The Myth of the Teen Sensation

Age, aside from concrete barriers like object permanence and motor skills, is not a defining factor in musical talent and success — rather, the ability to capitalize on talent is a function of the access and opportunity to focus on the craft paired with an emotional support system that makes one feel worthy of a place in the spotlight.

I don’t mean to suggest that young artists do not deserve their success, but I feel compelled to shed light on the absurdity of the fawning fixation we have with (often white), clear-skinned, doe-eyed teenagers who sign record deals or get internet famous or star in Broadway shows or do whatever it is we have collectively decided is only appropriate to do for the first time between the ages of 23 and 29.

We label them prodigies as if it were not logical that their abilities reflect the fact that as minors they are less burdened than someone who say, went to a conservatory and then found themselves in the position of being a recent graduate and desperately in need of money. Teenagers don’t get famous because they’re better than everyone older than they are— they get famous because they’re good enough to take advantage of unique opportunities. And yet we call them Wunderkinds and generously apply any number of un-proven cliches like “wise beyond their years” and “voices of the future.” Maturity and experience deepens one’s perspective, but emotional depth is not something that only kicks in when you get your first Jury summons.

A lot of otherwise smart adults seem to fall into this trap. “It’s so rare for someone so attractive to also be deep!” No, it fucking isn’t.

So, if you agree that becoming famous as a teenager isn’t exactly the astounding feat it is sold as, then we also need to acknowledge that the vast majority of teen stars also happen to be empirically attractive, which further compounds a troubling dynamic. We have presented the information of a person’s physicality as an aside, like a magician introducing their assistant. “Oh hey well no one here is saying that they wouldn’t be great if they WEREN’T good-looking, we’re just saying that they also ARE good-looking. What’s the harm in that?” The harm is what that says about the equality of talent.

When you reinforce the narrative that beauty is the same thing as an earned attribute you are hurting every other talented person who doesn’t enjoy the luxury of walking into a room and having people warm to their presence without trying. That’s pretty privilege. Celebrating youth and beauty, even when it is piled on top of talent, comes at a price, and it is one we all end up paying because we discourage would-be artists and narrow the playing field. Being young and attractive doesn’t stop someone from being talented, but neither does being older and unattractive. If we fully embraced both, we’d have better standards and powerful executives who aim to control the image of their artists wouldn’t have as much power.

When you give someone double credit for their privilege because the expectation is that it is rare to be both beautiful and talented, you are empowering them to take up as much space as they want without stopping to ask who else might also deserve to be there, whether by means of collaboration or simply the extension of said privilege. In other words, if you’re going to praise someone for their popularity or success in music, please make sure you’re only praising them for things they can control, and remind them that there is no such thing as being the best.

My point is if you want to do something productive with your weird hardon for talented teens, protect the arts in your local public schools and hold the adults around you accountable for encouraging all children equally.