They call them "tweens."
That's the recording industry's term for record buyers from about ages 8 to 14, and these days it's a term of endearment. Preteen girls -- average age, 12 -- are a huge market. They spend their allowances and baby-sitting money freely on the music stars they love, buying not just singles and CDs but dolls, backpacks, posters, stickers, candy, gum, T-shirts and just about anything a pop act can stick its picture or logo on.
Sally Namur of Seattle is only 9, but she's already an active tween consumer. She's been to her first rock concert -- Hanson at Seattle's KeyArena three weeks ago -- and has purchased her first CDs, by Hanson and the Spice Girls, to play on her first CD player. In her room, the Barney posters, cuddly toys and action figures have been replaced by Spice Girls and Hanson merchandise. She's especially proud of the two big Spice Girls posters on her bedroom wall. She just got a copy of the Spice Girls' Spice World video and watches it every day.
"I like their music, and I like them," Sally said of the Spice Girls. She discovered them, she said, "in my mom's magazine" and later heard Wannabe on the radio. She can't wait to see the Spice Girls' music videos, when her mom thinks she's old enough for MTV.
"My favorite Spice Girl is Baby because she looks a little bit like me," Sally said.
As for the Hanson concert, it was wet and wild.
"My favorite part is when they squirted the audience with their squirt guns, and they squirted me," Sally said. She screamed during the whole concert, she confessed.
Colette Ninaud of Lake Stevens, Wash., north of Seattle, is at the other end of the tween scale, at age 14. She's a fan of the Spice Girls but says the group is controversial with her friends.
"I like them," she said, "I think they're a lot of fun. And some of the other girls I know do, too. But the boys don't. They make fun of them. And they really make fun of Hanson."
Colette may go to the Spice Girls concert, but she had her heart set on radio station KUBE's Summer Jam at the Gorge outdoor amphitheater at George, more than 120 miles away in eastern Washington. Her parents nixed that idea. "Maybe next year," Colette sighed. Meanwhile, she has recently added CDs by matchbox 20, LL Cool J and Puff Daddy to her growing collection. She visits her favorite record store several times a week.
She's not alone. For the first time last year, females bought more recorded music than males, according to the Recording Industry Association of America, and tweens had a lot to do with it (although exact figures are not available).
Teen girls were crucial in the whole Titanic phenomenon -- largely due to fave heartthrob Leonardo DiCaprio -- sending not only the soundtrack recording to the top of the charts, but several Titanic-related books onto the best-seller lists. Tween girls have bought millions of copies of albums by such youth-oriented bands as Hanson, the Backstreet Boys and especially the Spice Girls.
The impact of preteen buying power has not been this strong since the baby-boomer population was about a decade old, in the mid-1950s. School enrollment last year, at 52.2 million kids nationwide, broke the record set in 1972. Most of those students are preteens.
There are going to be more teen-agers in the next decade than there have been the past 25 years, according to federal population statistics. And right now, they're all pre-teens. That means teens and preteens are going to have a big impact on recorded-music sales over the next decade.Of course, teen idols have been around forever. Socrates, bemoaning the state of youth in his day, told of a handsome troubadour who was trampled to death by female fans at a concert in ancient Greece, circa 400 B.C. Just this past May, when Frank Sinatra died, we were all reminded that bobby-soxers of the 1940s predated the screaming fans of Elvis Presley in the '50s and the Beatles in the '60s. In the '70s, they screamed for David Cassidy, and in the '80s it was New Kids on the Block.
What's different is that the current crop of screamers is going ape not only for cute boys but for girls, too.
The Spice Girls, the glitzy, manufactured pop group from England, struck a chord in young girls raised in a post-feminist world. The Spice Girls' slogan of "Girl Power" isn't a demand, it's a fact of life. The songs on the group's debut album, Spice, which reportedly has sold more than 20 million copies around the world (5 million in America), are about girls thinking and acting independently.
The album's first single, Wannabe, isn't about what girls really, really want, but rather what they demand of their prospective boyfriends: i.e., you have to like my friends, forget about my past and, most important, listen to me.
To tweens, that's a liberating message. It puts boys on the defensive, for a change. While parents may be wary of other Spice Girls' songs about relationships and sex -- it's Wannabe that started the phenomenon and still fuels it.
Tween buying power is also having an impact on concert-ticket sales. When tickets went on sale for the Spice Girls' Tacoma Dome show, TicketMaster noticed a change in its business.
"There were tons of cash sales at our outlets," said Michael Smith, director of promotions for TicketMaster Northwest. "Parents let their kids order tickets over the phone with a credit card, too, but we have to get an adult on the line to OK it and give us the mailing address and other information. It's not really a problem. Some of our phone-sales people actually enjoy it."
TV and print press reports of earlier American dates report that the audiences are almost exclusively female, mostly preteen and early-teen girls. Many dress up like their favorite Spice Girl. The female fans scream for the Spice Girls as loudly as they do for pin-up boys like Hanson and the Backstreet Boys.
Historically, teen idols have a short shelf life. Very few have had lasting careers, although there are fabulous exceptions, including Elvis and the Beatles. You can pretty much bet the Backstreet Boys will be out in the street a year from now, replaced by a new crop of cute boys who can sing, because that's been a pattern in recent years. Conventional wisdom has it that the Spice Girls will be out soon, too -- "They're so last week," "They're so over," some pop-music fans say. But there's no guarantee.
So far, the Spice Girls have been an anomaly in pop-music history. And they just might break the idol jinx and last a long while. After all, they have no precedent. They're the first all-female group to become teen idols, thanks to tweens. And tweens just might remain Spice Girls fans into teendom and beyond.