The mouths of babes

I feel like a baby.

"These are my babies!" appropriately squeaks a portly Chattanooga 20-something, in explaining what's on the poster she's carrying. The beyond-reason Tennessee she-fanatic looks a little childish herself shivering under the outside tent of the always-good-for-a-laugh-at-your-own-expense Planet Hollywood. Her maternal outburst is espoused in anticipation of the virtually incomprehensible ABC phenomenon of manufactured pop, O-Town. And while the fears of multiplied procreation bring a swollen lump to my own painfully jaw-dropped throat, it is not these fears that truly hold me down.

Amy, our shivering devotee, is a teacher. Armed with a girlish pastiche of her young prodigies back in Tennessee, she and a she-friend have been waiting out here for three nights (and have traveled more than three states, to hear it effused) to participate in what might be the most flagrant TransCon nonsense peddle ever: the "O-Town Making the Fan" contest. Now, logically, it seems to make sense that a band pulled from the reality-based voyeurism market of their own Friday-night ABC trial-and-error talent show would seek to do the same sort of reality-based whittling to establish what might from a distance be construed as a fan base. A sham deserves a sham.

Logic leaves, though (and, it should be noted, never returns), when you consider Amy's case: Like, is this a valid example to be setting for the poor latchkeys waiting with a nervous substitute teacher back home in the Smokeys? Moreover, is this what you imagined you'd be spending your mid-20s doing ... elucidating pilgrimages to faux heartthrobs at memorabilia-laced theme restaurants?

Me neither. But for Amy, O-Town is the real deal. "Let's teach Billy the words to 'Liquid Dreams,'" she intrusively unsolicits with her conspiring friend in tow (another portly teacher). "Ahem, well, y'know," I sheep. "Oh no, you have to know the words!" she implores prior to a keyless visit to the keyless fivesomes suspiciously hit-marked single. The words offer something about dominatrix and nocturnal emissions, to the tune of a jeeped-out Monster Mash. I bleat along with a giggle of embarrassment.

Oh no, indeed.

Chant encounters

Thankfully, the rest of the girls in various hues of devotion already know the word. They sport shirts with scribblings like "Booty 4 Jacob" and "I want to 69 Ashley," numerically coming on to, well, nothing, the way that only misguided 12-year-olds -- and bipolar teachers -- can. "I've got too much Booty 4 Jacob," kids Amy. Really. They all join in, making a soundtrack for my quick escape. The contest is about to begin, you see. I have to move on.

Up in the cordoned-off press area --protected by a series of foundation-faced, service-industried gay deer in headlights -- Lou Pearlman and his posse are milling about in nervous anticipation. Lou gets the full Planet Hollywood fried spread delivered to his table and chaws his way around countless onion rings, while tight-butted boys in hopeful-star pose chatter the bottled-water chatter.

"I just talked to the guys on their cell phone," offers a gooey-haired publicist into the mike up front. "They're on their way!"

The girls have been filed in order into a holding pen to the right of the boys' still-empty stools, and they're starting to get a little restless. "O," screams one half. "Town," gurgles the other. And so on. This, my friends, is a painful anticipation. Especially when you consider what's set to follow. The rules of this particular contest call for each of the 100 (although considerably less actually show up) to strut their fragile egos up onto the front stage and give 30 seconds of their tender hearts and tender souls to the quietly judging audience of the handpicked haircut boys of O-Town. Something to the effect of "why I'm you're No. 1 fan" is supposed to win one lucky bowling pin a trip to the Bahamas to stand in the presence -- although not TOO close -- of their Monkee teen idols. Doesn't sound fun, does it?

You have no idea.

A nightmare straight out a Spencer Gifts closeout sale is only worsened a few moments into the mania, as teacher Amy teaches the clan of tampon ads how to scream my name. And they do, prompting Lou Pearlman and his cast of cronies to throw a suspicious gaze at my intended anonymity. Yikes! When I was a kid I once (OK, three times) dreamed that Simon LeBon had a hopeless case of laryngitis and was struggling with whether to go on with his scheduled Brazilian performance. Of course, when he caught my heartached eye, he pulled me up onto the stage. The show went on with Si holding my hand the whole time; me singing "The Reflex," he reflexively stroking my ego. Oh, how I glowed in the admiration of my hundred-thousand or so Latin American friends. This feeling is nothing like that. Instead, it's the pit of humility that comes from miscast fanaticism wrapping around invisible, undefendable constructs. Like, I really shouldn't be here at all. In fact, I'm trying to pretend I'm not.

Childish devotion

Anyway, the boys show up and file into their stools after some senseless goading by crop-topped radio emcee Nicky Knight. The girls are notably frazzled, grappling for everything but their dignity as contestant No. 1 -- an entirely ridiculous wallpapered girl with three days of shivering holding her resolve together -- pours herself onto the stage. After an mikeless false start, li'l Angela comes undone. "I've been waiting here since Saturday," she snivels desperately, before rolling into a tantrum momentum that includes such epithets as "I'd walk through hell and back for YOU!!!" and "I love you SOOOOOO much!" Honey, this is hell. And there is no going back.

Another poor lamb sporting a miniskirt and halter top with various members' names crawling up her crotch offers the more lackadaisical, Mariah Carey pout. She's shooting straight for the sex, it seems, pulling a series of rhyming couplets of "know" and "grow" while trying to stare off into the libidinous ether. Somebody stop her! She's literally cooing!

So it goes on and on ... and on ... and on ... with decreasingly impressive, increasingly monotonous purrs of loyalty and "real" fandom. "I've been under your bed," suspiciously offers one disorder. "The hello!" What? Eventually a clan of girls known only as the Secret O-Town Society begins to infiltrate the ranks with talk of "promotion" and "support," as if that somehow dignifies their allegiance. Here's a tip: It doesn't. One girl gets four false starts to her interpretive dance of "Wind Beneath My Wings," rendering her an annoyance and ruining her already-winded chances. Most opt for personalized renditions in monotone of the hit "Liquid Dreams."

The clincher, though, comes when a 2-year-old is carried up by his sister and offered as sacrifice to the boys. "He can sing 'Liquid Dreams!'" she quivers. "Listen!" And then it happens: A 2-year-old boy begins his stage debut with a resounding chorus of dominatrixes and nocturnal emissions, rounding off with the closer, "You are the star of my liquid dreams." It's not formula they're talking about, you know! Or is it?

He's only a baby.

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