Real Life: What makes teenage girls SCREAM?: Allison Pearson looks at Take That and sees David] Donny] and Frankie]
Sunday 01 August 1993
I had, of course, been in love with David Cassidy longer than anyone else in the audience. My friend Nicky, swaying beside me, had also loved him for quite some time, but she had recently lost all credibility by owning up to warm feelings for David Essex. My own devotion to the true David was immaculate: I got up early on Saturdays to catch his sublimely amiable Keith in The Patridge Family ('Hey, that'll be groovy'), I knew the name of his mother (Evelyn) and his stepmother (Shirley), and all his lyrics ('Nothing in the world could bother me/I was living in a world of ecstasy'). He had a red setter and his favourite colour was brown. Brown] How subtle he was compared to Donny Osmond. Donny liked purple.
I told myself that I would maintain an intimate silence when David and I finally came face to face. But, when he leapt on to the stage in a white catsuit with sequins picking out a sun on his right buttock, I screamed along with all the other aspirant Mrs Cassidys till my lungs were sandpaper. Reader, I harried him.
So, what was a bookish 14-year- old doing yelling in public? Well, there was the companionable thrall of the stalls, and a strange but pleasurable new feeling, like the scuttling of claws across the floor of my stomach. Looking at pictures of David Cassidy now it's easy to spot what should have been plain then: he was the prettiest girl we had ever seen. That slow, feline smile, thick lashes curtseying over dewy hazel eyes, the slight, Kate Moss figure and not a hair out of place. Not a hair in place, actually: with his waxy torso Cassidy was a depilatorist's dream of androgyny.
David's one redeeming flaw was his complexion: apricot panstick was smeared over a face with more craters than Mercury. But that was OK, I reasoned; when we finally met I could let him know that I didn't mind.
Such scenarios are minutely plotted. An 11-year-old fan of the identical Bros twins recently confessed that she planned to marry one, and have an affair with the other. There would be no problem: if she had a baby nobody would be able to tell who the father was. These endlessly rehearsed dramas get their live performance at a concert. What onlookers might see as emotion of the moment is the discharge of years of dreams. These dreams were being vociferously unleashed last week when Take That, five cheery lads, pelvic- thrust their stuff at Wembley.
The fans are a little more forward these days, still relishing their heroes but with a side-order of irony - one carried a banner insisting 'Fuck me, Robbie,' with a canny insurance policy on the other side: 'Fuck me, Mark'. But looking at them in black and white photos they are unmistakably descendants of those Beatles fans who stretched out their arms as if in supplication, their faces damp with seemingly helpless grief. Take That are more macho than David Cassidy, but then only Pee-wee Herman isn't. Still, the most popular members of the group have the familiar inchoate puppy face, low body hair and, in the video of their greatest hits, reveal the same polite eagerness to furnish details of their favourite food. They may have started stage life in gay clubs but, like all teen idols, they are about as sexually threatening as a Muppet.
THE TEEN scream has a short but shrill history. It began with the young Frank Sinatra and the bobbysoxers in what US papers dubbed the 'National Teenage Love Affair'. It came to a messy climax in October 1944 at New York's Paramount Theater where there was an all-day film and Sinatra show. The rule was that you could hold your seat as long as you stayed in it. Only 250 out of 3,600 girls left, inspiring the 30,000 queuing outside to begin the defenestration of Times Square. Inside, the rest hollered and defied the increasingly hoarse calls of nature: there was not a dry eye, or indeed seat, in the house.
This frenzy was inexplicable to adults, not least because of its object. The young Sinatra looked like Bambi on a stick: huge beseeching eyes set in a gaunt face perched on a glad-rag-and-bone frame. Social critics queued up to offer explanations: 'Escapism and substitution for love', said one; 'primordial mothering instinct,' opined another. They all noted that Frankie 'sent the girls wild', but that was a mistake: it presumed that the girls were tame in the first place.
Years later, a fan would write: 'The sociologists? What yo-yo's. Whatever Sinatra stirred beneath our barely budding breasts, it wasn't motherly. We loved to swoon. We would practise. We would take off our shoes, put on his records and stand around groaning for a while. Then the song would end and we would all fall on the floor.' So much for spontaneous emotion: from the start the relationship between the teen idol and his fans was deeply complicit. Sinatra admitted using the microphone 'like a Geisha girl uses her fan'. The contract might have read: I flirt, you scream, and nobody gets hurt. Safe sex for virgins.
The scream crossed the Atlantic in 1955. English teenies cried for Johnnie Ray whose fey fragility anticipated Marc Bolan, the Bay City Rollers, Wham's Andrew Ridgeley, Jason Donovan and a host of other wispy boys who looked as if they had been conjured from the pages of gay porn mags. One newspaper could barely contain its indignation: 'They scream. They yell. And he's just a little man with a weedy torso and a hearing aid.' Suspecting foul play ('Is Johnnie Ray a mass hypnotist?') it sent a doctor along. 'There is no doubt,' this shrewd medic concluded, 'that the effect of Ray on his fans is physical.' He found the girls 'rapt, flushed and entranced'. But there was good news for parents: 'It is unlikely Ray does any harm. I think the girls feel better after a session with him.' Which brings us back to orgasms.
The prime teenage scream period occurs between 11 and 16, coinciding with puberty, that Cape Canaveral of the hormones. Elizabeth Howell, a child psychologist, says: 'It's a stage when the body is being geared up to sexuality and a pop concert provides a forum for a release which is safe. Teenage girls also giggle a lot, and the hysteria is an extension of that nervous energy that they don't quite know how to handle.'
Sheryl Garratt, editor of The Face magazine and former Bay City Rollers fan, recalls the sense of almost drunken abandon she had at a concert in Birmingham in 1975: 'I was on the bus and more girls got on at every stop. Strangers, but we'd start talking straight away: 'Which one do you want to marry?' Someone would shout 'I love Les,' and we'd all scream. Then we were pelting down New Street screaming, about 60 of us, and I remember seeing fear in some coppers' faces. I'd never felt that power before, it came from all being together. Boys get that chance to make a noise all the time at football matches. I don't remember the concert at all.'
It's not often that a former David Cassidy fan gets to feel superior, but really Sheryl, the Bay City Rollers? 'Yes, but they didn't look like they'd force themselves on you, they looked like they'd hold hands and fall in love.' That sense of safety is crucial. Younger girls fight shy of more obviously raunchy males like Mick Jagger. Joan Smith, feminist writer and sometime Walker Brothers besotee, remembers thinking Jagger was 'too rough. He looked like if you actually met him you'd have to do something about it'.
The same went for the Beatles. Cherubic Paul McCartney was the universal darling, while the sulky and dangerous John Lennon attracted the boys and the more daring girls. Irma Kurtz, Cosmopolitan's agony aunt, feels that the ambivalent sexuality of many of the teen idols suits both sides: 'Some of the boys would probably prefer to turn on girls who can only scream]'
Wholesome, almost neutered, the teen hero makes screaming feel safe, but it's being in a crowd that gives you the confidence to macerate your vocal chords. Manwatcher Desmond Morris recalls being at a party in the Sixties with a young Beatles fan when John Lennon walked in: 'She was completely silent and showed no emotion - it just wasn't an appropriate context.' In fact, Morris believes that the teen scream has little to do with the love object at all: 'Essentially they scream for each other, to share the emotion. The ritual of screaming is to signal that they are sharing the sexual excitement. It says, 'Like you, I have become sexually interested'. It's a sort of coming of age.'
I passed through my screaming rite of passage after a couple of years, moving on to the more mature pleasures of weeping to Joni Mitchell. Sensing my defection, David Cassidy retired, claiming he had been scared after a concert at Madison Square Garden. 'I was used to the girls getting hysterical, but this was different,' he said. 'The entire building seemed to rumble with their emotions. I wondered if I'd get out alive.'
I went back to the scene of the scream just once, for a 10CC concert, and felt glad to be with a boy of my own. I didn't even whimper, but there was certainly no one there that night who better understood what Eric Stewart was singing about: 'I'm not in love, so don't forget it / It's just a silly phase I'm going through . . .'
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