In 1988, David Sprague, an editor at Creem, travelled to a private school in Norwalk, California, in search of a student named Tiffany Darwish. But he couldn't find her on campus: she was in Munich, touring in support of her début LP, which had just become the first album by a teen-age girl to reach No. 1 on the Billboard chart. The previous year, Tiffany had released a tinny cover of Tommy James's "I Think We're Alone Now" and an ambling ballad, "Could've Been," both of which had been conceptualized and produced entirely by her manager. Sprague found the sixteen-year-old's success infuriating, and he published a thunderous indictment of teen pop. Noting that Tiffany had sung along to pre-recorded tracks while performing in American malls, he wrote, "The #1 album in the country and she has yet to perform with a band."
Sprague's anger now seems quaint. In the three decades since Tiffany's rise, many animatronic teen-agers have come and gone, but several performers who got their start very early, from Adele to Earl Sweatshirt and Justin Timberlake, have become major forces in popular music. Teen-agers, with their serial rebellions, romantic infatuations, and unabashed experimentalism, have proved to be adept at reworking pop's core provocations. Technology, meanwhile, has made it easy for teens to inject their aesthetics into the mainstream, with or without the guiding hand of managers and record labels.