by Kristina Loew

There was a time when popular culture was a bastion of rebellion, a place where America’s youth could forge a new identity and give the middle finger to their parents. Not so these days, where purity rings have become fashionable, pop stars are giving regular shout-outs to Jesus and raunchiness is in remission. Could it be that the Christian right has finally infiltrated youth culture or is it just a new way to sell wholesomeness to a precarious demographic that is bringing in billions of dollars in business?

Using family values to sell family entertainment is nothing new. Everyone from Ozzie and Harriet to Britney Spears has employed them to market their products, their shows and themselves. Back in the late 1950’s Mouseketeer Annette Funicello was carefully marketed by Disney as the quintessential “girl-next-door,” someone who was chaste and defined the morals of the time. Even Elvis and Aretha Franklin rose up through the ranks of popular music singing gospel.

Still, they were considered secular stars who fit in with fifties America, an era that—at least on the surface—was deeply rooted in Christian ideals and celebrated the “Leave it to Beaver” version of the American family. Then, as it is now, it’s often implied that family values and Christian values are one and the same. Since the fifties, the pop culture pendulum has swung back and forth between the reserved and the raunchy. The Cleavers were replaced by the Bunkers, the Osmond family by Madonna.

Promising Chastity

When Britney Spears arrived wearing a promise ring in the mid ‘90’s, the re-emergence of the squeaky clean teen queen began. Spears was not like a virgin—but an actual virgin. Her promise ring meant she promised to not have sex until she got married. Like many of her contemporaries, Spears was a product of Disney, a company that has created a billion dollar industry out of plucking fresh-faced teens from obscurity and building a wholesome brand around them. Using their children’s television networks to launch a host of stars, including Spears and more recently, Miley Cyrus, The Jonas Brothers and Selena Gomez, the Mouse House and it’s competitor Nickelodeon, use the fifties model as a blueprint for creating family entertainment for an ever-expanding demographic that not only reaches teenagers, but more importantly, the 20 million 9 -13 year old tweens who precede them. The entertainment is free of controversy and rarely raises an eyebrow with parents.

And keeping parents happy is good for the bottom line. In the past decade experts have identified a new breed of buyer, the super-consumer. Parents and children now collectively decide how the family money is spent and companies are eager to grab the attention of this highly-coveted demographic. According to a 2009 USA Today survey, tweens are spending more than $43 billion annually, with parents spending an additional $170 billion on their kids. Producer of High School Musical, Barry Rosenbush, recently told the London Times, “Parents still need to give their permission to buy things, to download off iTunes, to buy DVDs. So an interesting dynamic develops between the parents and the children, where the parents want the children to go to High School Musical because it’s empowering, and to Twilight because it’s about romanticism. All good, clean family entertainment that makes parents feel safe.”

My friend Heather, whose daughter just entered the dreaded tween market, is cautious. “I do not implicitly trust any channel…we canceled cable all together because she became addicted to the tween shows.” As a progressive parent who tries to avoid using the television as a babysitter, Heather may be the exception. Companies have been very successful in getting parents to feel safe, which has helped cement small fortunes for many tween stars and has been an even bigger boon to the entertainment industry. The Disney tween machine churns out television shows and movies which are then launched across all of Disney’s other platforms, music, merchandising, theme parks. High School Musical alone has generated more than $1 billion in sales.

But what underlying messages are these forms of entertainment sending? Is it just wholesomeness or is it right-wing conservatism? Some remain a saccharine sweet form of secular entertainment, but with Twilight, the billion-dollar book and film franchise, that’s debatable. Written by a devout Mormon, Twilight tells the story of two young lovers who decide they will die if they have sex.  It’s the most successful pop culture product about abstinence ever made. The Mormon themes don’t stop there. Bella spends her time pining for the man she loves and doing curiously large amounts of housework which, as you can imagine, is cinematically made riveting. She eventually marries and immediately gets pregnant. Sex after all, is not for pleasure—but for procreation. Even though the fetus puts Bella’s life in danger and her husband suggests an abortion, she decides to keep the baby. Pretty heavy stuff for a young audience. Robert Pattinson, one of the film’s stars, denies there is anything religious about Twilight, but the film has been the subject of considerable controversy—is it just a silly little teen movie or a highly sophisticated way to mainstream Mormonism? Probably more than a bit of both.

Shorthand for Wholesome

Many modern stars began their careers building a brand around their faith. Miley Cyrus, the Jonas Brothers, Selena Gomez, American Idol alum Jordin Sparks, Taylor Swift, and Justin Bieber all popped up in pop culture sporting promise rings. Apparently, saving yourself for marriage is cool, at the moment. According to a Center for Disease Control report released last month, fewer teens are having sex. Twenty-eight percent of people between 15 and 24 have had no sexual contact versus twenty-two percent ten years ago. (A January Guttmacher report supports the CDC data, showing that rates of teen sex dropped between 1995 and 2002 but have held steady since.) To Christians it is surely a welcome change. Fed up with the constant barrage of sexual imagery and campaigns for condom use, Evangelicals began pushing harder for abstinence-only programs and who better to promote your cause to young people than some of the world’s biggest teen idols?

But to some, the wholesomeness can seem like a cynical ploy. That’s not to say these stars don’t have faith, but pimping out Jesus is a quick, reliable way to make parents feel safe around a star without having to spend too much time finding vague ways to tell fans they’re wholesome. Having faith, so to speak, in a teenager who is going through enormous life changes can have serious ramifications when a star like Lindsay Lohan goes from the Mouse House to the big house.

Yet the consuming public can be tricky.  If you’re Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus or Justin Bieber, marketing yourself as a role model or espousing your religious views can potentially damage your brand. While his mother considers her son a prophet and often appears on Christian television programs to read bible verses, Justin Bieber chooses to proselytize in more mainstream venues. He found himself at the center of the abortion debate in February when, in an interview with Rolling Stone, he clumsily decided to share his anti-abortion views —even in cases of rape.  The quote was eventually edited.

“It all serves as a platform for dialogue,” argues Heather. “We’ve talked about everything from Bieber’s position on abortion (and the fact that it’s likely his parent’s opinion as he’s still a child) to Rihanna’s uber-explicit but catchy lyrics that bounce between degrading and empowering.” With Rihanna it’s clear she is selling sex, but chastity has become such a cottage industry that it’s difficult to look at the current crop of tween stars without wondering if they aren’t selling sex too.

By talking about purity rings they’ve focused the attention on sex and by talking about how they’re not having sex they’ve figured out a sly way to talk about sex. Simply telling teens that sex is bad, while still using it as a slick marketing tool, often leaves teens unprepared for actual sex. Statistics have shown that these rings and other abstinence programs don’t prevent teens from having sex until marriage. Maybe that’s why Taylor Swift traded hers in for a heart broken by half of Hollywood and Justin Bieber recently swapped his for date nights with Selena Gomez, who’s ditched hers as well. Turns out, saving yourself for sixteen is even cooler.

The Christian community has been careful not to publicly promote these stars knowing that explicit church backing can be a double-edged sword, one that could jeopardize their long-term goals. The Silver Ring Thing, a movement started by Evangelical pastor Denny Pattyn, is at the forefront of the abstinence promotion. Pattyn told Reuters, “When a celebrity has maybe put the ring on without the right education and inspiration and then they go out and do something crazy, then it’s a reflection on us.” That’s not to say that Hollywood doesn’t see an opportunity to cash in on Christianity. Bieber’s recent concert film was pushed by Paramount Pictures as the next faith-based blockbuster. While most of this went unnoticed by Bieber’s devoted secular fans, it is a clear sign that Hollywood is quite willing to tap in to a large Christian audience.

But is there a vast right-wing conspiracy to take right-wing conservativism mainstream and to indoctrinate young adults through popular culture? Not really. Or not yet, anyway. There may be no organized effort, but over the last twenty years conservatives have gotten very sophisticated at getting their message out. They speak to millions of people not only through television, radio and books, but they’ve helped push everyone from the op-ed section of The New York Times to the pundits on CNN further to the right.

Pop culture is reflective of that shift too. Much of this right-creep is the result of pushback from conservatives against what they see as the liberalization of our culture. Conservatism, depending on your circle, is cool again, while liberalism is not. America has resurrected religious fervor thanks in large part to these messages and to the post 9/11 era. The pendulum will swing back again, but turning Jesus into a pop idol serves as a reminder that in America, so-called Christian values always lurk just around the corner, even when simply used as a slick marketing ploy.

Kristina Loew began her career writing obituaries for people who hadn’t died yet.  Since then she’s written about pop culture for Spin magazine, worked as a maging editor at Air America and nearly lost her mind producing for MTV.  Her fiction work has appeared in McSweeney’s.