Feeding on Dreams in a Bubble Gum Culture
by Sara Davidson
In the film Head, four boys who have become idols of pre-teen girls around the world, run on stage dressed in white suits, and play, or pretend to play, white guitars. Screaming fans surge up from the audience, surround them, and tear at their clothes. On the soundtrack, a manic, double-time chorus, begins:
Hello we are the Monkees,
You know we aim to please,
A manufactured image,
with no philosophies...
Somehow, in the shuffle around amps, cords, and microphones, the bodies of the four boys turn into plastic mannequins. The girls keep stripping them and finally yank off their heads. When the dust clears, four decapitated dummies roll about the empty stage.
"Here they come. There's Donny!" shrieks a ten-year-old with blond braids. A pack of girls streaks toward the backstage elevator at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas, in a vain but magnificent attempt to ambush the Osmonds. The Osmonds are five brothers ranging in age from fifteen to twenty-four, currently one of the most beloved singing groups in the culture of subteen rock. Donny Osmond, the youngest and the object of greatest passion, is slender, with large eyes, dark hair, and an expression of studied innocence. He speaks to his fans through the lyrics of pop hits from the fifties, such as "Puppy Love" and "Too Young," which celebrate the pining of the misunderstood teen-ager.
For two weeks, since the Osmonds have been performing in the Circus Maximus, all lobbies and corridors of the hotel have been under siege by girls from six to fifteen. The girls' minds are so focused on trying to get near the stars that they do not register the bizarre sensory details: the clatter of balls, dice, and slot machine bells; the keno runners dressed in togas, with names like Princess Fatima; the hysterical, lewd cackles of people hitting jackpots.
Most of the girls spend their hours on the floor, obliviously writing notes and trading rumors.
"I met Donny in the hallway this morning and he kissed me on the lips," says a nine year old dreamily.
"I'm not a liar, it's true!"
Silence. The girls go back to their task--composing notes to Donny that promise their undying love. What they want in return is, in rising order of preference: to receive an autograph; to have their picture taken with the Osmonds; to kiss Donny Osmond on the cheek.
So that the girls need not go empty-handed, the Caesar's Palace gift shop has replaced its ordinary stock of souvenirs with Osmond products: albums, posters, T-shirts, hats, songbooks, pillowcases, watches and clocks. The parents of these girls seem to be easy hits and don't balk at tipping forty dollars for front-row seats at the dinner show. One woman from San Diego, Eleanor Williams, stationed herself with her daughter and a Polaroid camera, at the stage elevator for nine hours. When the Osmonds were finally hustled by, Mrs. Williams shoved the girl forward, yelled "Grab Donny!" and snapped a picture. "Every child needs an idol," she announced to no one in particular. "As long as you don't get mental about it."
Before I went to Las Vegas, I had never seen or heard the Osmonds, nor did I know much about the Jackson 5, David Cassidy, Bobby Sherman, Marc Bolan, Rick Springfield, Andy and David Williams, the Raspberries, or the Carpenters. I do not have a young daughter,and I rarely listen to Top 40 radio. None of the subteen groups are heard on FM rock stations, and their existence is largely ignored by the general media. This had created a situation in which it is possible for performers to sell millions of records, amass fortunes, and acquire large constituencies of fans, and yet be virtually unknown outside of a specific subgroup.
Within this group, though, there is an unquestioned value system, a common language, and a gallery of heroes and heroines. The subculture even has its own means of communication, a network of fan magazines with names like 16, Fave, Star, and Tiger Beat. The magazines discover young boys on television programs or in recording groups and publish their pictures and biographies (often with more elements of fiction than truth.) Fans write in to these magazines reporting their favorite stars. The magazines then print bigger pictures and more details: lists of hobbies, habits, likes and dislikes.
What the girls value, what makes them feel safe are: goodness, purity, family loyalty, kindness, and simplicity. One nine-year-old from Atlanta made Donny a scroll that read, "D is for docile, O is for obedient, N is for not naughty, N is for nice, Y is for You're so sweet and innocent!" At the bottom she wrote, "I hope you'll marry me when we both grow up." A seven-year old named Patricia who lives in my apartment building tells me with gravity that she has loved Donny Osmond for six months.
"I want to marry him when I'm twenty." Why?" I ask. She smiles and looks away. "I think he's a sweet person and I like his records. I want to live with him in a big white house with a swimming pool and have lots of babies. But I don't want all the babies to come at once."
Most of the subteen heroes of the seventies first caught the attention of fans on television. David Cassidy, twenty-two, was an obscure actor when he was cast as Keith Partridge in The Partridge Family four seasons ago. The passion with which young girls responded to him reached such proportions that Cassidy nearly cracked from his utter inability to comprehend it.
Bobby Sherman, who is thirty-two, the oldest of the current crop, was seen on Shindig, Here Come the Brides, and later, The Bobby Sherman Show. He catered to the subteens by recording sappy love tunes and having his picture imprinted on franchised lunch boxes.
The Osmonds began their professional career as regulars on The Andy Williams Show. But they couldn't get a recording contract of their own until they were featured in fan magazines, and reader enthusiasm persuaded record executives that their potential with pre-teens might be lucrative.
A few groups have come up primarily through their music; The Carpenters, a brother and sister team with personalities so bland they make Tricia Nixon Cox seem mysterious; and the Jackson 5, shiny-faced, Afro-haired brothers from Gary, Indiana.
The most successful heroes represent a happy, loyal, tight-knit family with which the fans can identify. The Osmonds, the Jacksons, and the Carpenters are members of actual familles, and David Cassidy is visualized less as Cassidy the actor-the only child of separated parents-than as Keith Partridge, who lives in a family with lots of other children. All the families appear to be a kind of kids' nation. The parents are benevolent or behave in childlike ways, and the fun they have is always kids' fun. My seven-year-old neighbor told me the most wonderful dream she ever had was about the Partridge Family, because in the dream, she said, "I was singing with the family. I was in it."
The image constructed around subteen stars is that they are unsophisticated, jaded, shy homebodies. The fan magazines write stories about how Donny Osmond believes in God, old-fashioned courtship, and four-leaf clovers; how David Cassidy sips Cokes and "talks on the phone a lot," and likes to sit in the den watching television with his girlfriends; how the Jackson brothers love to while away an evening playing hide-and-seek with their younger cousins. Ward Sylvester, who manages Bobby Sherman, says: "All the publicity is intended to show how normal they are, so the girls will feel comfortable with them. The worst thing you can do is to suggest you're too hip for your fans. If you live in a fabulous house, drive a Rolls, and have a kooky or debauched life-style, a girl won't be able to dream that she might meet you on the street and you would ask her out for a soda."
The songs recorded by subteen stars are simple, repetitive, with naive lyrics, easy to remember and, mercifully, easy to forget. Older rock fans dismiss the stuff as "bubble gum music," but Micky Dolenz, one of the Monkees, the prepackaged group who capitalized on subteens in the sixties, defends the genre as "first-grade music for kids in first grade." Micky says; "An eight- or nine-year-old isn't going to understand a fifteen-minute guitar lick in six-thirteen time. When the Beatles started getting more heavy and experimental, thousands of kids were left out there dying for something they could understand. It's like they were crying, "Relate to me! Play for me! I don't want to just tag along and watch somebody else having a good time. I want to have fun too!"
Gloria Stavers, who has edited 16 Magazine for almost that many years, explains: "It's very simple. Years ago in rural societies, people told stories about Prince Charming, and girls dreamed of riding off on a white horse and living in a castle.
Now young girls can see a Donny Osmond on television, buy his records, read about him in magazines, and dream of going off with him to Las Vegas."
Gloria, a tall, fair-skinned woman originally from North Carolina, seem surprised that the subteen idol business even needs to be explained. "It's a natural part of the growing-up process," she says matter-of-factly. "A girl at the age of eleven or twelve needs a safe, distant object for her budding and rather intense awakening to feelings of love for the opposite sex."
The intensity with which girls attach themselves to idols varies, though, and those who become superfans, Gloria says, tend to be shy and self-critical. "That's why there's always a girl in the '16' syndrome, a female figure close to the star whom the fans can emulate and look to for advice.
There was Annette Funicello, Connie Francis, Cher, and now people like Susan Dey in the Partridge Family and Marie Osmond." Marie, who is thirteen, the only daughter in the Osmond family, peddles a cosmetics line to fans and runs a pen-pal club. Gloria points out: "Marie is not a sexual rival, she's an entree into the Osmond family. She represents the supportive female a young girl needs as she starts to look for sustenance outside the nest."
Ward Sylvester, who built a fortune by being canny about subadolescent reverie (he was associate producer of The Monkees show before he came to manage Bobby Sherman), speculates that girls need a romantic dream life because they have so little control over relationships in actual life. "A boy can decide when he wants to start dating, and how fast things will progress," says Sylvester, a bachelor in his early thirties. "A girl is much less in control, and there are more pressures on her. She can't initiate relationships or structure them, unless she wants to fantasize her ideal dates."
Hey, hey, we are the Monkees,
We've said it all before,
The money's in, we're made of tin,
We're here to give you more!
What a trip! You board a plane in Hollywood, get off in St. Louis, and find walls of girls roaring at the sight of you from behind chicken-wire barricades. From airplane to limousine, then up the garbage elevator into a hotel room, where you'll be caged for the next twenty-four hours except for a weird thirty minute period when you are shot out on a stage and exposed. Your eyes are blinded by the lights and you can't hear from the screaming, but there comes a point in some city, some season, when in the midst of the holocaust, you say:
Why me? Answer: The world knows something I don't. They've discovered another Christ?
Answer: There is something special and powerful about me. I may not have known it before, but I suspected!
Answer: This is wrong-there must have been a clerical error in the sky. Tomorrow or the next day, everything could vanish...
Answer: Nothing personal. That's show biz.
A man who was involved with the Monkees from their conception to demise but who is media-shy and insists on remaining anonymous, tells me he has seen it happen to every person he's known who becomes the object of mass worship. "It goes to their heads, there's no way it can't. They lose touch with reality and forget it's going to end, which it always does."
When Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson conceived of a television series based on a zany rock group called the Monkees, they hired four zany young guys, only two of them with professional experience and all of them broke. The idea was that they would not act so much as be themselves, and would use their own names. But they were to act as if they were really a musical group who lived together in a beach house. The layers of ambiguity grew from there.
At first, most of the Monkees' singing and playing was faked, and their hit records, modeled after the Beatles' sound, were produced by studio musicians. Before long, the four boys wanted to create and play the music themselves. To be brief, the Monkees became millionaires, idols, the hottest group in the sub-Beatles market.
According to Anonymous, "They all did get a little crazed. Eventually they began to believe the Beatles were imitating them. When they filmed Head, they decided they were as important to a movie and as talented as Marlon Brando, and they should get credit for writing and directing as well. They were all quite sure that they could make it on their own, and decided they would quit and go solo." Within months, one of them was broke again, one was in a mental hospital, and none had an easy time finding work.
It is not unusual for teen idols to be forgotten, or worse, figures of ridicule by the time they hit thirty. Knowing this, even subliminally, increases the strain of giving endless concerts and photograph and autograph sessions.
David Cassidy, while on tour in Europe last year, rolled up his eyes and mouthed an obscenity when a lady photographer asked him for one more "jump for joy." According to a report in the London Sunday Times, David "collapsed in tears" at the Amsterdam airport when he stepped down the ramp to face yet another battery of newsman and another swarm of mewling girls. David protested that he is not "...the white knight the teen magazines make me out to be....I get depressed and occasionally I stop smiling. It's a drag to keep on living a fiction created by other people." As a show of independence he posed nude for Rolling Stone.
The Osmonds and the Jackson 5 seem to have an easier time of it, probably because they are shielded by their family structure from pressures, doubts, and the tendency to develop a case of runaway hubris. I spent two weeks with the Osmonds in Las Vegas and Provo, Utah, and was struck by how little they even think about their status in the subteen subculture. The brothers enjoy the screaming crowds and sometimes like to "play with them," but they don't seem to take it personally. Having fans is just part of show business, they say, and having masses of fans means the Osmond act is, for the moment, doing OK. They are devout Mormons and trust that their work, however unusual, is part of God's plan.
Many reporters who meet the Osmonds come away feeling they have had an overdose of saccharine and banality. Their notes are filled with lines like: " We have the greatest fans." "We love our parents." "We love our fans." But I am fascinated with the Osmonds, because they seem the most ambitious, energetic, and congenitally happy group of people I have ever seen living together. Their evolution from amateurs in rural Utah to international pop stars represents a virtual feat of positive thinking. In 1962, the Osmonds, a family with nine children, arrived in Hollywood with no connections. They made a list of their goals and set about systematically checking them off. First, get our singing together; next, learn to dance and move; next, master our instruments; next, a hit record. By mid-1972, they had achieved something unprecedented in the music industry: eleven gold records (each representing one million sales) during a twelve-month period. They had also earned more than $4 million.
You will probably not be able to keep them straight, but for the record, the Osmonds are:
Father, George. A former insurance broker, tall, gray, compulsively cheerful. He directs operations and worries about pleasing everyone. "I haven't an enemy in the world. I don't think."
Mother, Olive, the family's driving force. She is bright, shrewd, and super-organized. She writes notes on her palms to remind herself of appointments, and to be extra safe, sets her alarm wristwatch. She has a heavy frame, a round face that is duplicated in all her offspring, pitch black hair, and a penchant for wearing black that lends her a severe, somewhat menacing air. The appearance is deceiving, for she is warm and optimistic, constantly giving affection and advice.
Virl and Tom, the two oldest sons, both deaf. Although Olive spent hours teaching them to talk as if they were not handicapped, the whole family learned deaf-mute sign language. They are married and work on Osmond projects.
The five brothers who comprise the rock group known as the Osmonds, always referred to in chronological order: "Alan-Wayne-Merrill-Jay-Donny." They are, respectively, twenty-four, twenty-two, twenty, eighteen, and fifteen. To help people connect their names and faces, they differentiate themselves by hobby and taste: Alan likes photography, Wayne "thinks deep," Merrill paints, Jay plays football, Donny collects key chains and wears purple. Not one is a physical beauty. There is a certain, shall we say, pudginess about their faces. But there is also an aliveness, a joyous exuberance that sparkles through, giving each that unmistakable electric aura of a star.
Marie, thirteen. She sings, dances, and has recently cut two single records, but her real ambition, she says, is to be a secretary.
Jimmy, ten, being groomed as future subteen idol. He is called on stage for novelty numbers, and is featured in a television cartoon series.
Except for the two married sons, the entire Osmond family goes on the road together. In Las Vegas before the show, the five performing brothers huddle in their dressing room for a warm-up. Dressed alike in white jump-suit tuxedos, they run in place, sing scales in harmony, breathe and stretch their mouths. Olive tells them to change a line in the act. Then there is a prayer. Someone who works closely with the Osmonds says the prayer goes roughly: Dear God, Thank you for letting us appear before so many people. We pray that they will like us and come see us again and again, and that Caesar's Palace will renew our contract. Amen.
Finally, their manager gives a pep talk. The boys come out cheering, yelping and clapping. "I feel like a show, guys!"
"I feel like fighting!"
Their father yells, "Go Guys."
"C'mon guys, c'mon!"
Slapping ribs, arms, and behinds, they run through the wings onto the stage. "The Fantastic Osmonds!"
Having worked themselves up, they start at a peak of high energy and race, literally race, through the show. The sheer professionalism of the group is awesome, as is the range of their talent. Since their purpose in Las Vegas is to broaden their audience so they'll be able to survive once the pre-teen fad has passed, they throw something for everyone in their act. The brothers tap-dance; play saxophones, banjos, and electric instruments; do circus acts; juggle; sing show tunes like "Fiddler on the Roof," barbershop numbers like "I Want a Girl," rock hits, jazz, and Motown soul. In one part of the program, they enact scenes from their scrapbook. We see the Osmonds starting as a children's barbershop quintet at weddings and church suppers. Their lucky break comes-an offer to sing on the streets of Disneyland, where they are discovered by Andy Williams' father. While on television, they sing "Moon River" with Andy, but on their own they start learning to play rock. In 1970, they release their first single, "One Bad Apple," which flies to the top of the charts. Donny records some flowery ballads in his girlish soprano, and at the age of twelve becomes king of teeny hearts.
Donny's voice has dropped an octave since then, but it still has an ingenious sweetness that spurs girls to shriek and vault on stage, tripping over their long dresses. When the show ends, security guards hurry the Osmonds to their suite. They peel off to their rooms, where they sleep in threes and fours, and flick on the television sets. George Osmond, stretched on a couch in the oval sitting room, has been reading bags of fan mail. "There are a couple of nasty letters. Girls are saying the Osmonds have become snobs. So I think we'll sign more autographs," he says.
The phone rings-a ten year old from Waco, Texas, who has somehow managed to bluff her way through the Caesar's Palace switchboard. George summons Merrill, "Come take this call, so she won't feel she's wasted her money." Then he calls Donny.
"Sir?" Donny looks up.
"Let's go out and sign some autographs. Comb your hair a little first."
Donny eagerly slips out the door to the hall, where about fifty girls are keeping vigil. Marie is holding court in a corner, giving advice on how to cure acne and how to convert to the Mormon Church. Donny lets the girls squeeze him and kiss his cheeks-pop pop pop-like a succession of tiny flashbulbs. He is visibly disappointed when his father calls him inside.
At 3:00 A.M., dinner arrives from room service: twenty cartons of milk, five pitchers of hot pink lemonade (Donny likes it for his throat), roast beef, fried shrimp, and French fried potatoes. There is no dessert on the trays, because the suite is overflowing with confections made by fans-cookies, cakes, brownies, fudge, taffy, cupcakes, and pies. The constant stream of such gifts bears elements of black comedy, for the problem shared by everyone in this family, with the exception of Donny, is weight. "I was born heavy," Marie explains. Merrill dieted so severely to lose fifteen pounds that he once blacked out during a concert, and Alan has rationed himself to one meal a day. "Weight has been the trial of my life," Olive Osmond says. "It's the one area where I've been defeated."
After dinner, it takes the Osmonds hours to unwind enough so that they can go to sleep. One night, the brothers start playing on the floor with ten-year-old Jimmy's toy helicopter, and the game dissolves into a wrestling spree. Their religion prohibits sex before marriage, and much of their sexual energy seems sublimated into physical activity. After being in their midst a few days, I found the force of all that pure, pent-up male libido so overpowering that I began to have fantasies of ravishing them all. The Osmonds will be shocked to learn this, because the whole matter is so unconscious with them. But they do engage in a lot of roughhousing: fights with water, eggs, and snowballs; prank-playing; tickling; throwing people in pools. Alan, who is twenty-four, says simply, "It's a way of letting off steam."
During their second week in Las Vegas, the Osmonds take karate lessons in the afternoon from experts imported from Los Angeles. "That's our next goal," Merrill says. "We're all gonna be black belts." The Osmonds are all so teachable, such eager learners. George hires professionals to go on the road and tutor them in everything from math to acrobatics. They learned to paint from an artist who accompanied them to Sweden. In Las Vegas, Marie takes lessons from one of the dancers, and studies dressmaking and shorthand with her mother. Jimmy works on his tennis. Wayne memorizes the Bible. Alan learns arranging from their conductor, Don Costa.
This is all traceable to Olive Osmond, who says "I'll read the ads on a cereal box just to be learning something." She attended college only briefly, but has continued to teach herself and her family through books and correspondence courses. When the Osmonds lived in a small town in northern Utah before their professional career began, Olive made the most prominent room in the house a schoolroom, with a wall of blackboard and rows of little desks. Every day after public school, she conducted her own school. She taught the children to read music, play the piano and saxophone, and sing in harmony.
Once a week, the children put on programs for their "family night", a Mormon tradition. They ate dinner by candlelight, read from the Scriptures, and sang. George reported how his insurance business was going, and asked each person what he needed for the next week. No one received an allowance. George says, " I think that teaches a guy to throw money away."
Although they have earned millions from records, concerts, and royalties on franchised merchandise, the Osmonds have not lost the habit of frugality. Ten percent of their earnings is paid to the Church as "tithing," and most of the rest is invested, "put right back to work." Olive cannot bear household help, and does the laundry and ironing herself. "It would cost a fortune to have it done outside. I can't see wasting money." At gas stations, George jumps out and starts the pumps. "It rushes the attendant along a little."
The Osmonds' common enemy is idleness. They rehearse incessantly, and the answer to every problem is the same: "Work harder." They do not tolerate moodiness, worry, depression, gossip, negative thinking, arguments, or temper. Jay, eighteen, says, "I can't stand moods. Some of the people in show business are moody. I like one personality all the way-happy." The children have never heard their parents quarrel, and have always been treated with meticulous equality.
Apparently there has never been an Osmond child who refused to study, follow directions, or go along with the group. There has been no adolescent rebellion. All the children say they hope to marry a Mormon, have nine children, and live exactly like their parents. Their religious conviction seems to be the cement holding the entire structure role in the family, society, and eternity. Being around the Osmonds reminded me of accounts I had read of Brahmin families in India, whose lives are defined and ordered by religious law. With the Osmonds, there is so much positive reward in their system-fame, love and warmth, worldly success-that although they live in something of a cocoon, why risk losing everything they have together, on the slim chance that something better is outside?
Sunday in Las Vegas, Donny and assorted relatives are watching church services on television in their suite. The subject of the sermon is smut. Suddenly there is pounding on the door. A girl cries, "Donny, I love you! Let me in!"
Donny laughs without blushing.
"What do you think of that, Donny?"
He laughs again. "It's far out."
Donny is a fairly uncomplicated young man, quiet, accommodating, not assertive. When the family is not working, he tends to keep company with ten-year-old Jimmy, or he retreats to his room to play the piano or experiment with electronics.
Although he sings about nothing else, Donny has never been in love. He is not old enough to go out alone on dates (the family rule is that one must be sixteen.) This evening in Las Vegas, however, he is scheduled to have a "dream date" with Diane Kramer, an eleven-year-old from Houston, Texas, who won a contest sponsored by 16 Magazine. Diane's letter requesting a date with Donny was picked from 25,000 entries. Diane wrote to Donny: "We've got so much in common. Our birthdays are in December. Our names begin with D. You collect key chains. Well, guess what! I collect keys!"
Diane and her father, an Air Force master sergeant, have been flown to Las Vegas and given prime seats for the dinner show. Diane is too nervous to eat, so she stares at the stage curtains. She is slender, with green eyes and straight blond hair, and is wearing a dress with flowers of purple-Donny's favorite color. Around her are hundreds of girls in purple dresses. Diane says she doesn't mind the crowd being there. "I know how the other girls feel."
Diane has her moment at the climax of the show, when Donny wades into the audience to sing "Why?"
"I'll never let you go,
Why? Because I love you...."
Having been cued, he heads straight for Diane, sings to her, kisses her cheek, and gives her one of his purple hats. Afterwards in the dressing room, he sits with his arm around her for pictures. They exchange about two sentences, both admirably banal.
"I hope you enjoyed the show."
"Oh, I did."
Then Diane, beaming, leaves with her father. Donny goes to watch television in his room.
Is the commercial exploitation of an infatuation like Diane's harmful? Is the question even relevant? It's a bit like debating whether letting children play with guns encourages them to be violent. If you don't buy them guns, chances are they'll pick up a stick and pretend.
What does seem clear, though, is that all the feminist consciousness-raising conducted so earnestly in recent years has not affected the earliest aspirations of vast numbers of young girls. Diane's dream date seemed pathetic to me, but when I described it to my seven-year-old friend Patricia - "All Donny did was sing to her, kiss her cheek, and give her a hat" - she blanched. Then she hurried to her desk.
"What are you doing?" I asked
"I'm writing Donny." "But the contest is over."
"I'll pretend I don't know."
With lips moving silently, she began printing in big letters: "Dear Donny, I am a girl who likes your records. I like purple too. We have a lot to talk about. Can I come to Las Vegas?"