In which we look at once common curiosities of pop culture that don’t exist anymore, be it because of changing tastes, the fragmentation of culture, or merely the fickle nature of fads.
Teen idols come and go, but the concept never leaves us, because there will always be hormonally crazed young people with questionable taste in music. Sometimes the pop star breaks free of their teen idol years and becomes a legitimate artist (Frank Sinatra, Ricky Nelson, Justin Timberlake); the rest are temporary, ephemeral, and cheesy: Fabian, Andy Gibb, the DeFranco Family, Rick Astley, Philip Glass, etc.
Right now, we’ve got quite a few, and a solid 25 percent of social networks would appear to be teenagers just saying that they enjoy the music and/or appearance of, variously, One Direction, the Wanted, Justin Bieber, Cody Simpson, three more that have become popular between when I wrote this article yesterday and it published this morning. And these pop stars, up until the moment in which they choke under the pressure of fame and their souls, minds, and bodies melt down (Bieber just bought a monkey – right on schedule), they are the lynchpins of an exploitative and all encompassing multimedia marketing machine. Music! Merchandise! TV shows! And movies!
In the past few years, the film element has taken the form of highly-staged documentary, in which tantalizing concert footage of Chad Hotlington is intercut with haigiographic biographical information and backstage “just being myself” stuff so the viewers think that they’re getting an off-the-cuff intimate portrait. You know, like Justin Bieber’s Never Say Never or Katy Perry’s Part of Me.
Because of that kind of movie, you know what’s gone? Cheesy, low-budget, super-rushed movies made as vehicles for of-the-moment pop stars who probably can’t act but so what. Obviously, the Elvis Presley movie was the originator and gold standard of this (if not a bizarre subgenre unto itself), but it carried on well into the decades as a way to get kids into the drive-ins and buy up the VHS and DVDs.
This does not include the excellent Beatles movies in which the Beatles played the Beatles. I’m talking about the movies in which pop stars play fictional characters in a narrative movie. Fictional characters who are just regular super-attractive people who happen into an experience that allows them to show off their heretofore unknown musical talent right when a gang of tightly choreographed backup dancers is passing by. Or, alternately, they play a fictionalized version of themselves and get involved in a crazy adventure, often involving hot air balloons, a jewel heist, and the love of a regular girl like you, viewer.
These movies are cotton candy or bubblegum, meant to last about as long as cotton candy or bubblegum: dumb, fun, easily consumable, and quickly forgotten, meant purely as a promotional vehicle for a youth-friendly commercial act. Do you remember, say…
The Bee Gees in Cucumber Castle (1970)
Menudo in Una Aventura Llamada Menudo (1982)
Sir Vanilla Ice in Cool as Ice (1991)
The Spice Girls in Spice World (1998)
Rick Springfield in Hard to Hold (1984)
Joey Fatone and Lance Bass in On the Line (2001)
KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park (1978)
These movies existed off and on, not so much in the ‘90s—there was no Jeremy Jordan movie, no Joey Lawrence movie, no Boyz II Men movie—but it’s pretty clear when and how this increasingly dated and increasingly cheesy idea was killed off for good, or at least for a while. And it’s kind of the holy trinity of shitty ‘00s movies: Glitter, starring Mariah Carey, Crossroads starring Britney Spears, and, of course From Justin to Kelly, the contractually obligated quickie movie spinoff starring the top two finishers from the first season of American Idol. It’s exquisitely bad. Nobody involved in this spring break movie from another planet (except for Clarkson and Guarini, who do try their damndest) seem to have ever heard or, nor enjoy, music, spring break, young people, or communication tropes.
From Justin to Kelly makes the similarly conceived yet less cynical Frankie and Annette (RIP) beach movies feel like Babel. It also came along about a year after Eminem’s 8 Mile, which is technically in this genre, but is also authentic and aims to tell a story through Eminem’s music, not just move more copies of it.