by Brittney Fennell
When you Google the definition of the word "heartthrob," it’s defined as: "a man, typically a celebrity, whose good looks excite immature romantic feelings in women.” The term is commonly used in pop culture to describe male teenage celebrities who have legions of young girls as fans and give them heart palpitations with everything they do.
Every generation of young women has pretty much experienced its own heartthrob phase where they were hanging up posters on their walls of their celebrity crushes and going crazy over every new song or album that was released. Black teenage heartthrobs have played a major role in the pop culture landscape dating back to the 1960s and 1970s, during the days of the Jackson 5, who were the heartthrobs of the baby boomer generation. Fast forward to the '80s, and New Edition became the heartthrobs for Generation X.
And when it comes to us millennials? We had a plethora of heartthrobs to choose from throughout the '90s and 2000s. There were Usher, B2K, Bow Wow, Immature, Romeo, Omarion, Trey Songz, Mario, and Chris Brown to name a few. Who remembers the Scream Tours, which pretty much included all the aforementioned artists and filled arenas with screaming teenage girls in every city?
What many of these young black male acts who spanned generations had in common was they fit the prototype of the “clean-cut, young-faced heartthrob.” They were cool enough to appeal to those their age, but had an image that was family-friendly to where parents didn’t mind buying CDs and concert tickets for their daughters. They made the type of music you could play at family barbecues, but was still trendy enough to have young fans singing every word.
But if you look closely, in 2016, and for the past few years, black teen heartthrobs have slowly disappeared from the music scene. They’ve either grown as artists and have now acquired a more mature fanbase or were not able to successfully transition out of the teenybopper image. The last young male teen singer in pop culture’s recent years to successfully ride the wave from teen heartthrob to viable artist was Justin Bieber. Zayn Malik, formerly of One Direction, is arguably another example.
So what could be the cause of the decline in the black teen heartthrob? Is it due to the music industry landscape changing to the point where it’s gotten more difficult to break teen acts that may not already have a large social media following? Is it because the urban radio format has changed as it pertains to R&B music where it seems R&B songs only get played if they feature a rapper? Or could it be because there are no longer music shows on television that could act as an entryway to introduce teen acts to their core fanbase? All of these could be significant reasons, but let’s look at the last one.
During the era of BET’s 106 & Park, the music video countdown show was instrumental in the careers of black teen acts like Bow Wow, B2K, Omarion, Trey Songz, and Chris Brown. Every time these artists dropped by to promote a new album and song or premiere a video, chaos would ensue with girls screaming, crying, and basically falling out if they were called onstage to hug their favorites. The show was able to bring those artists closer to their fans and create moments. Recognizing the power they had when it came to impacting the careers of young stars, show producers created the segment “Young Stars Week” to spotlight upcoming talent and give them the opportunity to perform on television. For a while, this served as a way for teen artists such as Diggy Simmons and the group Mindless Behavior to perform, have their videos played, and interact with fans.
Now that 106 & Park and pretty much every other music show is off the air, you'd be hard-pressed to find a media platform for black teen heartthrobs to showcase their music, and record labels don’t appear to be all that interested in signing them. Generation Z is not having the same fan experiences when it comes to music, even though we are living in a “stan culture." What teen heartthrobs do black teenage girls specifically have to fan out over and post as their #MCM on social media?
Yes, rappers such as Drake, Lil Wayne, and Future have become the new types of heartthrobs, but the days of the “teenage, clean-cut, young-faced heartthrob” seem to have come to a halt. Maybe the idea of what we perceive as a heartthrob in pop culture is evolving and is becoming less about image and age, and more about being edgy, popular, and visible.
If you look at the Teen Choice Awards for the past few years, even though teenagers are supposed to vote for their favorites in pop culture, celebrity teens didn’t walk away as winners — there were more twentysomethings and thirtysomethings who took home the surfboards. And Beyoncé was the only person with melanin who won anything.
Every few years, trends repeat themselves and come back in style. Maybe we’re just in a time period where black teen heartthrobs are not what’s trending. That’s not to say things can’t change in the coming years. Who knows, maybe as you’re reading this there’s a crop of black teenagers preparing to take the music world by storm in 2017.