- The Washington Times - Friday, March 20, 2009

ANALYSIS:

There’s rarely a shortage of misbehaving celebrities to tear down for acting in an unguarded manner after a night of heavy drinking or for an evening of promiscuity. In an odd reversal of that meme, tween pop sensation the Jonas Brothers have suffered such pitiless ridicule for being squeaky clean that they are now trying to deflect public attention from their wholesome image.

After capturing the hearts of tween girls — and their parents — all over the country with their inoffensive pop ballads and dedication to moral uplift, the Jonas clan seemed on top of the world. Given the entertainment industry’s discomfort with anything resembling wholesomeness, it’s not surprising that some would rush to tear the boys down.

The first swipe came at the MTV Video Music Awards, when host Russell Brand went after the brothers for their purity rings, symbols of the band’s commitment to avoiding premarital sex and the temptations of alcohol and drugs.

“I’d take it a little more seriously if they’d wear it on their genitals,” the bad-boy British actor/comedian/musician said. Although he backtracked a little later in the show, the snickering approval he received around the blogosphere the next day made it obvious that his thoughts were shared by many industry watchers.

Then there was last week’s 13th-season premiere of “South Park,” the focus of which was the contradiction between the tacitly sexual nature of the Jonas appeal and their commitment to appearing pure for their fans. The episode was both funny and smart, a wry commentary on the inherent trickiness of marketing a rebellious art form infused with sexuality to children who have no business being sexually active themselves.

Still, the underlying suggestion from Mr. Brand, “South Park” and others — namely, that the Jonas Brothers are insincere in their commitment to chastity and use it as a marketing tool — was both underhanded and unsubstantiated, the sort of snarky accusation that undergirds the cynicism running rampant through the culture.

Where’s the evidence to support the insinuation?

The Jonas boys grew up in an almost stereotypically all-American household: Pops was an Evangelical minister, and he met Mom in the church choir; the boys were home-schooled in order to protect them from the temptations and peer pressures rampant in public schools; they started wearing the purity rings at the suggestion of their folks, not their corporate paymasters (as “South Park” suggested).

In a way, they are being punished for practicing traditional virtue. It’s an odd turn of events.

Teen idols have always been fair game when they failed to live up to the squeaky clean image molded by their handlers — never more so than in recent years with the advent of celebrity blogs and the ubiquity of gossip journalism outlets like TMZ.com. Think back to the media obsession with Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera when they shed their Mouseketeer teen-pop image in the middle of this decade, to say nothing of Lindsay Lohan’s descent from “Mean Girls” star to the well-documented mess she is today.

Or consider the hubbub surrounding Miley Cyrus, aka Hannah Montana, when she took to the pages of Vanity Fair photographed wearing nothing more than a bedsheet. Sure, Annie Leibovitz’s photographs were tasteful and little actual flesh was seen, but the mere suggestion that the teen bubble-gum princess was anything other than a pure flower was enough to set tongues wagging.

The Jonas Brothers are in another boat entirely, however, as their commitment to a goody-two-shoes image has started to become a liability. In the past year, they’ve progressed from flashing their purity rings for a “Details” reporter to having their publicist demand that the issue not be raised during media interviews. It’s pretty hard to make the case the boys are opportunistically flaunting their chastity when in fact they’re trying to escape identification with it.

Once upon a time, Hollywood publicists were employed to carefully cleanse their clients’ images of any suspicion of moral turpitude.

Today, it would seem, some are employed to protect their clients’ images from any tinge of moral traditionalism.

We’ve come a long way.

But in what direction?

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