Teen idols are usually actors or pop singers, but some sports figures have had an appeal to teenagers. The term encapsulates both some of the greatest performers of all time and some of the most inconsequential. The term refers to someone idolised by teens; a teen idol is often young, but in many cases no longer teenaged. Some teen idols are child actors. The idol's popularity may be limited to teens, or extend to all age groups.
The teen idol is primarily a phenomenon of 20th century mass communication. Its earliest manifestation (often referred to as matinee idol) may have been Rudolph Valentino whose good looks and winning way with women featured heavily in such silent movies as The Sheik. But it was probably Frank Sinatra, whose early career is often linked to his appeal to bobby soxers, who is generally regarded as being the first true 'teen idol'.
Eddie Fisher also had a huge following of screaming and swooning teen-aged fans, but many of them turned against him when he divorced Debbie Reynolds in 1959 to marry Elizabeth Taylor. Brenda Lee and Mousketeer Annette Funicello were amongst the first female teen idols to achieve widespread popularity.
The great success of Elvis Presley in the 1950s led clever promoters to the deliberate creation of teen idols such as Frankie Avalon and Fabian. His debut in a television movie about the phenomenon, The Idol, made a teen idol out of Tommy Sands. Ricky Nelson, a performer of rockabilly music also became a teen idol via television.
Teen idols are also usually commonly read about in tabloid publications as 16 magazine, Tiger Beat, Right On! and other teen magazines in the United States, and similar magazines elsewhere. With the advent of television, teen idols were also promoted through speciality programs such as American Bandstand, the Ed Sullivan Show, and Soul Train.
It is the essence of the teen idol to appeal to the burgeoning sexuality of the young without in any way threatening it. As recently as the 1970s, some stars were asked to shave their chests because it was perceived that chest hair was threatening to young girls. In previous times, teen idols were supposed to have an aura of approachability, so often they had to keep romantic relationships and marriages a secret because it was feared it could decrease the popularity of the celebrity.
The difference is graphically illustrated by the early career of Presley, who started out playing hard rhythm and blues and jazzed-up country music until he was retrofitted as a teen idol by his management. The lyrics of his "Teddy Bear" explicitly document the change:
Don't wanna be your tiger, 'cause tigers play too rough,
Don't wanna be your lion, 'cause lions aren't the kind you love enough;
I just wanna be your teddy bear.
Likewise, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones were teen idols, especially during the earlier part of their careers. Yet The Rolling Stones were more rebellious than The Beatles, who maintained their pop look until 1967 with the release of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
The manufacturing of teen idols has been marketed more aggressively, and with greater sophistication since the 1980s. The rise of MTV in the 1980s and the success of the boy bands of the 1990s and 2000s has continued to fuel the phenomenon. Besides the obvious combination of what are perceived to be good, clean-cut looks and a ubiquitous, almost invasive marketing campaign, one of the key selling points of the manufactured band is the "something for everyone" approach, although this strategy has been critised for being more along the lines of "something for everyone who hasn't had much exposure to music." Each band member can be promoted separately for a unique look and one-note personality: the "shy one," the "intelligent one," "the rebel," and so on.