The concept of a “teenager” is a relatively new one. A term coined in recent decades, as Time magazine has noted, the American teenager came into “existence” sometime in the 1940s. Although a teenager’s interests are stereotypically perceived as juvenile compared to the tastes of more mature, sophisticated adults, and their impact on culture tends to more or less be seen as something that is novel and frivolous rather than something that should be taken seriously, teenagers actually hold tremendous power and influence in our culture.
Throughout the 20th century and now into the 21st, teenagers have driven some of the biggest musical, literary and cinematic successes of all time. When crowds of teenage fanatics elevate something to a phenomenal success, whether it’s a musical superstar or a blockbuster hit movie, it often has a significant impact on the genre even decades later. Teenagers are, in fact, quite powerful, once we consider that they have had a pivotal role in creating some of the biggest cultural phenomena of all time. From The Beatles to One Direction, Titanic to Twilight, teenagers have been shaping pop culture for well over seven decades. Here are some of the biggest teenage-driven pop culture sensations, presented in chronological order, that have had a tremendous impact on music, books and film.
In the 1950s, Elvis’ rock and roll sound was new, fresh, exciting, and utterly offensive to parents… everything that helps give birth to a phenomenal teen sensation. Frequently admonished by mainstream critics for being a “white guy singing like a black man” and controversial for his “sexy” dance moves that drew attention to his rotating pelvis, Elvis brought a new sound into the mainstream and is now considered one of the greatest cultural icons of the 20th century. His first big break was an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, which made him into a national celebrity that was truly unprecedented. His popularity, especially amongst youth, was a new phenomenon, as no one had ever seen anything like his fans uniting through their love for his music. His (mainly teenage) fans were stereotyped – and depicted by the media – as being crazed, frenzied fangirls. Yet, they drove his success. As proof of his popularity, “The King of Rock and Roll” sold an estimated 600 million records worldwide.
Beatlemania has become synonymous with teen sensations because, aside from Elvis, The Beatles had one of the biggest and earliest international fan bases. When The Beatles, already the most popular pop group in Europe, crossed the pond and appeared on Ed Sullivan’s television show in early 1964, they exploded on the American music scene. By March of that year, several of their songs topped the charts. The unprecedented demand for their music and live performances, particularly their summer concert at Shea Stadium, led to stadium rock. Their staggering popularity and groups of fans have been studied by psychologists and cultural commentators in the decades since their explosion of popularity in American culture.
Michael Jackson debuted in the music scene with his family as a member of the Jackson 5 in 1964, and with his solo career in 1971, he became a huge figure in pop music. The popularity of his music videos helped make the relatively new MTV into a phenomenon in of itself, and his complicated dance techniques including the robot and moonwalk became iconic and later influenced other popular hip hop, rock, and R&B artists. Although he was popular amongst many demographics, he became an icon in youth culture especially with his popularity on MTV and his status as a pop entertainer. At the time, he was also called the biggest thing since The Beatles and Elvis, placing him firmly in the position of a significant entertainer for the youth of the era.
‘80s and ‘90s Boy Bands
From Backstreet Boys to NSync, boy bands exploded on the music scene in the 1990s. Arguably, the boy band trend kicked off in the late 1980s with New Kids on the Block, and Boyz II Men who produced big hits. The craze of watching groups of young men synchronizing their music and pop songs to impeccably-choreographed dances and high-budget videos reached their peak in the late ‘90s with Backstreet Boys, NSync, and other popular groups like Hanson and 98 Degrees topping the charts for years. Backstreet Boys “Millennium” was number 1 on the Billboard 200 for 10 weeks, and ‘Nsync’s “No Strings Attached” album topped the Billboard 200 for 8 weeks.
The Spice Girls
When 1990s music comes to mind, it wasn’t just boy bands who were teen icons of this era. The British all-girl pop group the Spice Girls broke with the trends of the time with their “girl power” message and hit songs such as “Wannabe,” which became global sensations. They were the first ultra-popular all-girl band in the era of boy bands, selling over 30 million copies worldwide of their album “Spice.” It became the best-selling album by a female group. Overall, The Spice Girls have sold over 75 million records worldwide, making them the best-selling female group of all time.
One of the highest-grossing films of all time, James Cameron’s blockbuster movie also introduced the world to teen heartthrob Leonardo DiCaprio. Titanic won 11 Academy Awards and was the first movie ever to reach over a billion dollars worldwide gross. Although the film was watched and enjoyed by those of all ages, its staggering popularity largely seemed to have been driven by teens who couldn’t get over the doomed love story of Jack and Rose on the notorious ocean liner. After the film’s debut in late 1997, the movie’s soundtrack and an endless supply of merchandise, magazines with photos devoted to the doomed love affair of the two main characters were snapped up by teenage fans, and teenagers openly admitted to seeing the movie dozens of times in theatres.
Although the book series penned by J.K. Rowling was first released and marketed towards grade school-aged children in the late 90s, as more books in the series were released, its original audience grew into teenagers, and as themes turned darker in the series, Harry Potter became a phenomenon that was firmly rooted in the lives of younger teenagers who were coming of age in the mid-2000s along with the boy wizard. From movie and book release parties at midnight to costumes and Internet fan sites and fan fiction, Harry Potter brought the previously nerdy fantasy book genre into (a more) mainstream culture, and also kicked off an era in which books were finally worthy of major teenage obsessions. The series is one of the best selling book series of all time and author JK Rowling is worth over 1 billion dollars, with the Harry Potter brand having been estimated to be worth over 15 billion dollars.
From the era of boy bands, solo artist Britney Spears emerged as another pop culture phenomenon and became the biggest-selling female artist in the 2000s. After releasing her hit “…Baby One More Time” album in 1999 and “Oops!… I Did It Again” in 2000, she became an international success. “…Baby One More Time” became one of the best-selling albums by a teenage solo artist ever, and its title tracks broke sales records. Spears was controversial; in 1999, a cover of Rolling Stone featuring Spears lying on a bed covered in a bra, shorts and open top, drew criticism by many who questioned whether she should be a teenage icon. Nonetheless, her world concert tours sold out and she continued to enjoy big hits and fame until her career stalled in the mid-2000s following some personal issues.
The “Twilight” books, penned by Stephenie Meyer, followed on the heels of the Harry Potter phenomenon. Although it has been endlessly mocked in pop culture ever since the book series (and later, a movie series) became a major teen obsession in the mid-2000s, no one can deny that the franchise was a huge commercial success with its (mainly female and teenage) fan base. “Twilight” sold over 100 million copies worldwide, and the series of movies based on the books were huge commercial successes as well. Like Harry Potter, Twilight movies and books also enjoyed midnight release parties and a powerful female fanbase.
Late 2000s boy bands
In the late 2000s, boy bands made a comeback after a nearly decade-long break, thanks to groups such as the Jonas Brothers, who became famous after opening for teen starlet Miley Cyrus on her tour and after being featured on the Disney Channel. The group sold over 17 million albums worldwide. One Direction followed suit in 2010, after singing on the British televised singing competition The X Factor. 1D’s third album “Midnight Memories” was the biggest-selling album worldwide in 2013, and in 2014, Billboard named One Direction as the top artist of the year.
The Hunger Games
Continuing the tradition of book series with hugely loyal teenage fan bases, The Hunger Games, created by Suzanne Collins, became a major worldwide success particularly after the critically-acclaimed films based on the books were released. Set in a dystopian universe, the book series, which was released in 2008, quickly became a bestseller. The film adaptation of the first book in the series, starring Jennifer Lawrence and released in 2012, also enjoyed staggering success amongst its mostly-teen fan base, earning a worldwide box office total of over $691 million dollars.
Taylor Swift began her career at the age of 14 in country music. While her early albums, released in the mid-2000s, enjoyed commercial success, it was her 2014 release of “1989” that drove her to levels of staggering fame amongst her mainly teenage and young adult fan base. Swift is known for her unique songwriting style that documents her own personal experiences and a sound that has evolved from country to fresh pop sounds. Swift connects with her fans over social media, helping foster her (large) group of very loyal young fans and helping drive sales. “1989” sold more copies in its opening weekend than any other album in the previous 12 years, selling over one million copies in only one week.