Yes, there was once a world without teen pop. A world without boy bands and pop divas and blonde highlights and sleeveless tees and nose piercings and enhanced CDs and Aaron parties and backup dancers and terrible movie soundtrack tie-ins. It was a stupid and senseless world, one that I am glad I was not alive to see. Fuck the past, dad!!
But sometimes – sometimes – it is good to take a look back at those sad old days. If not just to take stock in what we have, and cherish it. So let’s do that why not.
There are two big questions I get about Digital Get Down. One of those questions is “please update your blog every day if you can, I need your writing in order to live my life with joy and real feeling, I am sad all day every day and want to see your face to kiss,” which is not a question at all so I often ignore it. The other question is “So, how far are you gonna go back for reviews? ’70s? ’60s?”
It is an interesting question. My only criteria for this blog is “write about teen pop,” and “teen pop” can mean a lot of things. Teenagers have liked a lot of music over the decades. Elvis, right? The Beatles? Herman’s Hermits? Ahh, yeah, well. Those guys were rockers. Teen pop has to be fluffier and lighter. The 70’s? David Cassidy? The Osmonds? The Jackson 5? The Bay City Rollers? The fucking Raspberries? They all fit the role, right? Big flashy pop stars that the teen kids love. Soft-padded teen pap. It’s not a new thing. I could dig pretty deep, if I tried.
But nah. No. None of those folks fit into my definition of “teen pop.” The Sean Rose textbook definition. Without sounding like a young jerk, those fogeys are too old. Their definition of “pop” is not the same. We are living in different, funkier, dancier times, ladies and gentlemen. We need a definition of teen pop that reflects the Now Generation.
To these ears, the teen pop we know and love can be roughly traced back to the early 80s. When Michael Jackson assumed his mighty Pop Throne, when R&B started to rely more on synths and drum machines, when electro and hip hop came into the forefront. Post-disco, you could say. Hard-hitting dancefloor boogies, scrubbed up and pushed into teenage girls’ laps. That is what teen pop is to me.
So if you’re wondering how far back into pop past I am willing to crawl, this week’s review will be your answer. We are going to take a look at the humble beginnings of five sprightly kids from Boston who may or may not have formed the first modern Boy Band: New Edition.
Ah yes, New Edition. The Boy Band Big Bang. Where all hunky life begins.
Now, when you think about “the first boy band,” New Edition might not be the first group that pops into your head. They were popular, but they weren’t huge, with only one top ten Billboard chart hit to their name. They were also what you might call a knockoff group early on – they were modeled as nothing more than an updated Jackson 5 for the Eighties, right down to lead singer Ralph Tresvant’s cute teenage Michael Jackson impersonation. Manufactured pop groups were not anything new when New Edition came along. They just did it like it’s done now.
New Edition were, as far as I can tell, the first lite-R&B group directed solely at teenagers, one that emphasized the dancing and singing over actually playing instruments. I could be wrong. If anybody knows any others, please let me know. The Jacksons courted a mainstream audience along with a teenage audience, so I don’t count them. They played instruments, too. Anybody else come to mind? Eh? No. New Edition extracted the Jacksons’ inherent cuteness and pop appeal, slicked it up with some modern early Eighties R&B flourishes, and produced light-as-a-feather pop that only a teenager needed to love. And so, modern teen pop was born.
I don’t want this to sound dismissive. New Edition’s influence goes beyond their manufactured roots. In a lot of ways, their career arc set the mold for every big-deal boy band that would follow them. Starting as cute, lovable bubblegum kiddies; suing their manager, cutting out on their own, modernizing and growing up; ending their career with a fit of agressive, adult, forward thinking records and singles. Four out of five of New Edition’s members helped kick start an entire genre, for Christ’s sake! But we’ll get to that later.
Oh, and they even did their own oldies covers album, too! The worst cliche in boy band history! But we’ll get to that later.
New Edition were important, would go on to do big things, la de da doo. But if we’re talking about their start – if we’re talking about Candy Girl – then we need to take a moment and talk about the original mastermind behind these powerhouse Jackson two-point-ohs. The man who saw them place second in a talent show and still knew they were pure star material. The man who could be considered the One True Boy Band Svengali of His and All Time: Mr. Maurice Starr.
Ah, Maurice. Sweet Starr. The Starrchild. Ringo Starr.
Do you know who this guy is? Whoa, whoa. Guys. He’s a big deal ’round these parts. In terms of teen pop influence, Starr is New Edition’s equal. Born with the sad civilian name of Larry Johnson, he adopted his Starr persona in the early 80s and attempted to launch a solo career as a hot new R&B star. Despite having a fucking incredible stage name and a handsome face, it didn’t work out too well for him, for reasons I do not know. Maybe he just wasn’t hunky enough. Maybe his record label didn’t give a shit about him. Maybe his songs weren’t very good! I can’t say. I wasn’t there. I was born in 1987. Leave me alone.
What I do know is that Starr’s failure as a solo performer brought, in him, great strength. He knew exactly what he had to do. If he couldn’t get his music over with the public himself, he’d put together a group of the Most Incredible Cute Kids to sing his music for him. He’d produce, he’d write, he’d manage, he’d do fucking everything behind the scenes, and the cute wonderful kids would dance and sing. Their faces would bring in the teenage cash, while Maurice would sit back and puff a hot cig. And so, a Genius Pop Mogul was born.
I’ve talked a lot of talk about pop Svengalis before. Your Max Martins and your Lou Pearlmans and whathaveyou. Those guys are chumps compared to Maurice. I mean this. Martin wrote a lot of Britney and BSB’s big singles, and Pearlman exerted considerable control over his hunk groups on the business end. Starr wrote every song for acts he managed, and exerted full managerial control. He did everything. Everything. An incredible, unholy fusion of Max Martin and Lou Pearlman before either came into existence. Pearlmart, you could call him. The Incredible Loumax. And New Edition were his first big project.
There is no denying that New Edition began as a Maurice Starr vehicle. Every track on Candy Girl was written by him. He brainstormed the idea of a Jackson 5 for the Eighties, and it worked. He had it. From the word go, Starr knew how to market a group of young singers to a pop audience and make them a huge success. In more ways than one, this is his record more than New Edition’s. It is also, tellingly, the only record he would make with them before a less-than-amicable split. It is not hard to guess why.
Despite all that calculation, there’s a lot to like about Candy Girl. Starr’s control is obvious, but I get the impression that these five fiesty kids from Boston did not give a shit at the time. Hey, they’re singin’ some big hits! They’re onstage and everyone loves them! They’re stars!! There’s a lot of that enthusiasm to be found on Candy Girl. It’s a fun, un-cynical piece of work.
So let’s talk about the record for a minute, stupid!
THE JACKSON FIVE ARE BACK! BUT NOW THEY RAP!!
Yes, we know full well that New Edition came to life as a Jackson 5 ripoff. It’s in their DNA. They were given the name “New Edition” because they were envisioned as… well, the new edition of the Jackson 5. This is no secret.
That Jackson 5 influence runs strong through all of Candy Girl, but there are two tracks that exemplify what they were going for here. And they both happen to be the record’s first two singles. How convenient!!
“Candy Girl” is “ABC.” Right? It is straight up “ABC.” The chorus is almost identical. Identical! How did this happen? How did Berry Gordy not sue? How did you get away with this, Mr. Starr? How could you??
It’s OK, though. “Candy Girl” is about as good as a Jackson 5 ripoff gets. It can’t help but suffer by comparison – that loose soul, that pure fountain of pop joy those Jackson 5 singles generated will not be found here. How could it. “I Want You Back” and “ABC” were bubblegum just like “Candy Girl,” sure, but it felt like there was weight in that bubblegum. There was something else. Something heavenly and genuine and good.
“Candy Girl” doesn’t have that. It’s a light, fun pop song, and not much else. That’s fine! It works! Ralph is straight-up imitiating young Michael Jackson, but it’s a good good imitation. He sounds just like him! Good job, Ralph! There are also some cute up-to-the-minute modern 80s touches that pop up, like that wiggly background synth and the rap breakdown in the bridge. I can’t resist goofy vocal boy band interplay, so hearing Ralph, Bobby and Michael trading girl-crazy bubblegum raps is just too much. Too much. Personality! Youth! Sharing a chocolate malted with your steady girl!!
So “Candy” is to “ABC” what the Rutles were to the Beatles. Only without the jokes. Which is not a bad thing.
Gosh, please watch that video for me. Love the way those 14 year old kids dance. Choreographed, but kinda loose and sloppy. Like they’re just feeling it as they go along. This is long before boy band choreography became lockstep. A different time. Can you imagine the Backstreet Boys dancing like that? Wouldn’t happen. A shame. You can see where the seeds were sown, here.
“IS THIS THE END?”
Ah, young heartbreak. Tough stuff.
“Is This The End?” is a Jackson 5 ballad in the vein of “I’ll Be There.” That much is obvious. It’s “I’ll Be There” converted into a standard boy band ballad. Oh, the sadness. Oh, the saccharine. Oh, the squeaky young Ralph vocals. Oh, oh.
It’s not an affecting ballad by any means. Lockstep, lockstep calculation. By the book balladry. Mr. Starr did not dream up a masterpiece here, and unlike “Candy Girl,” “Is This The End?” is almost completely weighed down by the shadow of the pop group it’s attempting to ape. The production’s thin, too.
Still, it has a moment that would send any teen heart aflutter. Right when you think the song’s over, when Ralph cools off and things start to wind down, Ricky Bell pops in and delivers some classic kid angst: “Momma always told me it was gonna happen / but she never told me when / She told me it would happen when I was much older / Wish it woulda happened then.”
Aw man, and you can tell he means it, too. What is “it,” Ricky? Heartbreak, right? Unless I’m wrong. “It” can be so many things. An ice cream headache? Jock itch? Seeing Airplane! for the first time and, y’know, liking it but not LOVING it, but your friends all love it so much that you can’t bring yourself to admit it? Help me out here, bud!
Nah, ok. He’s talking about heartbreak. What I love about those lines is that, well, you know “it” didn’t really happened. Ricky just thinks it did, ’cause he’s 14 and he doesn’t know any better. Poor, poor Ricky. You don’t even know, bud. It is gonna get so much worse.
IT’S THE EIGHTIES, NOW
Now, making New Edition out to be nothing but a Jackson 5 ripoff group is not entirely fair. You can only steal from one popular group for so long. Modern touches are necessary, and Mr. Starr knew this. Candy Girl is, like the best teen pop products, a record that throws together the New Sounds of its Time and scrubs them hard ’til they’re light enough for a mainstream teenage audience.
So what sounds are these! Well. Early hip hop, electro, synth-funk, the works. “Gimme Your Love” is a sprightly R&B opener that bears more than a passing resemblance to “Rapper’s Delight,” which was only like a couple of years old at this point. “Gotta Have Your Lovin'” feels more reminiscent of a late-70s Jacksons track. “Pass The Beat” is – INCREDIBLY AND WONDERFULLY – a teenage reinterpritation of “Planet Rock,” featuring the boys rapping to a skittery electro beat so sweetly and so painfully. They’re not rappers. They can’t do it. They try so hard. “Shake it! / Don’t break it! / It took your momma nine months to make it!” Oh goodness. You kids.
You can hear a little of Starr’s other interests creeping in here. “Pass The Beat”‘s aping of “Planet Rock” makes sense when realize that Mr. Starr was moonlighting as a member of the electro group Jonzun Crew around this time. But, y’know, those influences are light. I don’t want to imply that Candy Girl as a whole is, in any way, a daring electro straight-from-the-streets dirty pop record. It’s as light and cute as cute can be.
There is one more track I’d like to single out here. That would be the closing slow number “Jealous Girl”:
“Jealous Girl” isn’t much to listen to. It’s as by-the-books basic as “Is This The End?,” only without Ricky Bell’s despairing fadeout vocals to add some extra weight. I’m only singling it out ’cause I think it’s got kind of a shitty attitude.
It’s Bobby Brown’s anti-love letter to a girl who rejected him at first, but wants him now that he has a new girlfriend. “Fellahs / There’s a jealous girl in our town!” As if they should be on fucking neighborhood watch, or something. “Girl, I really hope you find another / I just can’t take no more / Of you tryin’ to be my lover.” You stupid girl! You never saw what sweet 13-year-old Bobby Brown had to offer you!!
I don’t know where this came from. It’s mean spirited and out of place. So much of Candy Girl feels cute, sweet and vulnerable. “Jealous Girl” is cocky and dismissive. It’s strange, weird turn at the end of a candy-coated bubble album.
And so, this was Maurice Starr’s vision of our pop future, fully and immediately realized: five teenage kids from the Boston projects transformed into the Jackson 5 for the Eighties era. Candy Girl is it. He did it. And what else was there to do?
Candy Girl was a huge R&B chart hit (and, interestingly enough, a big hit in the UK where the title track became a #1 hit). But as for the mainstream Billboard charts, it did not fare as well. Sales weren’t huge. To put it bluntly, New Edition hadn’t hit it big with a white mainstream audience yet. They would soon, but not just yet. And Starr noticed this.
In later interviews, Starr admitted that he felt New Edition would have been way, way bigger if they where white. Considering how popular New Edition would eventually become almost immediately after Candy Girl, it’s hard to say if he was right. But I imagine Starr felt limited by New Edition’s lack of immediate success, and needed a more “accessible” group to make his music heard. I would not be shocked.
But the real story is obvious. Starr was a megalomaniac, and the Editions knew it. They had other plans, too. If they stuck with Starr, they’d have to keep performing songs he wrote for them, the same Jackson 5 ripoffs over and over again. If they stuck with Starr, they’d likely become bargain bin casualties by the end of ’83, burdened by a cutesy image foisted upon them by a failed R&B star turned manager. If they stuck with Starr, he’d probably drop them in a year’s time anyway. They knew a dead end when they saw it.
Oh, and also Starr only paid them $1.87 each after their first tour. That too!
Candy Girl is light as a feather by design and has little in common with the harder-edged modern R&B that would set the standard for millennial teen pop and beyond. But it is an Important Piece of Pop History, the spark that birthed two of teen pop’s biggest fattest innovators. One would soon become a beloved, influential institution in the boy band world; the other, one of its greatest and most cutthroat manipulators. The future was sown here.
But we’ll get to all that next time! Haha!! Seeya Suckers!!