They sang from the gut, dazzled with their choreography, and set the standard for the current stars as well as the even newer breed, including O-Town, Dream and whatever the WB's Popstars show concocts.
Ah, the Jackson 5. The brothers from Gary, Ind., were marketed brilliantly by Motown in the late '60s and early '70s. But the Jacksons also recorded some of the most heartfelt ballads and funkiest ditties ever committed to tape. Blond and Afro'd girls alike screamed and fainted for Michael, the pint-size James Brown with the piercing lead vocals; Jackie, the smooth oldest sibling; Marlon, the bright-eyed cutie; Jermaine, the shy manchild; and Tito, the quiet one who never danced but occasionally dipped his bass guitar as his brothers tore up the Funky Chicken.
It's hard to imagine the images and sounds of the hot boy groups thriving without the Jacksons' blueprint - though the heavily choreographed moves of 'N Sync and especially Backstreet Boys look ridiculous compared with the Five's baby-oil-slick slides and Michael's robotic moves during the break in "Dancing Machine."
And the boys of 98 Degrees, who lip-synched their first hit, "Invisible Man," on Soul Train two years ago, wish they could croon "Never Can Say Goodbye" with the same urgency and innocent passion that Michael and the boys put on wax 30 years ago.
The 1980s also had its share of quality teen-marketed acts.
New Edition displayed an around-the-way cuteness and could lock, pop, spin and sing "Candy Girl" without breaking a sweat. Led by Ralph Tresvant's choirboy tenor, the original quartet - which included Bobby Brown - delivered a delicious sound that coupled the Jacksons' effervescent soul with a little East Coast grit. (Just as the New Edition guys were going from boys to men, so to speak, their Svengali, Maurice Starr, introduced New Kids on the Block, a white crossover copy of the slightly older black group.)
DeBarge was a family act, somewhat in the tradition of the Osmonds and the Sylvers. But the five siblings wrote the bulk of their melodic material, which continues to be sampled on hip-hop records. El DeBarge's tender vocals and brown-sugar lyrics on classics such as "Time Will Reveal" and "All This Love" still conjure memories of the high school prom and slow dancing under balloons and streamers.
But in the words of the precocious Spears, today's teen music is "not that innocent."
The marketing behind the teen queens overemphasizes sex appeal. Spears and those other navel-bearing, sports-bra-wearing starlets are mostly flash, mascara and hair extensions. True, Aguilera picked up a Grammy last year for best new artist, and she typically sings with more conviction than her contemporaries, but she can't hold a candle to Stacy Lattisaw, who was black America's teen sweetheart in the late '70s and early '80s.
Hers was a clear, gutsy soprano, much like Deniece Williams', but without all the soaring notes. What's more, you never saw Lattisaw prancing around with raccoon eyes in skimpy outfits, singing suggestive lyrics.
In any case, it will be interesting to see how long it takes until we get "best of" compilations on today's tepid teen acts. But will these boy groups and pop starlets leave behind anything worth revisiting? Get real.
Rashod D. Ollison's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.