Girls just want to be girls

March 26, 2000|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

It used to be assumed that boys would be boys, and girls would be nice.

Not anymore.

In today's teen pop music scene, the boy bands are more likely to play nice while the girl singers come on naughty. So while the Backstreet Boys, 'N Sync and 98 Degrees deliver blushingly sincere declarations of love, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Jessica Simpson load their singles full of nudge-wink double entendres about "What a Girl Wants."

Nor is the notion that these teen idols are good girls going bad confined to their music. The scandal sheets are full of naughty nuggets and tittering tidbits about these mini-divas.

Spears -- who plays a sold-out show at the Baltimore Arena this evening -- has been skewered for allegedly having breast augmentation surgery (a charge she denies), and scolded for possibly playing house with her boyfriend, 'N Sync's Justin Timberlake. Aguilera has had her knuckles slapped for spending time with rock and rap bad boys like Eminem and Limp Bizkit's Fred Durst. Simpson, eager to avoid such gossip, publicly proclaims her intention to hold onto her virginity until she's married.

Meanwhile, the Backstreet Boys go on about how much they love their moms.

Has the world gone mad? Not really. But notions of what counts as acceptable behavior for young men in the pop music world is not only different from what it is for young women, but it's different from what it was a generation ago.

"It's easier for young female artists to sing songs about, 'Oh, that guy was such I jerk. I'm glad I dumped him,' " says Elysa Gardner, a New York pop correspondent for USA Today and the Los Angeles Times.

"But that kind of sentiment, expressed by a male artist, can be perceived as misogynous," she adds. This would explain why nobody is rushing out to remake the Rolling Stones' "Stupid Girl."

"On the other hand, women artists are more likely to be criticized for wearing certain clothes, [or] for showing too much flesh," she adds. "The gender hang-ups we have in society as a whole gets reflected in music, because the sexuality of young people in general has become such a focus."

Of course, "young" in this case is a relative term. Although many of their fans would be considered children, Spears at 18 and Aguilera at 19 are both old enough to vote, to get married, and to take responsibility for their actions. Still, the mere fact that they're considered teen idols makes their youth seem somehow titillating.

"There is definitely an element of taboo involved in sexualizing young girls," agrees Gardner. "Personally, I think it is more genuinely disturbing to see a 15-year-old girl sexualized than it is to see a 19-year old girl sexualized. We look at somebody like Britney Spears, and sometimes we forget that 18 years old is hardly too young to be aware of your own sexuality, and to want to express your sexuality in ways that feel right to you."

Trouble is, grown-ups don't always understand just how innocent these expressions of sexuality may be intended to be. Gardner, having interviewed nearly all of today's teen idols, often gets an earful as the young stars complain about being taken out of context. "I hear them time and again expressing frustration over what they perceive as people overreacting to them just being themselves as young women," she says.

A lot of the pressure these young stars feel stems from the fact that they have such young fans, and thus are called upon to act as role models. "Personally, I don't really like the term 'role model,' " says Spears. "Because I'm human, just like everybody else, and I make mistakes. I can just try and be a good person for me."

"Women are just more sexual beings [than men]," says Lori Majewski, entertainment director at Teen People. "Women have always talked about their sexuality; men don't always."

Moreover, teen audiences -- whether male or female -- have specific expectations of boy bands. "They're really expecting love songs from the guys," says Majewski. "I think that's why the Backstreet Boys' 'I'll Never Break Your Heart' kind of music is so huge. 'I Want It That Way' is a very romantic song. Also, 'Show Me the Meaning of Being Lonely' -- kids can really relate to that when they've just been dumped, or whatever."

Majewski also points out that the girl singers' songs are, in truth, nowhere near as naughty as they're made out to be. Take, for example, Aguilera's "Genie in a Bottle," in which she exhorts her prospective boyfriend to "rub me the right way."

Nudge-nudge, wink-wink?

Not likely, says Majewski, who has spoken at length with these singers about the lyrics in their songs. " 'I want you to rub me the right way' isn't supposed to be sexual. It's supposed to be, 'I'm taking my time to find the person that I want to go out with,' " she explains. "And 'What a Girl Wants' is, she wants space. She wants time to make up her mind."

OK, but it's still a double entendre, isn't it?

"Oh, definitely," says Majewski. "And that's definitely sexy."

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