The Tween Machine

Coming at you straight out of the Sudbury schoolyards, Girl Authority is on the brink of celebrity. Or not. And it’s not just the band’s future on the line: The girls’ unlikely indie patron, Rounder Records, also has a lot riding on their hitting it big.

“Girl Authoridy, be the girl you wanna be…”
“Girl Authori-tee,” corrects the record producer, speaking to the girls huddled around a mike at a Somerville studio. “Really pronounce the tee.”
“Girl Authoridy, grab a line and follow me…”
“Girl Authoridy…”

It’s not easy being a pop star. When you’re working on your second album, it’s especially hard. There is, after all, Second-Album Syndrome, the law which holds that: A Musical Artist’s Sophomore Effort Shall Not Be as Good as the First, and Shall Probably Move Fewer Units. This is the dilemma currently facing the girls of Girl Authority. “I don’t even, I don’t,” says band member Zoe, whose stage name is Preppy Girl, “I don’t really know what dream, um, singing…album…sin-drum is.” Fair enough: It wasn’t so long ago that Zoe graduated from preschool. “I thought it was called ‘pretty school,’” she says, and starts dancing. She dances well.

Chances are, you’ve never heard of Girl Authority—unless you’re a plugged-in eight-year-old, in which case you probably just squealed. In the schoolyards of Sudbury, where most of the girls are from, they’re huge. But they are also pretty big in Ohio and Alabama, and they have the fan mail to prove it. A nine-member kiddie pop band—the girls range in age from nine to 14—Girl Authority is looking to emulate New Edition and New Kids on the Block, Boston acts that demonstrated little people can be big stars, too. There’s talk of a national tour. The girls’ press kit contains clippings from Billboard and Bop. One reviewer concluded that their cover of Gwen Stefani’s smash hit “Hollaback Girl” is better than the original, which is a hell of a thing to write.

Now, as the girls go into the studio to work on album number two—their self-titled debut has sold a respectable 60,000-plus copies—there is considerable pressure on the band to do better. “It’s just been consistently solid,” says John Virant, president of the girls’ label, Rounder Records. Normally, “consistently solid” would be enough for the Cambridge indie record company, but not with this band. “Maybe we haven’t quite figured it out,” Virant says, “but it’s not taken off in this huge way.” The problem, most likely, is that the girls have so far recorded only pop covers, which can be limiting, especially when you’re 12 years old and have to change party lyrics like “It’s my shit” to “It’s my wehh!”

The new CD, though, is set to launch the girls into the bigtime. At least that’s what the Rounder people are saying. “This one’s more expansive,” says Scott Billington, a longtime Rounder exec and the producer who’s overseen both Girl Authority albums. “There’s original material, more ambitious material.” These girls can sing—they all have experience in local music theater. And they have a serious band behind them—a bunch of New Orleans veterans. But now, with tracks written by talent like Cyndi Lauper and Depeche Mode’s Vince Clarke, they’re poised to enter the world of hit singles, music videos, award shows. Rounder Records has staked an awful lot of its time, its money, and, potentially, its reputation on making sure they do.

Girl Authority is just one of the scores of outfits formed during the past few years to win the hearts and allowances of America’s so-called tweens—marketing-speak for children between the ages of eight and 14. As the girls went into the studio in October, Disney’s Hannah Montana soundtrack topped the Billboard charts. The High School Musical album, also from Disney, was on its way to becoming the top-selling CD of the year. The Kidz Bop franchise, a series of pop covers seemingly performed by trained chipmunks, had released its 10th collection, selling 400,000 copies in a few months. The Cheetah Girls, the Slumber Party Girls, No Secrets, Huckapoo—it’s becoming a very crowded category.

But what’s a respected label like Rounder Records doing in the middle of the Great Tween Rush? “It’s a surprise that Rounder would produce a band like that,” says Carter Alan, a music director at WZLX. “It is a surprise.” That’s understating things: Imagine the Smithsonian hosting a roller disco, or PBS buying up the rights to The Simple Life, and you’re partway to grasping the incongruity of the Rounder–Girl Authority enterprise.

For 36 years, Rounder has doubled as a preservation society, producing obscure bluegrass, country, and folk music—or, as label cofounder Marian Leighton-Levy sums it up, “ballad singers from the Ozarks.” More recently, Rounder has dabbled in alternative rock—Godsmack released a DVD with the label*—and it has enjoyed some commercial successes, most notably with fiddle prodigy Alison Krauss, blues rocker George Thorogood, and aging guitar band Rush. But there’s just something off about seeing the Ledford String Band, the Red Clay Ramblers, and Girl Authority share the same catalog.

*(Correction: The article incorrectly stated that Godsmack is signed to Rounder Records in the November issue of Boston magazine. Rounder released a Godsmack DVD; however, the band is signed to Republic/Universal).

And the label hasn’t simply added Girl Authority to its roster—the band is, in the words of Virant, “a significant priority.” The company has, for one, assumed control of management of the group, something it has never done before. Virant (who happens to be Zoe’s father) won’t reveal exactly how much Rounder has sunk into the Girl Authority project, except to say that it’s “in the six figures.” There are people arranging TV spots, people negotiating branding deals. “Oh God,” says Elissa Barrett, Rounder’s VP for strategic marketing, “it would be great to have them have, like, a clothing line.”

Better than great, maybe. The tween market in America is worth somewhere between $150 billion and $180 billion a year. CD sales are important, but brand extensions are where the serious money lies: T-shirts, jewelry, cosmetics. While Leighton-Levy may extol Rounder’s continued role in “the transmission of culture that’s way out of the mainstream,” she’s also aware that there’s not much call for Red Clay Rambler lip gloss out there. As everybody knows, these are tough times for the record industry, and any potential money-spinner is going to be greeted like a pork chop in a lion’s den. “Girl Authority represents a very unique niche,” Leighton-Levy says. “People are excited.”

Much of this excitement revolves around the band’s new manager, Michael Pagnotta, whose previous clients include George Michael, Morrissey, and the Cure. Signing him was a very, very big coup for the label. “John [Virant] sent me an e-mail out of the blue,” Pagnotta says, explaining how he got involved. “It said, ‘I’m sending you something. I don’t know if you’re interested but I think you might want to take a look.’ A lot of people had reached out to me over the years. I’d seen a lot of similar things, mostly terrible, and I looked at this and I thought, ‘Well, this isn’t terrible.’”

What attracted Rounder to Pagnotta, meanwhile, was not his groundbreaking work with sexually ambiguous New Wave stars, but the 15 years he spent with Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, starting in the early ’90s, during which he helped rescue the twins from impending obscurity, turning them into a massive retail and entertainment franchise. “They were the first peer-star property,” Pagnotta says. “There was the purple dinosaur, and there were animated characters, but nothing that a child could look at and say, ‘I’d like to be friends with them.’” The twins, he adds, have generated “many hundreds of millions of dollars” in retail alone.

Pagnotta’s industry connections may prove even more important than his considerable know-how. “There are definitely more doors open” with him on board, says Barrett, the strategic marketer. “People are, like, ‘Oh, okay, what do you have on the table?’” Already, the girls have embarked on some biggish branding ventures—they recorded the theme tune for the Saks-owned kiddie fashion chain Club Libby Lu, and were featured in a direct mailing campaign by Dove that went out to 30 million households. “We’re not going to have them on a Smirnoff bottle,” Barrett promises. “I want to sleep at night.”

The Rounder people are sensitive to suggestions that they’re trying to cash in with Girl Authority—“we believe in their music” is a familiar refrain among company employees—but they won’t deny that money played a part in their decision to launch the band. “I don’t feel bad about saying we’re trying to find things that are going to work in a financially successful way,” says Virant. “The pressure labels are under, the difficulties of retail, and on and on and on. We have to create opportunities.” He adds that “you have to have some broader success” to fund the worthy but relatively unprofitable music Rounder has traditionally put out.

The girls, meanwhile, seem only vaguely aware of the stakes here—not just when it comes to their future, but also to the futures of Dakota Dave Hull, the Johnson Mountain Boys, the Freight Hoppers, and all the other artists who rely on Rounder to bring their music to the public. “I think our last album did pretty well, considering it was our first,” says 14-year-old Jacqueline, a.k.a. All-Star Girl. “I hope the next album goes further and sells more.”

It’s Saturday morning, and the girls are toiling away at Q Division, a suitably scruffy recording studio outside Davis Square. The Pixies have recorded music here, as have Aimee Mann, the Bosstones, and Dropkick Murphys. In the main studio, a technician fiddles with the knobs and sliders of an enormous Neve console, a brutal-looking mixing board that dates back to the mid-’70s. “Guys! This isn’t supposed to be fun!” he yells into the intercom, causing the girls to giggle. Right now, they’re laying down the vocals for what will become the Girl Authority theme tune. They’re still having trouble with the band’s name. (“Authori-tee.”)

The last album, says Billington, took about 250 hours to complete. He expects this one to take longer. The girls, standing in a circle around a mike, sometimes lose focus and begin to mimic opera singers or enter into random discussions about things like lollipops. There have been occasions when they’ve had to sing with their hands over their eyes, so they won’t look at each other and crack up. At other times, particularly when recording solos, they are deadly serious. In general, the girls are a lot less trouble than many of the adult acts Billington’s worked with. He asks them to sing something for the third, fourth, or fiftieth time, and he gets a consistent response: “Okay.”

During downtime, the girls hang out in a common area, eating pizza, doing homework, and jumping up and down. Looking at them here, it’s hard to think of the girls as celebrities, or even potential celebrities—they’re all so little, so cute, so childish. At one point, they are asked to sit in a circle and answer the questions of the nice man from Boston magazine. At the end of the interview, they applaud.

Pagnotta is aware of the perils of talking to the press. Branding is largely a matter of calibrating exposure. With the Olsen twins, he learned that holding back was often much more effective than the gung-ho, get-’em-on-Letterman approach, which increases the possibility, he says, for “accidents”—someone revealing, for instance, that it’s not always the Girl Authority girls writing to their fans on the band’s blog. To minimize the possibility of slip-ups, Pagnotta plans to keep the girls on a tight rein. “We’ll build an audience first, a peer audience,” he says, “and worry about all that other stuff later.” The girls, though, have already had a taste of fame—of “being on TV and having your picture in magazines and having everyone know who you are”—and they want more.

“I don’t think fame is just paparazzi,” says 14-year-old Alex, or Fashion Girl. “It also has a lot to do with just knowing, and knowing other people know, that you’ve achieved a lot and, like, you know, like our first album, we had a lot of fans, it was really cool, after the concert signing autographs, all these girls just screaming, ‘Oh my God! Here they come!’ It was just like, Whoa! I remember smiling, Whoa! This is really awesome! I hope we get to feel that rush again, when people are, like, ‘Oh my God!’”

As Saturday morning bleeds into Saturday afternoon, the girls’ energy starts to wane. By 3 p.m., those who aren’t in the act of recording are sprawled, in various poses of languor, around the common area. Just when it seems a nap break might be in order, Virant stops by with a DVD containing footage of a recent Girl Authority concert. Manic, singsong excitement fills the studio. “Ooh, let me see! I want to see! Me! Let me!”

On the video, the girls are great, nailing their moves and belting out their songs and sending the fans into high-pitched raptures. At times, the response is uncomfortable to watch: The bespectacled preteen in the audience juddering arrhythmically in her seat, mouthing the words to “Material Girl,” her eyes filled with a deep longing—like everyone in the crowd, down to the last writhing tot, she wishes it were her up there, prancing around the stage of the Walnut Hill School for the performing arts. The girls, meanwhile, seem oblivious to the adoration and envy they inspire. As they watch the concert footage, they’re very much focused on their individual performances.
“Look at my hands!”
“I look so ugly!”
“I look like a mouse!”
“What am I doing?!”

In terms of who said what—who looks like a mouse, who has strange hands—it’s hard to say. In fact, it’s generally very hard to keep tabs on which Girl Authority girl is which. For one thing, there’s very little to distinguish them physically. Tarr is taller than Crystal, who is blond; Alex is blond, too, and also taller than Crystal, who is taller than Zoe, who has darker hair. Kate falls somewhere in the middle. And if you asked me to pick Jess out of a police lineup, I couldn’t.

The confusion is doubled by the personas the girls have been given. Each member of the band, as you may have gathered, has a designated nom de Girl—Country Girl (Crystal), Fashion Girl (Alex), Rock ’n’ Roll Girl (Tarr), Boho Girl (Jess), Party Girl (Kate), Preppy Girl (Zoe), All-Star Girl (Jacqueline), Urban Girl (Gina), and Glamour Girl (Carly)—a tactic that worked fine for the five-member Spice Girls, but is a headache with the girls of Girl Authority. “I can’t keep them straight,” says Billington. And with good reason.

Cognitive scientists say the short-term storage capacity of the human mind is around seven bits of information. When you combine the Girl Authority girls’ real names and their band names, you get 18. Even the girls, who have lived with these personas for more than a year, seem to struggle with them. “Hi, I’m Gina and I’m Urban Girl. I’m Urban Girl because I really like the city, and the stuff in the city. I like going into the city or something.”

Virant says the label “stumbled along” in its early efforts to brand Girl Authority, and he allows that these cookie-cutter names may not have been, as he puts it, “a home run.” For one thing, as he acknowledges, they open the girls up to the criticism that they’re more of a marketing enterprise than a musical act—or, as one detractor described it on a message board, that they’re “manufactured pop hell.” There is, in fact, a bit of a Girl Authority backlash under way at the moment. “Gag me with this crap!” wrote one critic recently, accusing the girls of being “cardboard cut-outs of stereotypes dreamed up in some boardroom.”

You worry a little about this stuff. The girls are at an age when dropping one’s lunch tray can be an ego-shattering experience. How, you wonder, would they respond to seeing this: “A bad group of preteens from the suburbs of Massachusetts who make crappy versions of songs. All the girls are thin, white, rich, and bitchy.” At the same time, these attacks also call to mind the old Oscar Wilde quip: “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.” As one online critic wrote, “Let me warn you that [your children] are watching the commercial for Girl Authority over and over again.” (They are? Cool!)

There are some criticisms, though, that are a bit more difficult to shrug off. “The message you’re sending these kids, and the many kids who will pant to be like them, is that we value fame and celebrity, and the sooner the better,” says Kay Hymowitz, author of Ready or Not: What Happens When We Treat Children as Small Adults. “What this does to a child is diminish the possibility of finding a private self, a private identity, away from the commercial culture.” She adds, “What we’re saying here is that there’s no childhood anymore, we’ve given up, we’re waving the white flag.”

If the combination of childhood and stardom is problematic to some, to a band like Girl Authority it’s a matter of survival. The whole point is that fans feel as if they could maybe one day hang out with their idols, or even be them. If the girls were any older than they are now, the entire fantasy would crumble. Pop history is littered with the remains of kiddie pop stars who outgrew their audience, and the girls are growing fast. For some, boobs are on the horizon. What do you do with boobs in Girl Authority?

While Virant insists that “there’s no cutoff or anything on ages” for the group, Barrett, his VP of strategic marketing, says that “the girls are getting older, and maybe it would make sense to bring in new girls.” She adds, somewhat ominously, “We own the trademark. It’s ours.” One local industry executive, who asks not to be named, says he’d like to know what the Girl Authority contract looks like. “Is it Menudo for white suburban girls?” he says. “Menudo didn’t have rights—they were just work for hire.” Virant won’t discuss Rounder’s arrangement with the girls, other than to say that “they are all royalty participants.”

To a large degree, the girls’ fate will be decided by their fans, the dewy-eyed munchkins who clamor for their autographs and buy their CDs and go to their blog to write things like, “I like have to be you. Will you ever have auditions? Maryssa :-)” But Maryssa is likely to be a fickle lover. “The good thing about kids is that they like new things,” says David Siegel, president of the tween marketing agency WonderGroup. “The bad thing is that they like new things.”

Once her time is up, a performer is faced with the really tricky part: making the transition from tween market to teen market without getting a foot stuck in both. Tommy Ramirez, who runs the youth entertainment site, points to the Swedish girl band Play as an example of how things can go wrong in this regard. “Their debut CD did really well, but their second one crashed and burned,” he says. “They were wearing Lego jewelry, but they had a song out called ‘I Must Not Chase the Boys.’ What are you going to be?”

So far, the most reliable method for making the tween-to-teen transition has been the one followed by former Mouseketeers Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears, which is to hurl yourself headlong into adulthood and its attendant behaviors—sexuality, alcohol use, collaborations with the Ying Yang Twins. “I’m sure she offended a lot of moms,” says Ramirez, referring to Spears. “But she sold a lot of CDs.”

The Girl Authority girls, mercifully, don’t really have to worry about this stuff just yet. Right now, there are more-pressing matters to attend to. “I would say what makes me Preppy Girl is that I really like plaid,” says Zoe. “And I really like school, and I like bright colors.” With this she’s on her feet again, bouncing back into the studio, where she will live out the dream of a million nine-year-old girls. “Come on, guys,” says Billington as the clock counts down. “Tee. Authori-tee.”