They sound like teen angst clichés dreamed up by a Hollywood screenwriter toiling on an ABC after-school special. Kevin, 21, is the responsible and unostentatious one, biding his time until he can unleash his grander ambitions upon the world. Joe, 19, is the dark-eyed, thick-browed heartbreaker—a bit of a cad, perhaps, but secretly possessing a heart of gold. Nick, 16, is the soulful and delicate one, whose diagnosis of diabetes, at 13, didn’t stop him from pursuing his dreams. The mismatched siblings are united by their shared passion for up-tempo pop ditties, their affinity for tight-fitting skinny jeans, and—of course—their virginity. They each wear a purity ring as a testament to their determination to save themselves for marriage.
Yet as much as we might like to dismiss the Jonas Brothers as the latest passing tween fad, a hollow illusion certain to evaporate the instant their fan base is old enough to obtain driver’s licenses, their popularity keeps escalating to bizarre new heights. In recent months, the part-time Texans (they purchased a nearly $2.9 million mansion in Westlake, near DFW Airport, in June 2008) have turned up as performers on the Grammy Awards alongside Stevie Wonder, as stars of their own 3-D concert movie, and even as subjects of cartoon parody on the ruthlessly funny season premiere of South Park. This month, their long-awaited television series, JONAS, finally premieres on the Disney Channel. In June they’ll embark on a world tour that’s expected to fill arenas usually reserved for the likes of Bruce Springsteen and U2 (first stop: the new Dallas Cowboys stadium, in Arlington).
And here’s the most intriguing part: Theirs is an artfully manufactured “fame” that feels uniquely suited to a postmodern age. From their 2007 TV debut, guest-starring on the Disney Channel’s Hannah Montana, to the High School Musical knockoff Camp Rock (2008), the Beatles-inspired The 3D Concert Experience (2009), and now JONAS, the boys play endless variations of themselves, in self-consciously fake documentaries, movies, and TV shows, all designed to heighten (and occasionally eroticize) their allure. It turns out that the JoBros—middling musicians and even worse actors—are indeed a fictional creation, but one that toys with all sorts of notions of reality. Think The Monkees crossed with The Partridge Family crossed with Being John Malkovich.
Born in Texas (Nick), New Jersey (Kevin), and Arizona (Joe), the JoBros were launched into a hall of mirrors almost right from the start. They released their first album, It’s About Time, in 2006, but the defining moment of their careers came a year later, on Hannah Montana, a show that’s all about blurring the boundaries between Miley Cyrus’s “real” persona and her stage persona. Featuring the trio playing a slightly more famous version of themselves, the episode functioned as a kind of infomercial for the band, presenting them not as discernible individuals but as a single heartthrob that comes in three different flavors. (“[You’re Kevin], the cute, romantic one, and you’re Joe, the cute, funny one, and you’re Nick, the cute, sensitive one,” Cyrus breathlessly declares upon first meeting them.)
A year after that, in Camp Rock, they offered up yet another twist, playing a pop group called Connect 3, whose petulant prima donna of a lead singer (Joe) is forced to be a counselor at a summer camp for budding musicians. The Jonas Bros: The 3D Concert Experience pushed the mixture of fakery and reality into an even more surreal realm. The opening scene is at the Plaza Hotel, in New York, where the young men sit around a table and plan their hectic day. What appears as an unguarded, fly-on-the-wall moment, however, is gradually revealed to be a staged gag, when Joe’s flirting with a hotel employee brings the meeting to a comic halt. Preview copies of JONAS were not available at press time, but it reportedly continues in the same vein: The brothers play—wait for it—famous teenage rockers struggling to live normal American lives.
When the Beatles invented this brand of shape-shifting pop iconography in A Hard Day’s Night (1964), it felt playful and audacious: a new way of conceptualizing celebrity in an image-obsessed age. In the hands of the JoBros, however, all this comes off as cold and mechanical and even a little sadistic—a perpetual tease. More than a few critics found their jaws dropping during The 3D Concert Experience when the boys whipped out fire hoses onstage and sprayed their audience members’ faces with gloopy white foam; it might be the most obscene image ever in a G-rated movie. Just as impossible to ignore are those purity rings, which are filmed with a gleaming reverence normally reserved for Gollum’s Precious. They too function as a tease, telling the love-struck teens in the audience, “Look all you want, but you’re never going to be able to touch.” (Or, as Mickey Mouse himself put it so eloquently on South Park when the JoBros are revealed to be the helpless marionettes of the F-word-spewing, chain saw-wielding mouse, “You have to wear the purity rings, because that’s how we can sell sex to little girls.”)
Credit where credit is due: As cynical as their approach might be, the JoBros have at least tapped into the zeitgeist. They understand that, in the age of American Idol and The Bachelor, audiences vastly prefer a constructed and enhanced version of reality to the real thing. (They also seem to understand that the most explosive sensations these days are the viral kind, the ones that identify a niche audience and then expand outward.) Sure, you can mock them for warbly ballads like “Lovebug,” a song that conjures images of Clearasil being squeezed out of an iPod. You can laugh at how in photos they all seem to wear the same purposeful, slightly squinty expression, as if they’re puzzling through math homework while posing on the red carpet. You can tell yourself that the box office disappointment of The 3D Concert Experience, which got trounced in its opening weekend by Madea Goes to Jail, is a sign that this preposterous craze has finally peaked.
But maybe the joke’s ultimately on us. Maybe these canny lads are just getting started. Like Madonna, another superstar who defined and transcended an era, the JoBros remind us that having no fixed identity makes the exercise of constantly reinventing yourself that much easier.
Girls on the Side: Disney’s other Texas teens.
The Jonas Brothers aren’t the only Texans currently enjoying the spoils of working for the Disney Channel. Dallas’s Demi Lovato appeared as Joe’s love interest in Camp Rock and then landed her own series, Sonny With a Chance, in which she plays a small-town girl struggling with newfound fame. Grand Prairie’s Selena Gomez stars on Wizards of Waverly Place, about a Manhattan teen with magical powers, and will turn up opposite Lovato in a new Disney Channel movie this summer, Princess Protection Program. (Both of them are—naturally—also pursuing music careers.) It’s impossible to say if either will emerge as a household name, but my money’s on Lovato: She has the goofy charm of Miley Cyrus minus the aggressive overemoting and shameless mugging. Opposite the wet block of wood that is Joe Jonas in Camp Rock, she even managed to generate something approximating romantic sparks.