Why must I be a teenager in the pop business?
Tuesday 20 February 1996
For all her looks, Monica is a child star. And the suspicion with child stars is that they have been pushed, maybe not reluctantly but certainly against the natural course of things. Every year, hordes of precocious off-spring are forced on to the stage by parents or Fagin-style sponsors, anxious to live out their own delusions and fantasies through the brats. Or, if nothing else, to make some quick money. Occasionally, very occasionally, the child being force-marched into celebrity has sufficient talent to win through and make it. Monica clearly has star quality, just as Tiffany or Debbie Gibson, Lulu even, wobbling her bob and yelling "Shout" as a loud 15-year-old, did before her. Usually, though, that talent is not so much nurtured by the desperate pushers on the shoulder, as painfully hammered into shape. Michael Jackson, Brian Wilson and even Donny Osmond felt that: a vigorous force-feeding akin to that inflicted on those fois gras geese which are threaded by the throat to tubes of feed in order to bloat the liver.
For those doing the feeding, it is an easy job. Fame is what every 15-year-old plucking air guitar in front of the bedroom mirror craves. It's easy to make them abandon all other aspects of life to concentrate on attaining it. And fame must be reached as quickly as possible. Never mind that the recipient might be mentally more equipped to handle it a few years down the line; never mind that the compromises required to attain it might mean that fame is fleeting (Tiffany is not, as we speak, the biggest of sellers in the pop market); never mind that the mental scars of the force-feeding might never go away. Michael Jackson is but one example of those who, without the experience of a free and genuine adolescence, find adulthood an impossible burden to bear. As in tennis (witness Andrea Jaeger and Jennifer Capriati), if the teenage pop star is not allowed the room to make mistakes young, then they will make them old, big time.
But even if you escape with your psyche intact, the worst thing about being a child star is that you remain a child star for the rest of your life. The recent pitiful attempts by Donny Osmond to re-invigorate his career as a sort of born-again George Michael, all leather jacket and stubble, were blighted simply because our memory of him was as the fresh- faced teen singing weedy songs about deferred consummation. Debbie Gibson, too, the 15-year-old who tapped into the market of her over-indulged peers and made a name for herself singing in the shopping malls of the Californian valleys, attempted a come-back last year. It wasn't a bad album, she had written many of the songs and had paid large proportions of her youthful earnings to have them properly produced. But listening to it, it was impossible to forget that the women in her twenties singing about womanly things was Debbie Gibson, who will be, in our minds, for ever 15.
It will never occur to Monica that she might grow old. And if it does, there are always examples of those child stars who have grown old with dignity and integrity to comfort her fears: Stevie Wonder or, well, Stevie Wonder.
But if she does have nightmares, they might well take the shape of a concert at the old Town & Country Club in London a few years ago. On stage was Dion Di Mucci, who had, at the age of fortysomething, produced a pretty decent come-back album. The place was full and attentive as Di Mucci, a Simon Bates lookalike with a middle-aged spread to match, essayed his new material about urban decay and emotional wastelands. So attentive was his audience that an encore was called for. And Di Mucci came out on stage and said, "I suppose this is what you want to hear" before twanging the song he wrote as a 15-year-old in the Bronx. "Why Must I Be a Teenager in Love" he sang. There have probably been more humiliated and embarrassed performances in the history of pop, but I have never seen them.
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