5 Michael Jackson
Michael Jackson won America’s heart as the adorable 5-year-old lead vocalist of The Jackson 5 in the 1960s, then launched a solo career at the age of 13. He’s often been called the first African-American teen idol, but what made Jackson the King of Pop was the way he transitioned from cute kid to adult star. Cleverly playing upon societal fears of powerful black men, he released “Thriller,” the best-selling album of all time. The music video for the title track broke ground as a mini-movie and tells the story of an innocent teenager on a date who is turned into monster. Although it may not have been obvious at the time, “Thriller” was the first in a long line of projects from Jackson that played upon acceptance and crossing boundaries of white/black, male/female and gay/straight.
4 The Beatles
The Beatles arrived in America as pre-packaged teen idols: boyish haircuts, clean-shaven and polite, with songs directly aimed at teenage girls’ fluffy prepubescent fantasies. What made the Beatles unique was that they wrote all their songs and they were clever about it. If one looks at their records from the touring years, 1963 to 1966, nearly all the songs address their largely female audience directly—”I want to hold your hand,” “All I’ve got to do/Is whisper in your ear/The words you long to hear”—something Paul McCartney called their “little trick.” The lyrics may have been innocent, but the driving rock ‘n ‘ roll beat wasn’t, and the combination produced some of the greatest songs of 1960s.
3 Elvis Presley
Among the radio teen idols of the 1950s, Elvis Presley was unique. Unlike singers such as Pat Boone and Frankie Avalon, who were prepackaged by record labels to be cute but nonthreatening, Presley was dangerous. He had unbridled sex appeal, sang rock ‘n’ roll music you could dance to and wriggled his hips. Presley wasn’t the type of teen idol one’s parents would approve of, which made him all the more appealing. To his teenage audience he represented independence and autonomy.
2 James Dean
“Live fast and die young” is a phrase that embodies the romantic appeal of James Dean, the icon of teenage rebellion. From his first major film role in “East of Eden” (1953), Dean embodied the temper and idealism of disaffected youth, and not just in the movies—he lived it, getting into fights and racing cars just like his character Jim Stark in “Rebel Without a Cause” (1955). Teenagers around the country modeled their behavior after him, even after his tragic death at age 24. Martin Sheen once said of Dean, “…James Dean changed the way people lived.” Even today, Dean is an iconic figure in pop culture.
1 Frank Sinatra
Today Ol’ Blue Eyes is mostly know for his artistry in singing jazz standards, but when Frank Sinatra’s career started in the 1940s, he was a teen idol so popular that his fans had their own name: bobby soxers. Consisting mostly of teenage girls, bobby soxers were known to wait in line for 12 hours just to get a chance to go to Sinatra’s concerts. Once they did see him, they “went wild,” even turning over cars. Sinatra is widely considered the first teen idol.