Perfect Sound Forever


New Pop Princesses, New Pop Dreams
by Logan Scherer, Princeton '10
(June 2008)

Oxford English Dictionary

pop princess, n.

I. a. General term for American female pop stars who ruled between 1999 and 2002. Singers such as Christina Aguilera, Jessica Simpson, and Britney Spears all debuted their music videos on MTV's Total Request Live. Aguilera and Spears regularly took the show's number one spot from 1999 to 2001.

b. Since 2004, applied to American female reality-television stars who influence mainstream culture. Lauren Conrad and Heidi Montag, stars of MTV's The Hills, and Kristin Cavallari, of MTV's Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County, are regularly featured in Us Weekly, People, Star magazine, and OK! magazine. Conrad, Montag, and Cavallari have all appeared on MTV's Total Request Live.

II. Extended use
  Any female member of the royal pop family--a family whose bonds transcend both time and talent. Usually also called diva. Members include, but are not limited to, Madonna, Cher, Mariah Carey, Britney Spears, and Lauren Conrad.

American National Biography
Pop Princesses, 20th-21st Century

Old Pop

Spears, Britney (1981- ), sometimes referred to as simply "Britney," reality television star, pop singer, dancer, songwriter, actress, and author, was born in McComb, Mississippi, the daughter of James Spears, a building contractor, and Lynne Bridges. Spears has an older brother, Bryan, and a younger sister, Jamie Lynn. Spears's love of performing developed in her early childhood, when she sang in local talent shows and starred in school productions. From 1993 to 1994, Spears was featured on The New Mickey Mouse Club, which showcased the talent of a regular cast of teenage performers. She dated Justin Timberlake, a former cast member, from 1998 to 2001. In 1999, Spears released her debut album, . . . Baby One More Time, an instant hit, followed by 2000's Oops!...I Did It Again, 2001's Britney, and 2003's In The Zone. 2007's Blackout marked Spears's return after personal and professional tribulations. Spears currently resides in Los Angeles.

New Pop

Conrad, Lauren (1986- ), sometimes referred to as "L.C.," reality television star, actress, fashion design student, and model, was born in Laguna Beach, California, the daughter of James Conrad, an architect, and Katherine Lawrence. Conrad has a younger sister, Breanna, and a younger brother, Brandon. Conrad's love of fashion developed in her early childhood, when she drew sketches of dresses and experimented with new clothes. From 2004 to 2005, Conrad was featured on Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County, a docudrama that followed the luxurious though turbulent lives of affluent high school students. She briefly dated Stephen Colletti, a cast member, in 2004. In 2006, Conrad went on to star in her own reality show The Hills, an instant hit. The show's fourth season will premiere in the summer of 2008. Conrad currently resides in Los Angeles with former Laguna cast member Lauren "Lo" Bosworth and her new best friend Audrina Patridge, who took over the role of BFF after Heidi Montag had a falling out with Conrad in the show's second season.

The Hills Are Alive Without a Subtitle

When Laguna Beach premiered in 2004, it didn't even claim to be original. In fact, its appeal was its alleged ability to copy The O.C. Its full name--Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County--was a mouthful, so we abbreviated it: L.B. But we couldn't ignore the subtitle blinking in those bling-bling gold MTV New Roman letters before each episode started. Nor did we want to. We watched L.B. because we couldn't get enough of The O.C. We'd hear the phrase "Orange County" and see its shimmering coastline on TV, and suddenly we'd salivate like a Pavlovian dog, well-fed, well-trained, and wanting more--more of the same thing. And MTV did just what we wanted it to do: it went to Kinko's and photocopied The O.C. with one of those super-expensive copiers that use colors so subtle and shiny it's like you're looking at the real thing. Except, well, we really were looking at the real thing.

The teens, their love triangles, and their tears were all real, and, most importantly, so was their beauty. In fact, Lauren Conra (The O.C.'s Marissa Cooper plus ten IQ points) was prettier than her original, and Kristin Cavallari (Summer Roberts minus the I'm-actually-nice subtext) was bitchier than her original. Prettiness and bitchiness aside, though, L.B. was tastier than The O.C., and it didn't need Josh Schwartz's fiction to rivet us: Lauren's dishy voiceover connected the dots for us as we all became her BFF. She told us only her good friends call her L.C., but we, too, were abbreviating her in no time. L.B., The O.C., and now L.C. were the alphabet of a new collective language.

What happens when your protagonists graduate high school? If you're Josh Schwartz and your characters aren't real, you can pretend they were sophomores when the series started. But if you're Liz Gateley and your characters aren't really characters, you need to spin them off. L.A. became the spin city of Laguna Beach. A suddenly mature Lauren may not have gone all Felicity on us hair-wise, but she did go to fashion school and land an internship with Teen Vogue. By the time The Hills premiered in 2006, we were willing to move wherever Lauren did. The only problem was, we weren't quite sure where we'd arrived. And neither was MTV.

Which is probably why The Hills has no subtitle to tell us what show it's supposed to be a copy of. If Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County is a photocopy of The O.C., then The Hills is a copy that has no original. Sure, it's a kind of sequel to the life Lauren Conrad--no one calls her L.C. anymore, not even us--led on Laguna Beach, but it's also a kind of beginning. Lauren's left her Laguna friends, and also her subtitle, behind.

But it still feels like we've seen the fictional version of all this before. There's a reason MTV didn't come up with a subtitle for The Hills: it couldn't--there were too many to choose from. Possible pitches: four feisty females mope in a big city--Sex and Another City; best magazine job ever turns demanding and life-changing--Lauren Wears Prada; girls with first-class dreams and third-world figures fight for fame--America's Next Not Model; hotties look for love in all the wrong places--The Bachelorettes.

That's not to say The Hills mixes all of these influences into one derivative dramedy. In fact, none of the parallels holds up under even cursory inspection. Sex and Another City? Lauren & Co. do their talky brunches at the trendiest of L.A. spots, but never has sex come up as a topic of conversation: they're too preoccupied with backstabbing rumors and BFFships gone wrong, and too far away from the HBO let's-really-get-real aesthetic to address sex--Sex and the City's essence. Lauren Wears Prada? Teen Vogue's Lisa Love has her icy Meryl Streep moments, but Lauren's no Anne Hathaway--she's already graced the cover of the magazine she interns for. America's Next Not Model? It's sometimes hard to tell the difference between Audrina and air, and Heidi is in a fight more often than not, but the action isn't in the competition--it's in the love. And The Bachelorettes? Lauren's had more than her share of bad dates and, with her engagement to Spencer, Heidi's stuck between a rock and a hard place, but if The Hills teaches girls anything, it's this: friendship first, heartbreak never.

So if The Hills doesn't fit into any of these televisual traditions, has it started a new one? Most people will tell you MTV stopped playing music videos about the time Lauren Conrad was born, and they're probably right. But they won't admit that MTV has recently started playing them again. If The Hills continues a legacy, it's the one left by those pop music videos that once drew the same kind of crowd that now watches The Hills outside the Total Request Live studio where once they'd maybe catch a glimpse of Joey Fatone's back. TRL is still on the air, but it's lost Carson Daly and the videos that turned it into the hit that it was. The Hills is a throwback to old school TRL, when the videos had more than just ass, and the fans weren't just a crowd--they were a mass, bonded together by the collective belief that a pop song really can be the soundtrack to our lives.

The stories varied, but the sweet-and-tragic tone was a constant. Powerful pop princess confronts and moves on from past boy-toy (Britney Spears's "Stronger"). Lonely lady rejects empty gifts of her rich lover (Jennifer Lopez's "Love Don't Cost a Thing"). Desperate guys vie for mega-hottie's affection (*NSYNC's "It's Gonna Be Me"). Giggly girl realizes she might just be in love (Jessica Simpson's "I Think I'm in Love With You"). And the videos that fleshed them out aimed for a weird kind of realism: a blend between the cloying clichés of romantic comedy and the actual events of the star's life. The video for Justin Timberlake's "Cry Me a River" was so relevant because it mimicked his real-life break-up with Britney Spears, whose video for "Lucky," featuring a superstar coping with the downsides of fame, was obviously autobiographical. It was hard to tell what was real and what wasn't.

The same kind of faux-reality drives the melodrama of The Hills. Lauren and Heidi are in World War III on the show, but a reliable source at Star magazine spotted the opposing sides hugging and laughing. And who could forget Nail-Polish-Gate '07? In what was filmed as two scenes over the same evening, Lauren had painted nails in the first one, and unpainted ones in the second, leaving us asking if the footage had been filmed at least twice. MTV still claims the show is unscripted, but it doesn't matter that this is a lie because we still watch. No one really cares if Lauren and Heidi have lines to memorize--either way, the drama is compelling. Lauren and Heidi's story is real for the same reason the "Cry Me a River" video is real: what's real is our fantasies.

What do we dream about when we hear a pop song? That we're the ones who are "Stronger," that "It's Gonna Be Us," that "Our Love Don't Cost A Thing," and that, yes, "We Think We're in Love With You." Like stars in their music videos, Lauren and Heidi on The Hills live out our dreams. Every episode of The Hills starts and ends with a pop song, and there's rarely a music-less moment in between. And when the songs come on, so do their names and their artists's at the bottom of our screen like a music video. As Lauren and her girls get ready for a night out it's "Umbrella," and later in the same episode, as the girls separately brood about broken friendships and bad boyfriends, it's Marié Digby's YouTube-fueled version of "Umbrella," acoustic with attitude. For every moment in Lauren, Heidi, Audrina, and Whitney's lives, there's an uncannily apt pop song to accompany it, a song with lyrics that seem to have been written specifically for them and their lives. Isn't that what everyone wants? It's no coincidence that Lauren, Heidi, and we have all driven down a long stretch of highway with the radio on, envisioning a saga that starred us and went exactly to the lyrics of the pop song we were listening to. The only difference is that when Lauren and Heidi did it, we all got to watch it on TV, like a turn-of-the-century TRL-topping video.

What happens when your former fans graduate high school? If you're the home network of TRL and you know you're never going to get them back, you create new pop stars--or new versions of how they used to make them: Lauren and Heidi exude the school-girl sexiness of post-Mickey Mouse Club, pre-K-Fed Britney. And they help sell Us Weekly, too--covers alternate between glam-shots of The Hills girls and un-glam shots of Britney. Today, the old pop stars are only good for bashing and raising our self-esteem. It's Lauren, Heidi, Audrina, and Whitney who get to live out our dreams for us. If The Hills had a full name, it'd be something like this--The Hills: Dreamgirls.

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