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Swooning, screaming, crying: how teenage girls have driven 60 years of pop music

Sixty years ago, Elvis Presley scandalized the country on the Ed Sullivan Show. But that wasn't the beginning, or the end, of the relationship between pop stars and teenage superfans.

There was no way the country could have prepared itself. The first performances on the Dorsey Brothers' struggling Stage Show the evening of January 28,1956, were jazz singers, acrobats, and standup, all family-friendly fare.

And then it was time for the final act. Dark eyes ringed with eye shadow, Beale Street suit, and slicked-back hair that would fall down over his eyes, Elvis Presley looked like nothing that had come before him that night, or ever in American television. Then he began to sing.

Shaking, swinging, moving his hips, he had a sexuality and energy to his performance — a medley of "Shake, Rattle, and Roll" and Flip, Flop, and Fly," followed by "I Got a Woman" — that was shocking, and the girls in the audience began to scream. They would keep screaming for the next year, as Elvis's star exploded and the American teenage girl swooned at his feet.

But why?

Swooning, screaming, crying, hiding in dumpsters and climbing through windows and fighting police officers: For decades, young women have done all of the above and more, in pursuit of their teen heartthrobs. Franz Liszt, the 19th-century piano composer whose performances drove women to hysterics, struck the match, but the great teen idols of the 20th century, with their flashing teeth, vulnerable eyes, and crooning music, really fanned the flames of frenzied fandom that characterized midcentury pop music.

Elvis Presley's early career is a textbook example of the phenomenon of screaming teenage girls that still seems to perplex adults and critics. Reporter Mac Reynolds in the Vancouver Sun on August 31, 1957, said about Presley's show:

It is a frightening thing for a man to watch his women debase themselves... [girls who] screamed, and quivered, and shut their eyes and reached out their hands to him as for salvation ...It's hardly original, but if any daughter of mine broke out of the woodshed tonight to see Elvis Presley in Empire Stadium, I'd kick her teeth in.

Herb Rowe wrote in the Miami Daily News on August 4, 1956, that "Elvis can't sing, can't play the guitar, and can't dance. Yet two thousand idiots per show yelp every time he opens his mouth, plucks a guitar string, or shakes his pelvis like any striptease babe in town. What's happening that makes these girls scream, faint, pay lavish devotion for these musicians?"

I asked myself the same question when I was an undergrad. Elvis didn't do it for me — I was an NSYNC girl with a B2K exception — but I remembered staring at a poster of NSYNC holding books (my two favorite things) every night before I went to bed, willing them to jump out of the poster. I remembered the elaborate fantasies my friends and I would create about our future lives as Mrs.TimberBassPatrickChasezFatone, and listening to their albums over and over and over again.

I remember being devoted, but I didn't remember why. What was that even about? During the height of Bieber Fever, I recognized myself in Justin Bieber's fans, and I wanted to know why this pattern kept and why were we always so surprised when it did. Every 10 years or so, another young man (or group of men) would pop up, and the young girls and women of the time would scream and scream, and the grown-ups would wring their hands. Was it a right of passage, some threshold to puberty we all had to cross? Was it the hormones in the milk?

I decided to find out under the guise of writing my undergraduate thesis. When I discussed this with a friend, she said, "It's probably some sort of sex thing," which I scoffed at. But a year later, and she was basically right. It's kind of a sex thing.

You need to understand when and how the teenage girl was created. Societal expectations for women and girls in the early 20th century were conservative; girls were expected to remain chaste until they were married, and then have and raise a family. There were no real alternate paths, at least not for good girls, and none were publicized or shown in a way that allowed girls to see them as viable futures for themselves. Even nurses and teachers, it was assumed, would eventually marry and retreat into domesticity.

High school enrollment increased over the early 20th century, which created a social space where young people could gather and afforded them more leisure time. From there, "youth culture" — the set of norms, language, interests, and dress that is exclusive to adolescents and young adults — slowly emerged. Popular Science Monthly has been credited with the first use of the word "teenager," in 1941.

An increase of adolescent workers due to World War II (the number of adolescent workers rose 300 percent between 1940 and 1943) and the absence of a generation of young men created a predominately young female populace.

As these young women acquired more leisure time and income, they began creating identities that had more to do with the things they and their peer groups liked; they were distinct from the interests of children and weren't just mimicking adults. Music and music fandom in particular became an escape, a way to subvert and push against the restrictive social order of the day.

Elvis on Ed Sullivan show

Elvis Presley on The Ed Sullivan Show. (Getty Images)

Teenagers' friendships with each other were beginning to replace their relationships with families as the most important in their lives. A Life magazine article from 1944 called them "fixated on fitting in."

Advertisers took notice of this growing group of consumers and focused their attention specifically on high school girls, who were perceived as having more leisure time than boys, since they were not expected to be providing for their families.

Seventeen magazine launched in 1944 and told its readers, "You are the bosses of the business," a clear sign that tastemakers and advertisers recognized this new, powerful class of consumers and their desire to belong. But what they didn't understand was that this fixation on fitting in with their friends was more important than conforming to adults' societal expectations of their behavior.

As these young women struggled to create distinct identities and groups for themselves, fantasizing about idols and the life they led was a way to create a specific group identity, an opportunity to explore options that were closed to them, and an outlet for pent-up desires to do and be something else, desires they may not have been conscious of.

However, this idea of the teenage girl was racial. The United States was segregated in the '40s, and black Americans did not experience the same scale of financial improvement as white Americans.

My mom was 12 in 1964, a prime age to have caught the Beatlemania bug, but I never heard her talking about them as her favorite artists or listening to their music. I asked her why she wasn't a Beatles fan, and she said part of the reason was that her family didn't have a television.

Growing up poor and black in segregated Mobile, Alabama, meant there was a whole realm of pop culture that was cut off. "We listened to black radio, and that was all Motown," she told me. "My brother and cousin were six years older, and we danced to what they danced to, and that was all black music."

She said because of Ed Sullivan, she had heard of them but nothing that black teenagers at the time were consuming had anything to say about the Beatles: "They didn't cross over onto the black airwaves, so we didn't really listen."

The music industry remained segregated for decades, and that segregation lingers today, so although we tend to think of "teenage girls" as encompassing girls of all races, at their beginning the musical interests that were starting to be seen as "teenage" were explicitly white.

On Columbus Day 1944, Frank Sinatra performed at the Paramount Theatre in New York City. It was a school holiday, and his fans had been lining up since midnight. The 3,000-seat house was filled for the first of his scheduled performances that day, but those girls refused to leave their seats.

Over the course of the day a literal riot occurred, and police were called as 30,000 to 35,000 Sinatra fans, almost exclusively young girls, filled the streets surrounding the theater, demanding to be let in.

Inside the theater, the smell of urine permeated the air as the girls refused to vacate their seats for food, water, anything, unless forcibly removed by the theater attendants. The comedian Jack Benny introduced Sinatra at a performance at the Paramount two years earlier, and after saying his name:

...thought the goddamned building was going to cave in. I never heard such a commotion with people running down to the stage screaming and nearly knocking me off the ramp. All this for a fellow I never heard of.

The scale of this reaction was completely unprecedented, and critics like Elaine Cunnirre and Gilbert Millstein at the Daily News in 1944 were baffled at "thousands upon thousands of shrill, flushed pilgrims ... their prophet a languid baritone with big ears and a habit of writhing back of a microphone clutched in his hands."

In January 1945, the London Guardian's New York correspondent told readers:

The United States is now in the midst of one of those remarkable phenomena of mass hysteria which occur from time to time on this side of the Atlantic. Mr. Frank Sinatra, an amiable young singer of popular songs, is inspiring extraordinary personal devotion on the part of many thousands of young people, and particularly young girls between the ages of, say, twelve and eighteen. It is reasonable to suppose that his popularity with young people was at first a fiction invented by his press agent; it is not uncommon for myths of this sort to be set going by those enterprising gentlemen, and young people have even been hired to riot on a small scale in a music-hall or cinema to demonstrate the popularity of a performer. There is no doubt, however, that the matter has now become a genuine phenomenon.

What about this "skinny little kid" from New Jersey was making girls skip class and hit police officers just for a glimpse?

Really, it was his unassuming presence that was the crux of his appeal. The early image he embodied for his fans who were struggling to create their own identities in tumultuous times was vulnerability.

In Sinatra's own description of the time, "It was the war years and there was a great loneliness, and I was the boy in every corner drugstore, the boy who'd gone off drafted to the war. That's all." In return for his vulnerability, he had their faithfulness.

The other side of his vulnerability was his sex appeal. The boy who got drafted was the object of longing and affection, but while acting on that impulse could lead to disastrous results, devoting your time, money, and attention to Frank Sinatra would not. A room of thousands of girls screaming for a man onstage until their throats grow raw or they faint has an undeniable sexual energy.

Beatles fans in Indiana Getty Images

A Beatles fan in Indianapolis begs security to pass her fan letter to Ringo. (Getty Images)

Armand Deutsch, an American film producer and friend of Sinatra, described the screams of bobby-soxers as expressing a "curiously innocent eroticism." Daydreaming, screaming, and swooning for Sinatra allowed girls the opportunity to ignore the social pressures of the day, which told them they should be quiet and reserved and contain any and all sexual feelings and intense emotions. They could safely lose control without having to fear the repercussions.

In allowing them to leave behind, if momentarily, the sexual restrictions of their time, Sinatra also allowed them to leave behind the dreary ordinariness of their lives.  New York Times reporter Bruce Bliven thought, after watching a 1944 Paramount show, that to his fans Sinatra "represents a dream of what they themselves might conceivably do or become."

Sinatra was both near and far: They were able to identify with him and, on some level, become him. His life represented one of freedom and luxury that most of his fans would never attain. They desired him and desired to be him.

Sinatra's time as a teen idol passed, and he transformed into the 20th-century icon we remember, but the era of the teen idol wasn't over. Teens were now an established demographic; music was being marketed directly to them, and record companies presented manufactured idols.

Still, the next big one to hit went against all expectations. In 1956 Elvis Presley rocketed into the American consciousness, and he hasn't left since. Where Sinatra's sex appeal was in his projected vulnerability and frailty, Elvis's sex appeal, was, well sex. But underneath that swagger lay a vulnerable soul that could sing wrenching ballads.

His face made the girls scream, his emotional singing style made them stay, but his physical and musical sexuality is what frightened American adults

A fan, Georgene Knecht of Los Alamos, New Mexico, explained his draw to her in Erika Doss's Elvis Culture: Fans, Faith, & Image: "He was innocent looking but also sexy. His eyes and voice just thrilled to the bone. When he sang it would almost seem directly to me."

Presley's body and what it represented is what was appealing, and concerning, to Americans in the '50s. It wasn't just his face that was screaming sex to his fans; it was how he moved onstage. Part of what made him such a controversial figure was that his physicality and blatant eroticism were beamed directly into American living rooms all over the country.

When "Elvis the Pelvis" made his first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, 54 million people tuned in to watch — 82 percent of the American viewing public at the time, a record only to be broken by the Beatles in 1964. This was the show that truly made him a household name, and his rapid rise to the heights of stardom can be attributed to his television appearances.

Presley's physicality was so compelling to his teen fans that he didn't even need to be in the same room, or filmed from the waist down, to inspire such visceral reactions. His face made the girls scream, his emotional singing style made them stay, but his physical and musical sexuality is what frightened American adults.

His hair was long and slicked back, and it frequently fell into his face when he performed. He lined his eyes in makeup, which made them seem bluer and deeper, and he was dressed in high fashion courtesy of the Lansky Brothers on Beale Street, who dressed the black blues musicians of Memphis.

Elvis's look plus his gyrations and dancing made him nothing at all like the clean-cut, fairly sexless, nice American boy teenage girls were supposed to long for. He looked dangerous, not like someone who should be invited into your living room by Ed Sullivan.

His appearance in the pop culture landscape rocked American society, and he went from nobody to a household name in about nine months, altering the musical landscape in a way Sinatra hadn't.

Elvis's popularity with teen girls rested on two things: his image and the music he played. The former was helped along immensely by his television appearances; his fans didn't need to go to a concert to see him, which made him seem more accessible.

Girls in 1957 were slightly freer than those of 1944, but open and frank displays of sexual desire were still utterly taboo. Presley was not a boy you would date, bring home to your parents, or marry. He existed outside of the idealized masculinity of the time. He didn't hide his lower-class roots, and came off as somewhat sleazy. Although he seemed quite kind in interviews, nothing about how he looked, sang or performed said "nice." Screaming and crying for Elvis was safer than actually trying to find a boy from the wrong side of the tracks, and easier too.

His music mixed African-American R&B with country, and creating a new sound that rocked the airwaves helped him shoot to the top of popular consciousness and into the hearts of his fans.

His biographer Albert Goldman summed up the attraction:

What did girls see that drove them out of their minds? It sure as hell wasn't the All-American Boy ... Elvis was the flip side of [the] conventional male image. His fish-belly white complexion, so different from the ‘healthy tan' of the beach boys; his brooding Latin eyes, heavily shaded with mascara...the thick twisted lips; the long, greasy hair...God! What a freak the boy must have looked to those little girls ... and what a turn-on!

The next big splash in the teen idol bucket was the Beatles, and this pattern continues to today, with one immensely popular musical group after another leading to our current moment on the brink of One Direction's breakup. All these groups and singers have been touchstones for girls to feel liberated and connected.

The pattern announced and ratified teen sexuality and then amplified teen sexual frustration almost beyond endurance. Mass hysteria and rock 'n' roll go hand in hand. The first huge rock stars were created and established on the basis of this phenomenon, and it sustained the acts through their early years, time and time again. The musical zeitgeist of the country has moved away from rock, through pop, and now into hip-hop, but wave after wave of teenage-girl-fueled stardom continues regardless of genre.

Beatles flee fans Hard Day's Night

The Beatles flee their fans in the opening scene of A Hard Day's Night.(

The fan spaces provided by teen idols allowed their fans areas in which they could safely sublimate their sexual and romantic desires for their objects of affection who weren't the American ideal in look, dress, and demeanor.

This speaks to the prevailing idea of what teen girls "should like" not matching their actual desires, as well as to the thrill of wanting something you shouldn't want. It is also a way to establish difference and a distinct identity; most girls like X, but I like Y.

Whether aggressively masculine in Elvis's case or treading the line of femininity and androgyny like Sinatra and the Beatles, none of these stars were examples of the all-American boy that girls were supposed to be looking for in boyfriends and husbands, which was a large part of their appeal.

With safety in numbers (and no real way to meet their idols), girls were free to fantasize about these visibly lower-class stars without having to worry about the repercussions of actually dating or marrying them. It's part of the charm of teen idols that they are not date or marriage material; you were never gonna hold their hand. Desires that would normally be repressed or directed elsewhere could be fully expressed without fear, in the safety of your room with all of your friends.

Teenagers also cemented the success of rock music and the mass reactions surrounding its biggest stars. By the '50s, the teenage market had grown and matured to the point of a distinctly "teen" option for almost any consumer good of interest to teenagers, including magazines, books, radio and television programs, clothes, and music. Elvis and the Beatles were heavily marketed to teens, hence the criticism decrying their influence on American youth.

A Catholic bishop wrote FBI head J. Edgar Hoover, concerned that Presley was "a definite danger to the United States" because he was rousing "the sexual passions of American youth." David Dempsey, a critic of the New York Times, explained that "it is probably no coincidence that the Beatles, who pro­voke the most violent response among teen‐agers, resemble in manner the witch doctors who put their spell on hundreds of shuffling and stamping na­tives." Variety magazine speculated that Beatlemania might be "a phenomenon closely linked to the current wave of racial rioting."

It was Elvis and his contemporaries who were responsible for bringing African-American musical traditions into white American popular music, thus binding rock music with (white) teenage culture.

In the early days of these artists' careers, media attention focused more heavily on fans than on the performers themselves. A common criticism of all three acts was that the music couldn't be heard over the screams. In this way, the fans became the performers and the show. Being a bobby-soxer, a jive-bomber, a Beatlemaniac meant that you were part of something bigger than yourself; as a member of the group, you were as famous as the idol you cherished.

Eventually, the loosening of societal expectations led girls from simply idolizing male stars to emulating them, in both sexual behavior and performing onstage. The fantasy of dating and marrying your favorite rock star became commonplace and expected, as did living their "madcap" life. The Beatles' non-macho appearance (at the time, their long hair and the falsetto in their songs made them seem womanly) directly led to the frank bisexuality and anti-masculine dress, though hypermasculine behavior, of rock musicians in the '80s.

One direction fans

One Direction fans. (Featureflash/Shutterstock)

Modern pop stars — the NSYNCS, the Biebers, the One Directions — have thousands of screaming girls crowd their every appearance and follow their every move, just like teen girls of decades past. We are more desensitized to the idea of young men shaking their hips onstage for screaming girls, so outrage has shifted into a more general cynicism about the pop music industry. Slant Magazine's review of One Direction's album Four ended with the assertion that "every misstep is, despite the band's efforts to assert more control over their music, a painful reminder of One Direction's status as a manufactured, focus-grouped pop entity."

Listening to your really little sister or overhearing the young girls you see in your neighborhood talk about how cute their favorite idol is isn't remotely shocking. What was once a source of outrage is now commonplace; teenage girls scream and shout and obsess over their favorite male musicians, and water is wet.

However, the outright sexual repression of the past has evolved into a more nuanced form of control; slut shaming and rape culture still create a system that views positive expressions of female sexuality, outside of the male gaze, as bad or dangerous, and obsession over musicians is still seen as something shameful if you are no longer a young girl. We live in a more sexually open society, but these artists still allow girls an outlet to explore their sexual desires without negative repercussions.

Sexual attraction does play a role in the fan-idol relationship, but it feels like a door or a window into what is actually happening between these groups. My adult celebrity crushes are more about projecting an idealized version of a man onto my favorite pretty face, and conversations with my female friends about them tend to focus more on if they would be able to build us a table than what we think they're like in bed.

The rock star is a fantasy object for many women and girls, someone who is intentionally unattainable, as a matter of societal influence and simply because an object of affection sometimes just remains that: an object.

Historically, women and girls have been associated with consumption, the idea that they are constantly shopping and that female "success" is dependent on products they need to buy, more so than with resistance to consumption. But their desire for these objects — which can be consumed through media appearances, merchandise, album sales, and collector's items — is a type of resistance and, certainly during much of the 20th century, one of the few "safe" paths of resistance offered to them.

Young women and girls who buy their favorite boy band's CDs, put pictures of the current teen heartthrob all over their bedroom walls, and then stand and scream while watching them perform onstage, are continuing in a long line of female resistance to societal standards of what "good" female behavior should be, while also happily engaging in an incredibly powerful and lucrative industry. They are buying what society is selling them but using it in ways it is not.

The interests of teen girls have always been maligned. The early confusion over their wants and needs was laced with distaste, and today they still experience taste discrimination. Things that are appealing to and popular with young girls are still coded as bad and insignificant, regardless of whether they actually are.

Justin beiber with fans

Justin Bieber with fans. (Debby Wong/Shutterstock)

I remember my mom allowing me to listen to maybe two minutes of pop radio before turning it off, because "no one could sing" and they "all sounded the same," which was untrue; plus, the latter could apply to her music tastes as well.

When the Lord of the Rings films came out, as a baby Tolkien nerd I was over the moon, but in cafeterias I was told (by boys who hadn't read the books) that I only liked them because of Orlando Bloom's face and that Legolas was stupid anyway (false). The Lord of the Rings wasn't marketed toward girls, but the specter of their regard could poison parts of it.

I loved the Teen Titans animated series, and recently a story has gone viral suggesting that even with its high ratings it was canceled because too many of those viewers were girls and it was meant to be a boys' program.

The decades-long association of consumption and marketed goods with teenage girls, and the anti-materialist ideas of the counterculture that arose in the '60s, has created an overall negative association toward the things teenage girls consume. Things that girls like are bad things, and if they like something not meant for them, it must be bad as well.

The automatic assumption that anything of interest to teenage girls is not important or of worth delegitimizes their experiences, and reinforces a culture that sees the feminine as lesser than the masculine and values the contributions of men more than women.

What's interesting about this whole phenomenon is who's excluded. I'm black, and as I was researching and reading about "teen girls this" and "teen girls that," I felt like my existence would slip into and out of the category of "teen girl," which seemed increasingly like coded language for "white teen girls." The all-black boy band New Edition was huge — their self-titled second album went double platinum in 1984, selling 2 million copies — but it's often passed over when talking about the huge male pop groups of the past. B2K, another all-black group that peaked in the early 2000s, felt huge and important to me, but they didn't make the same cultural impression as some of their peers.

Though this isn't an essay about interests falling along racial categories, when I think about the supposedly white things I liked growing up, I can recall that gendered taste discrimination — but when I think of the black things, it's different. I must like NSYNC because I'm a girl, but I wanted to marry Lil' Romeo because I was black. I was supposed to feel dumb about the former, but talking about Lil' Bow Wow, Sammy, or Omarion was never met with the same condescension.

Whenever the camera panned to his fans, screaming, crying, shaking, and dancing, I felt it. It starts somewhere low in your gut and reaches up to clutch your heart.

The only black entertainer I can think of who causes the same kind of hysteria as white male entertainers is Drake. A lot of his criticism, positive and negative, focuses on the perception of him as "soft" and emotional and just making music for women. The New York Times review of "Take Care" says: "Surrounded by peers who own diamonds but not mirrors, Drake is eager to dismantle himself, to show off his corroded insides. ... He raps about soft things, sings about hard things. ... No rapper has been as woman focused as Drake since LL Cool J."

In 2009, MTV opened an interview with Drake by informing readers that "ladies love him, girls adore him." In the same interview, about the video for "Best I Ever Had," Drake admits, "The biggest thing about that song is that a lot of women come up to me and say, 'That's my song, because it really makes me feel special."

Pitchfork reviewed his 2010 album Thank Me Later: "Whereas the unofficial mainstream hip-hop LP rulebook previously demanded a couple 'ladies' night' tracks that were often pandering, insulting, or both, Drake lives for such softness." But rapper Kendrick Lamar, in a cypher on BET in 2013, took a shot at Drake, rapping, "Nothing's been the same since they dropped ‘Control' / And they tucked a sensitive rapper back in his pajama clothes." In rapper Common's diss track "Stay Schemin," his biggest criticism of Drake is that he's soft and makes "ho music."

Drake's sensitivity and popularity with women put him in line as a descendant of the teen idol of the past, and undoubtedly a number of his fans are teenage girls who scream at his concerts — but we don't hear reports of them causing riots in the street or handwringing about why his fans are so obsessed.

I think it's due to the fact that he isn't popular solely with women and girls. And though his music has crossed over into Top 40 radio from the rap, hip-hop, and R&B charts, he's still seen as a hip-hop artist, not a pop star, and there is no tradition of rioting and hysteria in that genre. These waves are following a set pattern, and without that mold or precedent, I don't think we'll see this type of reaction over a rap artist.

I watched a lot of early Elvis videos for research, and while I enjoy his music, he still didn't do it for me. Sixty years of history and change in regards to music, sex, and the lives of teen girls makes the original appeal hard for me to see.

But whenever the camera panned to his fans, screaming, crying, shaking, and dancing, I felt it. It starts somewhere low in your gut and reaches up to clutch your heart. Your toes curl, your hands shake, you can feel the energy of everyone around you, even when you're alone in your room. The song starts, and it's your song. Everything else falls away, and it's just you, the music, and the man onstage.

You can't speak, tell them what the music means to you, how it gets you through long, hard days, makes you feel less alone, like you are deserving of love of happiness, that you are good. You can't speak, so you scream.

Alexis Chaney is an MFA costume design candidate at Carnegie Mellon University. Find her on Twitter.

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