The inevitable ascendance of the Jonas Brothers as the male tween-pop phenomenon of the moment was obvious when the group opened for Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus on her massive tour late last year.
The brothers crooned, cooed, spun and jumped, but "discreetly libidinous" was the only impression the Broadway-trained, closeted Christian trio from Wyckoff, N.J., made on me that night, and the 11- (soon to be 12-) year-old Hannah/Miley fan beside me wasn't much more enthusiastic.
"They're cute, and I like some of their songs"--notably "Kids of the Future," their reworking of the Kim Wilde New Wave classic "Kids in America" from the soundtrack of "Meet the Robinsons"--the astute young critic said. "But they're not all that. I think you should trash them, dad!"
The ecstatic screams that filled the Allstate Arena indicated that we were in the minority, however, and even louder was the behind-the-scenes grind of the massive Disney star-making and marketing machine, which already was cranking into high gear. Now, its success is manifest.
The JoBros recently made history for being the first group ever to sell more than 100,000 digital downloads for three consecutive singles: "Burnin' Up," "Play My Music" and "Pushin' Me Away." Their new album "A Little Bit Longer" debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard albums chart last week, selling 525,000 copies, and marking them as the 'N Sync of the new millennium. And, in a bit of obvious demographic pandering, they even appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone.
So, who are these goobers, and how did they reach these lofty heights?
The fabulously coiffed brothers--Nick (15), Joe (18) and Kevin (20)--were raised in the Jersey suburbs and home-schooled by their mother and father, an Evangelical Christian minister and former church musician. Though he's the youngest, Nick is the group's leader and spokesman, as well as the breakout star: He started performing on Broadway at age 7, appearing in "Beauty and the Beast" and "Les Miserables," among other musicals.
Nick first caught the ear of Columbia Records with a recording of "Joy to World (A Christmas Prayer)," and a solo album of Christian pop songs followed. Mindful of the "MMMBop"/Hanson model, however, Columbia thought it would get more mileage from a brother act--Kevin and Joe had contributed to Nick's solo disc--and a bevy of pro songwriters including Adam Schlesinger (Fountains of Wayne), Desmond Child (Aerosmith, Bon Jovi) and Billy Mann (Destiny's Child, Jessica Simpson) was brought in to help craft the Jonas Brothers' 2006 debut, "It's About Time."
The time wasn't quite right, however, and Columbia dropped the group in early 2007. Enter Disney-owned Hollywood Records, which had heard the potential via Radio Disney's support of the act, and the Mouse soon launched an unequalled assault on tween consciousness, placing the brothers in commercials (they sang the jingle for Baby Bottle Pops), beauty pageants (they performed two songs at Miss Teen USA), movies ("Camp Rock") and TV shows--most notably an episode of "Hannah Montana."
Ah, dear Hannah. "Nick and I loved each other," Cyrus recently told Seventeen magazine. "For two years he was basically my 24/7." But they split, she was inspired to write several bitter break-up songs on her new album "Breakout" and Nick reportedly has moved on to date fellow Disney commodity Selena Gomez. Mind you, all of this 15-year-old action is on the most chaste of levels: The God-fearing brothers are famous for sporting "purity rings," symbols that they will remain unsullied until marriage.
"To us, the rings are a constant reminder to live a life of values," Nick reluctantly told Rolling Stone when pressed on the issue. "It's about being a gentleman, treating people with respect and being the best guys we can be."
"On a personal level, faith is extremely important," the Jonas's dad, Kevin, Sr., said in the same Rolling Stone article. "But I kind of cringe every time I read references to them being a Christian band, for the simple reason that they don't sing Christian music. Probably because of my background, the boys get lumped into the Christian-music genre. But it isn't their genre."
So what exactly is their genre? Here's the rub: The Jonas Brothers are clearly selling pre- and just-post-pubescent sex via glossy, glitzy, mildly tuneful and gently rocking power-pop--the oldest game in the history of popular music--but they're treading a fine line by trying to do it in the most asexual, non-threatening way possible so as not to alienate a single wary parent or trepidatious 10-year-old.
Witness the carefully crafted double entendre of "BB Good," the opening track of "A Little Bit Longer," and a prime example of Jonas music. Over a recycled Pat Bentar/Journey guitar riff, the boys sing about a seemingly innocent date--"I'll pick you up at seven/We can drive around and see a movie"--with a subtext laid bare in the choruses--"You gotta be be good to me/I'm gonna be be good to you/We'll be happy as can be/Just gotta be be good to me"--and a tension that explodes in rather creepy fashion during the spoken-word climax: "Listen girl, you gotta be good/I don't wanna hurt you... I wanna kiss you!".
That could just as well be dialog from a date rape as the prelude to an innocent teen make-out session. "Please Please Me" it ain't, lyrically or musically, and the troubling clash between the carefully crafted image and the ultimate message in the Jonas Brothers' music was best nailed by Joanne Brokaw, the "Gospel Soundcheck" columnist for the religious Web site Beliefnet.
"I hate that their heart throb, teen idol status sends mixed messages about their stance on purity," Brokaw wrote. "I love that the guys wear purity rings and I believe they believe in what the rings stand for. But when you see them posing seductively on the cover of Rolling Stone (really, who thought that was cute?) and talking about their first kiss in Tiger Beat (or Bop or PopStar or whatever teen magazine you pick up), without an explanation of what purity really means, there's the danger that what they share with their peers is simply a message that says, 'Wear a purity ring but still be consumed with lusting after hot guys.'"
Given that the life span of most teen idols is measured in months, not years, and those purity rings basically serve as an open invitation for the paparazzi to produce an image showing the JoBros being anything but, the group's current peak is, like Hannah/Miley's, probably also the beginning of the end. Meanwhile, though, as has been true throughout pop history, sex sells, no matter how hard you try to disguise it.
ALBUM REVIEWS: THE NAKED BROTHERS VS. THE JONAS BROTHERS
When it comes to made-for-TV tween-pop bands, it's no contest: Nickelodeon's Naked Brothers beat Disney's Jonas Brothers any day.
Taking their name from a childhood bath-time declaration to their mom, writer/director Polly Draper of "Thirtysomething" fame, the Naked Brothers Band--led by 13-year-old Nat Wolff and his 10-year-old brother Alex--emerged in a self-titled 2005 rockumentary that spawned a Nickelodeon series about a "world famous" underage band singing songs paying homage to bona fide tween-boy passions such as a "Crazy Car," a "Banana Smoothie" and "Alien Clones."
Like the Jonas Brothers, the Naked Brothers also give us a smattering of songs about the opposite sex--"Girl of My Dreams," "Fishin' for Love," etc.--on their second album, "I Don't Want to Go to School," released last spring. But the Wolff boys live a much more realistic and well-rounded pre-adolescent life, and when they sing about girls, it's more as some hazy, unobtainable ideal than any imminent lusty reality.
Most endearing, though, are the genuinely geeky, adenoidal vocals and a warm, unpolished, warts-and-all garage aesthetic to the production and arrangements, emphasizing the simple but effective garage-pop hooks. If Jonathan Richman had made his first album when he was 12, with backing from the Monkees instead of the Modern Lovers, it would sound a lot like "I Don't Want to Go to School."
In contrast, the Jonas Brothers only really veer from the "girl I want you" script with the title cut and closing track of their third album: "A Little Bit Longer" is a melodramatic ballad about Nick's battle with diabetes. Like the hidden-lust songs that dominate the rest of the disc, it's bombastic, powered by beyond-cheesy Broadway-style belting and so glossy that it slips away before you can ever really get a handle on it.
Of course, the whole point is just to give the boys a reason to jump around while their fans scream their heads off. Listening to the Jonas Brothers' songs is ultimately optional, whereas listening to the Naked Brothers is a sheer childlike pleasure.
The Naked Brothers Band, "I Don't Want to Go to School" (Sony) [3 STARS]
The Jonas Brothers, "A Little Bit Longer" (Hollywood) [1.5 STARS]
TALKING TO THE JONAS BROTHERS
Eloquent, cheerful and eager to talk for once about the music instead of the mania, I caught up with the three Jonas Brothers--Nick, Joe and Kevin--by phone in the midst of the tour that brings them to the Chicago area on Sunday.
Q. Out of all the recent articles I've read about you guys, it seemed as if no one bothered to actually ask you about making "A Little Bit Longer." Tell me how it all came together in the studio.
Nick: We started writing this record about this time last year. It was right after our self-titled album came out, and we were writing all these songs. We knew that we wouldn't have much time, because we were about to go shoot "Camp Rock," and right after that, we'd be on tour with Miley [Cyrus]. So basically what we did, we asked our management team, "How can we get into the studio to do this," and we wound up bringing a tour bus out on the road that was retro-fitted to be a studio.
Q. So you recorded the album while you were traveling?
Nick: We did. We'd pull to be venues and things and do what we could do. Obviously, there were some vocal things that needed to be redone, and some drums, because you'd have the generator of the bus in the background. So when we finished the tour, we went into the studio to make a couple of fixes here and there, and basically the rest of it was done.
Q. Nick, you have solo writing credit on a couple of the songs, and a couple you wrote collaboratively with your brothers and band members. What inspires you to sit down and write?
Nick: Usually it's real things, things that actually happened to us. "Sorry," "Got Me Going Crazy" and "Can't Have You," those were all real things that inspired us to write those. And, obviously, "A Little Bit Longer" was really close to my heart. They were all just things we were really inspired to write about, and they just kind of come together.
Q. How about you guys, Joe and Kevin: When your brother comes to you with a song, do you add to it, or can you tell him you're not really crazy about it?
Kevin: We write our own songs as well, and when someone writes a song, we respect that completely. I think for us we knew that the songs he was writing were right on, and we were never like, "We don't like that; we can't have that on the record." That doesn't mean we aren't working together on songs; we're absolutely open and talking about ideas. But we're never like, "No, we don't like that, let's not use that."
Q. Was there more pressure this time, having won the biggest audience of your career with the last record? Were you ever thinking, "Are our fans going to like this?"
Joe: We just try to write what's real to us, and we try not to focus on what the fans want. We try to write about the situation that we're in right there. We have the mindset that hopefully people will like the song, but we never know until they hear it themselves.
Kevin: At the same time, the fans are our inspiration, and that's who we're writing for.
Q. Sure, but once you become a band at the level you guys are at, there are a lot of people who think they know what the fans want, or what the Jonas Brothers should sound like.
Nick: We found a very nice home [with Disney-owned Hollywood Records], and they really believe in us and let us be creative. They let us go and do what we want to do; it's really amazing. We feel like we can try, not anything, but we can definitely take risks.
Q. Let's talk about "BB Good." How did that song come together?
Nick: "BB Good" is actually a song we wrote with our guitar player [John Taylor]. Normally when we write songs with people, it's because we'd like to bring them in on the song; we wrote with our bass player, with our guitar player, with our friends. With that one, we'd listened to "Good Lovin'" by the Young Rascals and we were kind of like, "Let's write a song like that," and "BB Good" came out.
Q. It's a bit like "Please Please Me" in the sense that you're talking to a girl in a relationship and telling her what you want.
Nick: It's kind of like a very simple song, but it does have a lot of depth of you think about it. That was the whole point: Let's try to bring a serious topic about a relationship and treat it more fun, and lighthearted. We're talking about being good, "be be be," but what we're saying is that, you know, there needs to be an effort from both of us. We've definitely found that sometimes simple is better. We never try to over-think our lyrics in the moment; if we like it and it works, great.
Q. My 11-year-old daughter and I saw you open for Miley Cyrus last year, and she suggested a very good question: She wanted to know if it ever bothers you as musicians and songwriters that people focus so much on your looks?
Nick: Um, I think for us, we love that kids are appreciative of our looks [laughs], if you will. But we do see that they are appreciative of the music, too, and they really do care what we're talking about. We get a lot of people coming up to us saying, "I'm actually going through what you're talking about in your songs right now," and for us, that means a lot. We write our songs for our fans, and we're all growing up together, so it's nice when that comes up. And your daughter seems very intelligent!
Q. I thought it was an astute observation, because there has to be days when you just wish you could put a paper bag over your head when you go play music. Everybody has days when they just want to wear sweat pants and not wash their hair!
Joe: Well, we are guys; we don't focus too much on our own appearance! People ask us how long it takes to get ready, and it takes us probably as long as any other guy in America, you know? We're really quick.
Q. Nick, you started out singing on Broadway, which is very different from singing in a rock band. One of the things I hate about "American Idol" is that there are a lot of show-tune singers, and when they try to do rock, it never feels right. Do you know what I mean?
Nick: Yeah. I think the training with the Broadway shows gave me great chops, but like you said, it is a lot different. At a young age, I kind of had to be mature and take some responsibilities, because I had a job. I loved it, but it was a responsibility, and it definitely made me the person I am today, to kind of take on this leader-type role. It was really helpful.
Q. But would you approach a song differently if you were onstage in a musical instead of at a rock show?
Nick: Definitely. I think even just vocally, how you sing is a lot different. Maybe someday I'd go back and do that, but right now, I'm really loving this.
First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre, Tinley Park
7 p.m. Sunday
Tickets $25 to $75
(312) 559-1212; www.ticketmaster.com