NEW YORK – Are boy bands and pop divas still 'Larger Than Life', or are they ready to say 'Bye, Bye, Bye' as the national economy continues to slump?
Some experts see a correlation between how much money people have in their pockets and the music on their CDs. Their theory is that folks groove to fluffy, Britney-style pop when the good times roll, but turn to melancholy, introspective tunes when the economy goes soft.
"When you have happy, carefree times, it is reflected in popular music," said professor William Schurk, sounds recordings archivist for the Bowling Green State University music library in Ohio. "This is true not only for the euphoria, but the doldrums too."
The history of music and money over the last two decades seems to support this theory.
From 1983 until the end of that decade, the U.S. experienced sustained economic growth. At the same time, flashy pop artists such as Madonna, Michael Jackson and saccharine teen sensations New Kids On The Block dominated the music landscape.
"When there's a lot of disposable income floating round, as there was in the '80s and also recently, you see that reflected in huge sales," said Greg Milner, associate editor at Spin magazine.
But in the early '90s, the economy took a downturn, and pop fizzled with it. In came grunge, a darker, more cynical sound, led by such Seattle-bred bands Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden.
"With the recession in the early '90s, grunge became huge among teenagers," said Deb Goldstein, Editor at Alloy.com, a popular teen Web site.
Even '80s pop icons Madonna and Michael Jackson changed their tones. Madonna in 1992 released the controversial album Erotica, along with her scandalous book Sex. And Jackson debuted his video for "Black & White," which had to be edited for violence.
That trend lasted only as long as the sagging economy, according to Goldstein. "After (grunge) the economy got better, and teen pop music exploded."
By the end of 1999 — the longest peacetime economic expansion ever — pop music experienced a parallel rise. The Spice Girls invaded America with their jaunty songs. And teeny-bopper pop has dominated the music scene ever since.
Artists such as the Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and 'N Sync have not only sold millions of albums — they've broken records along the way.
In March 2000, 'N Sync sold 2.4 million copies of their sophomore album No Strings Attached in its first week of sales — the first album ever to break the 2 million mark in that time period, according to SoundScan.
"Everything in society has been exploding in the past four years, and the economy is feeding it all." Schurk said. "When the upturn in the economy comes, you have bright, shiny faces looking for something happy and fun, like pop music."
But with the recent dot-com and tech shakeout, the economy is in question once again. If history follows its usual course, does this mean the end of pop music is near?
"Right now, today's teen artists have reached their peak," Schurk said. "Not just in musical styles, but they are now assuming adult habits and growing up themselves."
While 'N Sync sold 1.88 million copies of their latest album Celebrity in its first week of release, it failed to break the first-week sales record held by their previous album. And, sales dropped 67 percent in its second week in stores.
The Backstreet Boys are facing more serious troubles. Last month, member A.J. McLean checked himself into rehab for alcoholism and anxiety, causing the band to postpone several weeks of their current tour.
If this pop music/economy correlation holds true, teen pop may be fading away. But there may be hope for fans.
"The best music comes out of times of desperation," Spin's Milner said. "A lot of great music plays off its opposition to the way things are at any given moment, and I do think an unstable economy is a good indicator of good music to come."