In 1988, David Sprague, an editor at Creem, travelled to a private school in Norwalk, California, in search of a student named Tiffany Darwish. But he couldn’t find her on campus: she was in Munich, touring in support of her début LP, which had just become the first album by a teen-age girl to reach No. 1 on the Billboard chart. The previous year, Tiffany had released a tinny cover of Tommy James’s “I Think We’re Alone Now” and an ambling ballad, “Could’ve Been,” both of which had been conceptualized and produced entirely by her manager. Sprague found the sixteen-year-old’s success infuriating, and he published a thunderous indictment of teen pop. Noting that Tiffany had sung along to pre-recorded tracks while performing in American malls, he wrote, “The #1 album in the country and she has yet to perform with a band.”
Sprague’s anger now seems quaint. In the three decades since Tiffany’s rise, many animatronic teen-agers have come and gone, but several performers who got their start very early, from Adele to Earl Sweatshirt and Justin Timberlake, have become major forces in popular music. Teen-agers, with their serial rebellions, romantic infatuations, and unabashed experimentalism, have proved to be adept at reworking pop’s core provocations. Technology, meanwhile, has made it easy for teens to inject their aesthetics into the mainstream, with or without the guiding hand of managers and record labels.
The eight young acts presented in this Portfolio strike a balance between technical achievement and wily innovation. There’s something special about capturing them in this moment of early maturation, because nature will surely reshape them as quickly as they have reshaped their respective musical realms. They won’t look this way forever, and they certainly won’t sound this way forever.
Alessia Cara, a nineteen-year-old singer-songwriter from Ontario, has a breakout single, “Here,” in which she finds herself tucked in the corner of a house party and looking askance at her peers, who are clutching cups and dancing to music they may or may not like. The song made a slow crawl to No. 1 earlier this year, resonating with listeners on two levels: both as a dig at the social pressure to party and as a meta-commentary on pop music itself, which, in an era of synthetic E.D.M. beats, has made a banal fetish of the epic night out. As a member of the target audience for mainstream pop, Cara is both fluent in its tropes and immune to its come-ons: she’s having fun cruising the mall but has little intention to buy.
Eighteen-year-old Dieuson Octave, who raps as Kodak Black, expresses teen skepticism even more bluntly. On his song “Skrt,” he raps, “Fuck my school and fuck my teacher, too.” Certainly rock stars and rappers have said this before, but Octave’s manifestly youthful voice makes it especially effective. “Skrt” lurches along to a minimalist, bottom-heavy beat, and Octave is sparse and repetitive with his phrasing. He spends the bulk of an eight-count chorus chanting the word “skrt”—a fashionable rap ad-lib that mimics the sound made by a screeching tire. It’s a primal declaration of forward momentum. With this hook, Octave joins other young rappers who have rejected an old-school emphasis on lyrical variety, individualism, and personal catharsis. (Remember how he feels about school?) These are the devices that helped turn Kanye West and Eminem into stars; Octave and peers like Silentó and Desiigner have been castigated by some music fans for falling short of the genre’s traditional marks. But these artists seem steadfastly uninterested in their elders’ idea of rap. Even within hip-hop, one of the most defiant musical movements of our time, teens are finding rules to break.
Of course, expressing rebellion is a Day 1 move for a teen-ager. What most sharply distinguishes artists like Octave from previous generations is the digitally networked environment in which they create music. The Internet rewards boldness and individuality in a way that radio and record labels and concert promoters rarely have. If Miles Davis were a teen-ager today, he might not have had to leave Alton, Illinois, for New York at eighteen, trumpet in hand, for the world to recognize his talent. In the fall of 2014, footage of Joey Alexander, a then eleven-year-old Indonesian piano prodigy, playing John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” tore across the Web. Audiences struggled to separate the masterly, inventive playing from the fact that Alexander, who is self-taught, had barely started middle school. A début album and festival performances soon followed—impressive feats that Alexander handled with amiable self-effacement. For Alexander and other precocious children, a virtual audience is always present, like air, and artistic creation feels as innate as breathing. Much has been said about digital natives—people born with access to a computer—but teens today might be thought of as native creators. They are coming of age in a youth culture that thinks of public creativity, from an inventive Snapchat montage to a YouTube clip of a bedroom musical performance, as a primary expression of identity.
Online tools for cultivating an audience have not only reinvigorated classic genres like jazz; they have allowed young outsiders to penetrate insidery scenes like alt country and experimental rock. In the U.K., the blend of electronic and dance-hall music known as grime had an initial burst of popularity in the early aughts, then shrank inside its tight stylistic borders, threatening to become too serious to be fun. In 2014, the journalist Aimee Cliff, writing for Noisey, the Vice music portal, declared, “What grime needs . . . is m.c.s under twenty.” She extolled a then seventeen-year-old artist called Novelist for being unafraid to use the language of grime to create songs that appeal to girls. Novelist, a Londoner whose name is Kojo Kankam, grew up on the pirate radio stations and underground parties where grime once thrived; but he was able to stream his tracks online, and they soon caught the attention of the taste-breaking London label XL Recordings, a longtime champion of fringe sounds. The company released Novelist’s first EP, “1 Sec,” a blitz of chain-saw bass lines, last year.
Not all teen performers are auteurs. At first glance, the Japanese girl group Babymetal seems to conform to the Tiffany mold—it’s a product of the J-pop industry, where Tokyo labels maintain tight creative control over singers. But Babymetal, which just released its second album, “Metal Resistance,” does perform with a band. Onstage, backup musicians wear masks and thrash through screeching guitar and palpitating drums while Suzuka Nakamoto, eighteen, Moa Kikuchi, sixteen, and Yui Mizuno, sixteen, sing in Japanese, trading towering soprano hooks about bullying, body positivity, and chocolate. In classic girl-group fashion, they wear coördinated outfits and perform synchronized dances. None of them had heard metal before the band’s inception, and much of Babymetal’s early material was written by the prominent metal front man Nobuki Narasaki. The girls are inauthentic by the standards of Creem (which is now defunct), but they are a strikingly original presence. Though the songs are addictive, Babymetal’s sharpest asset is its singular combination of J-pop’s theatrical pageantry and metal’s primal sprint. Adherents of each genre are becoming fans: Babymetal has enjoyed huge success in Japan, and its fame is growing in the United States and in London, where it recently became the first Japanese act to headline the Wembley Arena. Babymetal’s act, like much of the best pop, is at once recognizable and profoundly new.
Every week, there seems to be a fresh story about an emerging teen musician, from the British singer Låpsley’s bedroom pop finding its way onto the BBC airwaves to Sammy Brue’s achy folk seeping out from his home base of Utah. At any age, you need a tremendous amount of confidence to share your music with the world, and these young artists must dip their toes into crowded waters. Think of when you were a teen-ager, and how difficult it was to decide what records to play at a party; now imagine how you might look back on what you chose to play. Teen-agers today have to move past embarrassment quickly, and, because there’s little time for pretense in the digital arena, many are producing music with unusual honesty. We romanticize adolescence because it’s so malleable: a burst of change, physical and mental, that feels abysmal as it happens and irreplaceable once it’s over. The musicians in this Portfolio are chronicling that universal experience with distinct voices. As Alessia Cara sings on her new single, “Wild Things”: “We will find our way, or we’ll make a way.” ♦
Styling: Amanda Lee Shirreffs with Aimee Croysdill (Låpsley) and Mary Benson (Let’s Eat Grandma).
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