The creative story of 1999 is teen pop, that upstart genre where European producers free of Anglo-American rock worries or conceptual limitations rule. Guys like Max Martin—the scary Swede behind Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears—sell songs that function as sheer music, literary niceties be damned, to countries full of kids long thought to fall only for the starriest personae and baldest gimmicks. In the ’80s, Tiffany, New Kids on the Block, and Debbie Gibson relied on ideas about the mall, the street, and upward mobility to help move their tunes. But Backstreet’s “I Want It That Way,” like Spears’s “…Baby One More Time,” is about virtually nothing except soulful float and orchestrated punch. They’re hits for the Filipino girl I encountered a few weeks ago in the Times Square Virgin Megastore. Approaching me as I checked out some French al bums at the international listening post, she tapped on my left headphone and asked whether the new Mylene Farmer disc was “good.” Before I could mumble a single “atmospheric,” she sweetly cut me off. “No,” she said. “What I want to know is, is it good?”
Jordan Knight, whose “Give It to You” smash has just peaked, understands. At 28, the ex–New Kid has restyled himself as the white-soul Mozart. Of course, he and his teen-cheese video still operate in this new land created by Back street’s and Spears’s total-music moves. As Minneapolis geniuses with heads stuffed with as much motley music as any Europop polymath, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Knight’s producers, string together carnival, soul-via-hip-hop, and techno on “Give It to You” in sculptural passages, then lavish concentration on all the crucial rhythmic transitions. And Knight sings the anxious melody as though emerging from a teenage background in knottiest art song. “Give It to You,” it’s good—very very good.