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New York Times -

February 20, 2000

Grammy's Kids Are Already The Winners


YET another chapter in pop's latest bout with adolescence unfolds this week at the 42nd annual Grammy Awards. The nominee list, as undependable as ever in predicting music's real history-makers, does crackle with one present conflict, between the parent figures who run the event and the kids now paying their allowances. Those kids get on adults' nerves with their obvious commercial music, but these hit makers, sometimes unwittingly, are pointing toward pop's future.

A likely sweep by the night's deserving front-runner, Carlos Santana, will reassure those baby-boomer voters far too old to really understand the chart-topping teenage nominees like Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and those ever-present Backstreet Boys. Of course, even Mr. Santana needed a boost from the singer Rob Thomas, a modern-rock heartthrob who doesn't have many years on Kevin Richardson, the Boys' senior member. The image Mr. Santana's collaborative album presents is of acolytes honoring a master, but the commercial reality is that the patriarch needed a boost from the youngsters.

It's not that Grammy's babies don't give their progenitors respect; Ms. Aguilera gushed appropriately at being pitted against her role model, Madonna, in the best female pop performance category. But this youth brigade doesn't seem to need mentors. It is forcefully peer-oriented. Like the fans they have enabled to become the most powerful force in entertainment, most adolescent stars (and faux-adolescent ones like the 27-year-old best new artist nominee Kid Rock) don't go beyond lip service in acknowledging their elders, either as an inspiration or a burden.

Less than a decade ago, Nirvana and the other titans of alternative rock felt the need to scream out their differences with the boomers who had long overshadowed them. Kurt Cobain famously wore a T-shirt on which he had scrawled a motto obscenely deriding corporate magazines when he posed for Rolling Stone.

This year, the Backstreet Boys dropped their pants on that magazine's cover, but more audacious was their reason for being there at all. They had won the annual readers' poll because the contest had been entirely overtaken by high-school-age voters who used their experience manipulating the charts of MTV's ''Total Request Live'' to hijack this organ of rock's establishment.

David Cassidy graced Rolling Stone's cover, in a tasteful nude pose, in 1972. But he was trying to transcend a teeny-bopper image he found confining. The Backstreet Boys have far saucier fans, who spin tales of much more than trouser-dropping on their ''fan fiction'' Web sites. Such groups don't have to pretend to not be sexual, because most teenagers now frankly and fairly comfortably express their desires.

Nor do the teenage artists appear worried about their chances of graduating into the ranks of adult stars. Now the more seasoned ones want control of their careers; both the Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync have publicly wrestled with Svengali-like management. Yet the Grammy-nominated album designed to show the Backstreet Boys' maturation, ''Millennium,'' did not shy away from the teenage sensibility: it aimed directly at it, with songs like ''Larger Than Life,'' which expressed the group's utter dependence on its fans, and the year's likely best song winner, ''I Want It That Way,'' a gorgeous and surprisingly sophisticated ode to adolescent confusion.

Ms. Spears and Ms. Aguilera more easily welcome comparisons to older artists. Unlike the usually quick-fading male teenage heartthrobs, the diva lineage they're claiming is characterized by precocious beginnings that lead to long careers. Yet Mariah Carey, the big sister these two artists most closely resemble, orchestrated a brazenly public rejection of a mentor. When Ms. Carey left her marriage to the record executive Tommy Mottola, she not only turned away from his baby-boom sensibility, which had her focusing on sweeping ballads, but she turned toward hip-hop. The 29-year-old singer also began an early second adolescence of her own, showing off her nubile body in photo spreads and her dating record in the press. This embrace of youth gave her credibility she had long lacked.

For all their confidence, which will certainly dominate the mood of this year's Grammys, today's teenage stars cannot forever stave off the end of their golden moment. Yet this inevitable next phase is precisely what holds out the most promise for popular music. Accepted wisdom dictates that acts like the Backstreet Boys will fizzle out before truly maturing, but their own music shows they have a chance. Their songs are already stronger than any teeny-bopper music since the 1950's (with one telling exception: Michael Jackson). Pull out an old Shaun Cassidy or Bobby Sherman album; it won't compare to ''Millennium.''

It is likely that, within the next few years, each Backstreet Boy will take his next step. Brian Littrell will likely succeed in country or as a Christian rocker. A. J. McLean could work his renegade image to experiment with hip-hop. Nick Carter, already known for his sarcasm, might rebel against his heartthrob status and become another skeptical pop star, like Robbie Williams or George Michael.

Such developments will be diverting. But the real story belongs to those fans who make this moment of teenage glory so singular. They will soon enter young adulthood and assert their own tastes and opinions, even more than they have as active participants in the mass-marketed teenage pop world. If they're anything like the baby-boomer parents they're busy ignoring, they just might beget a new counterculture. The 45th or 48th annual Grammy Awards might not simply reveal a story of intergenerational conflict; by then, we may witness a genuine passing of the guard.