- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 18, 2007

Just when you thought teen pop was dead, an album called “High School Musical” has soared up Billboard’s charts and become the best-selling album of 2006 with 3.7 million copies sold.

In case you don’t have children, don’t know a child, or were effectively tuned out for the last 12 months, “HSM” is the soundtrack to the Disney Channel original movie of the same name, a modern-day, less-lustful “Grease” story of two lovebird teens from different cliques.

The TV musical drew in nearly 8 million viewers for its Jan. 20, 2006 premiere, and tens of millions more for rebroadcasts. This mass is likely responsible for the record-breaking success of affiliated products, from the DVD and CD to live concert tickets to books and games.

Oh yeah, and there’s a sequel coming out this year.

“HSM” is more than just a runaway album; it’s a full-fledged phenomenon.

Don’t let the words “high school” in the title fool you, though: “HSM” targets 9- to 14-year-olds and is performed by youngsters not much older.

This here is the realm of the “tween,” that “in-between” age — defined variously as between 8 to 12 or 9 to 14 — when youngsters are no longer clutching mom’s neck, yet still not ready for MTV spring break. Whatever the precise age range, as a marketing sub-demo they have come of age: Tween pop (tween anything, really) like totally rules now.

Historically, this youth subgroup has been lumped in with teens and younger and, thus, underserved. Rich Ross, president of Disney Channel Worldwide, says that the word “tween” only popped into the company’s lexicon maybe eight years back. Samantha Skey, senior vice president of strategic marketing at Alloy Media + Marketing, a full-service marketing firm specializing in population subsets, didn’t see the expression take root until even later.

As media outlets such as cable networks, magazines and Web sites have proliferated and diversified, creating more specialized content, advertisers have also been able to target subgroups like tweens more easily, in turn fueling additional content creation, and so on.

And as Disney and others have discovered, tweens want to be entertained, just like everyone else. They’re “looking for more sophisticated content” than kiddie fare, says Mr. Ross.

Leesa Coble, editor in chief of the tween-focused and tween star-festooned Bop and Tiger Beat magazines, agrees: “Everybody wants to feel like an individual and have ownership over something. And especially at that age, everybody wants to have independence. … To have their own world is very important.”

And in the emergence of this semiautonomous tween entertainment market — as in the earlier rise of the teen music market in the baby boom era — there is, naturally, a payoff. You might want to sit down for this: According to Alloy, the tween market has the power to influence a staggering $600 billion in family purchases, and enough allowance money to pay directly for an additional $30 billion.

Producing content for this unique market requires a bit of savvy: Because tweens remain under their parents’ thumbs, their entertainment must pass not only the child’s cool test, but survive the family’s censors.

Thus, the tween product formula is essentially: Fun, wholesome material plus kid appeal plus parental “go” equals “cha-ching.”

While “HSM” may be the most visible proof of the equation’s jaw-dropping potential, Disney has had other Cinderella stories, from Hilary Duff’s “Lizzie McGuire” in the earlier part of the decade to the now-popular Miley Cyrus’ (Billy Ray’s progeny) “Hannah Montana,” a show about a real girl who morphs into a pop sensation at night.

The latter spawned another of 2006’s Top 10 best-selling albums and is one of the many releases that helped Disney’s music arm peddle more than 10 million records globally last year.

Meanwhile, Geffen’s “Slumber Party Girls” dropped an album, and Rounder, the indie imprint whose catalog boasts rootsy favorites like Alison Krauss, has promoted a record from their new tween dreams in Girl Authority, nine girls between 9 and 14 who cover cleaned-up pop hits like Rihanna’s “Pon de Replay.” The latter group’s debut sold an impressive 100,000 copies, and hopes are high for their follow-up, due out in March and boasting tracks by Depeche Mode’s Vince Clarke and the Breeders’ Tanya Donelly.

Elissa Barrett, vice president of strategic marketing at Rounder, says that the label’s decision to branch into the tween scene (they already have experience with children’s releases) is in some ways related to the recording industry’s currently uncertain climate. “The business is changing with regard to music, and it became obvious to us that this is an area where we could do more,” she explains.

She’s quick to add, “The goal for us was really to be able to do it in a positive fashion … and to make the music really good.”

Mary Jean Laviolette’s daughter, Jacqueline, is Girl Authority’s “All-Star Girl,” and the mom is fired up about the group — as well as “HSM,” which her daughter and three sons (aged 8, 10 and 12) all love.

The current crop of tween albums, she says, proves that “you don’t have to go ‘there.’ … We don’t need to doll [Girl Authority] up to the point where they just look ridiculous. They don’t need to send a sexualized message; there’s already enough of that out there.”

While many youth experts refute the notion that tween pop has exploded in reaction against the hyper-sexualization of yesterday’s teen poppers, there’s no denying that the genre’s take off has everything to do with parents supporting products they find inoffensive.

Miss Barrett says, “More than ever I’ve realized that a lot of kids are really in a big rush to grow up very fast, and if we can let them enjoy being kids, having fun and just being a child — playing, singing, dancing — they have that happiness longer before they start getting too serious.”

Miss Coble, who has witnessed her periodicals’ circulations grow “exponentially” while others’ have shriveled, is pleased with the burgeoning tween scene for reasons besides the boon. She’s now seeing readers idolizing stars who are closer to their age, more down-to-earth and less Hollywood, and unlikely to cause the next panty-gate scandal.

“As a magazine editor who focuses on teen- or tween-based girls, I’m really happy to have these positive messages,” she says.

On Bop’s current pages: “HSM’s” Ashley Tisdale just got her ears pierced; Disney’s “That’s So Raven” lead Raven-Symone learned to spell from Boggle; and Miley Cyrus’ dressing room is cloaked in posters of “cute guys.”

In a similar vein, Girl Authority exchanges e-mails with fans through their Web site that deal with every-girl issues like homework and New Year’s resolutions. Miss Barrett boasts that the performers are “our real-life Hannah Montana’s, because they go to school, volunteer, play sports, participate in school theater, baby-sit…. They really are just normal kids, and when they have a show, they turn into little stars.”

Mrs. Laviolette is among those hoping that tween pop is more than just a passing fad. But either way, it’s clear that companies’ bank accounts aren’t only beneficiaries of the craze. Kids, er, tweens are finally getting something just for them, and it’s something that mom and dad can feel good about. (See for yourself: “HSM” airs on the Disney Channel tomorrow at 8 p.m.)

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