better known as solo artists in most parts of the world than they ever were as a duo.
But I feel like, as a duo, M2M were something special. They’re part of that honorary group of teen pop acts that actually wrote most of their own songs, alongside the likes of Hanson and BBMak (both of whom they toured with) – sure, there are more than a few outside songwriters credited here and there on their earliest tracks, but you never get the impression that M2M’s music isn’t coming from them. And they were both pretty young when they wrote and recorded this stuff – Marit was 14, Marion 15. Just barely out of middle school.
So what we have with Shades Of Purple is something I feel is unique and should be fucking treasured, held to our collective bosoms for all time: teenager pop music created by teenagers for teenagers. Teenagers writing songs from the perspective of a teenager. Despite its somewhat over-labored 2000 teen pop production, Shades Of Purple is such a youthful, sincere piece of work that it makes me want to bury my face in a fucking toilet and drown to death.
I mean that in a positive way. I do!
WHY WOULD I WANT TO BURY MY FACE IN A TOILET WHILE LISTENING TO SHADES OF PURPLE, HOW DO YOU EVEN DO THAT
Well. Let’s stick to Digital Get Down formula here and get the lead single out of the way first.
“Don’t Say You Love Me” is, admittedly, the one reason I am writing about M2M at all right now. If it hadn’t been a memorable enough radio hit in early 2000 – enough for it to stay stuck in my head for twelve fucking years – then there would have been nothing to lead me to Shades Of Purple.
Why was “Don’t Say You Love Me” so memorable? Why did it stick with me for so long? Maybe because it was one of the most empathetic, mature pop singles released that year? Maybe the most empathetic?
You have to understand this song. Marion and Marit are singing from the point of view of a teenage girl who just started dating a guy she really likes. Problem is, the guy is taking the relationship a little too seriously, too quickly. He’s pushing the romance too hard. He’s not respecting her. He’s talking about marriage. And so she tells him – “Hey, fucking chill, okay? Let’s take this thing one step at a time. We’re fucking fourteen year olds, for god’s sake.”
For a pop song released in 1999 written by actual 14-year-olds, this is kind of remarkable. Isn’t it?? Most late-90s teen pop hits settled for easy boy-girl puppy love or implied, coy sexuality. I can think of almost zero that go the “hey, let’s take it easy and get to know each other before we commit to this” route. It’s a situation where the teenage writers of the song are mature enough to recognize that they are actually teenagers and that there are some things they are too young to understand. Which is something that most teenagers are not capable of doing, at all!
I guess you could scoff. You could. You could laugh at the line “you start kissin’ me – what’s that about??” They sound very young, you know. Like little girls. Maybe their voices grate on you. That’s fine. I get it.
I can’t scoff, though. Never. To me there is nothing silly or fluffy about “Don’t Say You Love Me.” It’s about as honest as late-90s pop music gets, and it still resonates with me twelve years on. It is a pop song that actually features the line “it’s not like we’re gonna get married” and delivers it with total straight-faced sincerity. Considering how many friends of mine actually got married and started having kids immediately after graduating high school, it cuts me to the bone every time I hear it.
All this for a a fucking Pokemon song.
WELL NOW THAT THAT’S OUT OF THE WAY…
So yes. “Don’t Say You Love Me” was enough to warm me to M2M’s considerable charms, but if I’m being honest, Shades Of Purple didn’t resonate with me on first listen. It didn’t hit me at first. Took some time. I feel like Shades has three knocks against it, for the first-time listener:
1) Belabored late-90s teen pop production, which makes it sound like any other pop album released in 1999. Record scratches, mild R&B influences, etc. etc.
2) Young, young, young, young sounding vocals. Kind of like Hanson’s “Lucy” over and over again. Or that one Britney song about emailing her heart or whatever.
3) Less-than-stellar verses that trick the listener into thinking they are hearing a song that is not good.
But these are superficial things you need to get over. You do. Because I did. And once you’ve gotten over these things you will realize that Shades Of Purple is a remarkably consistent and well-crafted teen pop record. You’ll realize that those less-than-stellar verses lead to wonderfully catchy, sometimes beautiful choruses. You’ll realize that the empathetic lyrical themes introduced in “Don’t Say You Love Me” did not go anywhere. You’ll realize that even if Marion and Marit’s vocals are not yet very distinctive, their best-friend camaraderie is immediately endearing.
You’ll realize these things if you are like me, and have good opinions! At least!!
And gosh, so few of these songs are happy even a little bit! This is a teenager album full of regret and unhappy relationships and awkward anxiety. Songs like “Mirror Mirror” and “The Day You Went Away” display a sense of overwhelming teenage emotion, of being foisted into situations you’re too young to handle and not knowing where to turn. Outside of “Don’t Say You Love Me,” the most sincere moment on Shades Of Purple has to be when Marion chastises a shitty friend who stole her boyfriend in “Don’t Mess With My Love” by signing “everyone knows friends don’t do that!” And she hits the line so fucking hard, it’s as if she just realized how shitty people can be in the real world, right there in the recording studio.
I could be exaggerating. It’s not all this tough. In fact, my favorite track on Shades is easily “Everything You Do,” which might be the only straight-up guileless pop song on here. Disco strings! Electronics! A chorus that goes “ooooh oooh oooh uh uh!” It’s a moment of release that Shades needs and deserves, couched perfectly in the middle of the record.
But y’know, there are some less than great moments. “Girl In Your Dreams” and “Pretty Boy” push the schmaltz a little too hard. The R&B influences feel forced, likely an attempt by M2M’s handlers to make them more radio-friendly; the Full Force-penned “Do You Know What You Want” is better than it has any right to be, but doesn’t sound much like M2M. And then there’s the obligatory parent-approval-baiting on “Our Song,” which lifts its chorus directly from the Bee Gees’ “Too Much Heaven.” But I feel like, when we’re talking about 14-year-olds, these are all forgivable moves. This is what you expect.
I don’t know. I was never a 14-year-old girl. Maybe I’m talking out of my ass here. If you hate teenagers, or you hated being a teenager, or you’re sick of hearing me blabber on and on about teenagers, you might hate Shades Of Purple. Maybe you’ll listen to it based on my recommendation and hate it, and then hate me for it. Maybe I’m just writing this review to reinforce and justify my own opinion. Yep!!
But Shades Of Purple is refreshing for me to hear, even if I’m hearing it over a decade after mainstream pop listeners had forgotten about M2M. It’s an honest, positive teenage experience, and it must have been a real gift to any 14-year-old girl who bought it upon its release. Fuck me, my heart is warmed.