One year ago you, or your sister, might have learned that the Jonas Brothers were filming a pilot for a television show. J.O.N.A.S., it was to be called—“Junior Operatives Networking As Spies.” Each week on the Disney Channel the three brothers would fight for the American government against an evil dentist, Dr. Harvey Fleischman (that’s Jewish for “Jewish Jew”), and his campaign to control the minds of American youth, presumably through fluoride or hygiene.
Since then the Jonas Brothers seem to have fought against Disney’s campaign to control the minds of American youth—or Disney’s campaign has grown cleverer than that Jewish doctor. One year after the pilot had been filmed, a year during which the series was supposed to be in production but never was, Joe Jonas—the middle child, with a bit of an Anthony Kiedis look and a darkly sexy nihilistic ambition summed up in his favorite quote, “The only way to win is to die trying”—announced on Ryan Seacreast’s show that the series was finally going into production, but with a new plot. The spy improbability had been dropped, in favor of a “‘Flight of the Conchords’ feel.” Joe assured his fans, many of whom had been revolting on fan sites—“This sounds too much like Hannah Montana,” one had said; “I guess Disney wanted to stick with what works,” Karrett <3 shrugged—that “it’s going to be a funny show.” I had never heard a Jonas Brothers song before the first week of this school year. I was throwing a pre-game for Lawnparties, offering Tequila Sunrises and mojitos in the a.m.—the youngest oldest thing Princeton students do. The eclectic and up-to-the-minute iTunes playlist I had made for the occasion had run out, and some roommate of a friend had taken over the computer to keep the mood going. “‘Burnin’ Up’!” someone requested. Probably the new Usher single, I thought, and then a nineteen- or twenty-year-old played me my first Jonas Brothers song. “Don’t they wear chastity rings?” I asked no one. I didn’t get a chance to watch the video then, but I went back out of curiosity a few days later. For those of you haven’t contributed to the nearly 31 million views it has received, I can summarize: the Jonas Brothers are lounging poolside and glancing at some girls on the opposite end, negotiating whatever suffocating sexual space is left to corralled Christian boys, when their enormous deep-voiced handler (a black man, though modern music video tropes have already implied that for you) delivers them a script for the very video they’re in. “The Jonas Brothers performing poolside,” it reads, and then they do—the lead singer in tight white jeans, his brother in scruffy hair and a leather jacket, Kevin Jonas bin Jon Mayer bin Bruce Springsteen bin Bob Dylan. The framing device—not narrative, since the script just lists the things that happen as they happen; the explicit admission of contrivance is its only logic—then whips the singers through various parodies: Nick as James Bond, cartwheeling through laser beams and gambling; Joe doing either Grand Theft Auto: Vice City or Miami Vice, depending on how charitable we’re feeling; Kevin learning karate with a balding, long-haired white man (no possibility of good faith here, that’s unequivocally David Carradine from Kill Bill). For the attuned fan, the Jonas Brothers have run through not only a handful of our major cultural idioms but their own history, revisiting their deep-schmaltz crime-fighter personas and sending them up with that profitably ironic “‘Flight of the Conchords’ feel.” The Jonas Brothers have come very far in a year, and they caught me up in three-and-a-half minutes. I was fascinated enough to work back through that year as well as I could. The Jonas Brothers have had three albums, released on schedule every August for the last three years. The first, “It’s About Time,” sold only 50,000 copies, and it appears to be a relic of the band’s undirected early period—the boys, all wearing hoodies and posing in black-and-white against red aluminum siding (a direct knock-off of the White Stripes’ debut cover), look extremely young. It was not until last August that the band came into their own, with the release of their second album and their first album on Disney’s Hollywood Records, “Jonas Brothers.” On the cover of “Jonas Brothers” the three boys stand on a balcony, photographed in black-and-white with the band’s name and logo overlaid in dull gold—a Josh Groban aesthetic your mom wouldn’t mind leaving on the dash. Their outfits work the margins of Hot Topic/Justin Timberlake subversive class—small neckerchief and white belt and vests, the unironic reappropriation of early 20th century formal wear that pays all the right homages to tradition and money without sacrificing youthfulness. In the two biggest hits off the album, the brothers go through the chaste mainstream pop motions: in “S.O.S.,” they perform on a cruise ship while chasing girls more interested in texting; in “Hold On,” they perform in a suburban living room which, by the end of the video, has collapsed to become a stage at the foot of a CGI mountain. The symbol of the Jonas Brothers turning a small soundstage into a larger soundstage by the power of rock is evidently one the brothers or their managers enjoy, as it turned up again in their biggest break yet, a recent performance at the MTV Video Music Awards. In an interview from the red carpet of that ceremony, Kevin says that they perform “in our hometown, on the lot, which would be New York.” Their hometown is not New York—though it is, in some senses, “the lot”—but instead Wyckoff, New Jersey, 63% of which voted for George Bush in 2004 and whose most famous daughter is Tara Reid. In MTV’s New York, a brother is seen jumping out of a yellow cab to join the rest of the band on a stoop, where they sing a quiet ballad, “Lovebug,” into microphones emerging from each banister. There is some Vampire Weekend tremolo and soft words like “speechless” and breathless” before the brownstone front is broken in half by twenty stage-men in black to reveal an entire New York City block, filling immediately with hundreds of girls in screaming neon v-necks, among even more stoops and the kind of wordless grocer awning that hasn’t been seen since Gangs of New York. Unlike the mountain face in “Hold On,” this is a fake real place, a clean empty New York of nowhen—a confection the group had the gall to repeat twice within a song and manipulate before us, as if inauthenticity reiterated were magic. It’s hardly newsworthy that the Jonas Brothers are fake, I know. What’s shocking, though, is the ease with which one can learn not only the fact of their inauthenticity but the breadth and speed of it. Having never heard their songs or seen their likenesses before, I was able to watch them grow, to see their hoodies turn into blazers and their baggy blue jeans into tight white denim or black slacks. Before a very recent restructuring of their MySpace to eliminate the “Top Friends” feature, Justice was listed; when they began, their favorite band was Switchfoot, a San Diego group who got their break in “A Walk to Remember.” In fifteen minutes I was able to watch them move from a simulacrum of their living room to a simulacrum of New York, stopping briefly at Pop Culture in-between. This damningly obvious and accessible evidence of the band’s maturation is both a cause and effect of their inauthenticity. To follow the Jonas Brothers back to their origins, down the worn trails cleared by whoever brought back (and has since, surely, moved on from) the skinny tie and the Oxford boot is not to form a clear picture of the trio’s inauthenticity but to lose sight of authenticity in general. It’s like looking back at your own Facebook and seeing what you saw yourself as during your first cigarette and forty, your first skinny jeans and, because you were so advanced, your first boat shoe. If only these things were archived, you might even find your first Camus quote. We know exactly how the Jonas Brothers grew, and by the same means they knew exactly how to grow, and in that surfeit of awareness exists the engine behind their transformation and the pall of inauthenticity they, just a bit more drastically than we, are never going to escape. As human beings aged up to twenty years, the Jonas Brothers must be as sick of this shit as we are. I wanted to see, in Nick’s bouncing leg during the pre-VMA interview, the quiet frustration of a teenage boy who, like every other one now, can see far enough down and up his aesthetic progression to know where he should go and how fast but is getting paid not to do it. That’d be a little much, but it’s hard not to see a form of that urgency in the year-long turnaround from Jonas Brothers, superspies to Jonas Brothers, droll guys. And if we do not see this urgency in the boys themselves, we can surely see its corporate variant in Disney, tossing off pilots in their quest to understand how best to sell youth what they are increasingly able to find themselves.