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David Cassidy crooned, Donny Osmond cooed and the Monkees did whatever the Monkees did, and millions of girls in training bras ran out to buy their albums.

It was 1970, give or take a few years, and the heyday of teen idoldom. For magazines like Tiger Beat and Sixteen it was a golden age, a time when every sweet young thing in bell-bottoms pined for Mickey Dolenz and knew the words to "I'm a Believer."Until recently it seemed to fanzine readers to be ever on the verge of returning, in the person of Kirk Cameron or Menudo or Michael J. Fox. But the reality is that teen idoldom, like America's high school reading scores, may be on a slow and irreversible decline.

Since New Kids on the Block started to fade and Luke Perry's hair recede, teen idoldom has been in a slump; no new heartthrob has managed to excite the passions or force open the purses of America's adolescents.

At best, the teen magazines have had to market epigones like Joey Lawrence ("Blossom"), Jonathan Brandis ("SeaQuest DSV") and Mark-Paul Gosselaar ("Saved by the Bell"), with disappointing results. Teenagers have tuned out. Subscriptions have plummeted.

The creation of idols has always depended on chemistry and hormones, a notoriously unpredictable mix. (Consider Elvis Presley.) But those in the business - the men and women who know all those "fab facts," like Why Joey Wants to Marry Young! - say forces larger than adolescent desire are at work.

"In the history of teen idoldom, starting from Frank Sinatra and the Beatles, the teen idols who have become real icons have all been musical," said Randi Reis-feld, editor of Sixteen magazine, who has worked in the field for 23 years. She ticked them off: the Monkees, the Jackson Five, the Osmonds, New Kids on the Block.

"These days," she said, "music has become so polarized, it's hard. There aren't that many outlets for the type of music traditionally associated with teen idols - accessible music, with a pop sound. If you're not Garth Brooks or a rap group, it's hard to get your stuff played."

Carla Lloyd, a professor of advertising at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University who has studied the way young women model their appearance on entertainment images, blames the idol drought not on changes in the music world but on changes in the way teenagers live.

"My teen idols were the Mon-kees and Bobby Sherman," she said.

"Now, I think there's a lot more stress. To devote the kind of attention that girls of my generation did to construct our shrines to Mickey Dolenz seems rather frivolous and out of step."

These days, even the phrase teen idol is somewhat outdated; many of the girls who carry the torch are actually preteenagers, 11 and 12 years old. Louise Barile, editor of Tiger Beat magazine, said that her readers have been getting younger over the years, until now the median age is 13.

"Kids are a lot more sophisticated today," she said, then quickly added: "But crushes happen regardless of how sophisticated you are."

The acceleration of adolescence and the shrinking number of teen idols are probably related. What girls are looking for in teen idols may be practice boyfriends.

"In their minds, they're trying out what a real boyfriend would be like, but they're not really ready," Reisfeld said.

Lisa Morra, a sixth grader from Basking Ridge, N.J., who has a poster of the "Saved by the Bell" crew in her room, said that what makes stars attractive to teenagers is "their attitude and the way they act on the show." And, she noted, they have to be "cute."

Attitude is all important for teen idols, and only one attitude will do. "You find there are common ingredients," said Janet Macoska, a photographer who works extensively for the teenage press. "It's the cute, harmless, baby-faced guys. They can't be too mature. They have to be safe."

Virtually all teen fan magazines acknowledge a fall-off in readership since New Kids lost their luster four years ago. Teen Beat, the only magazine for which audited sales figures are available, saw its average circulation drop 32 percent between December 1992 and December 1993, going from 132,000 to 90,000.

The culprit the teen press most often blames for this decline is radio. Over the past decade or so, radio has become increasingly fragmented, with Top 40 stations giving way to alternative music, classic rock, hard rock, rap and country stations.

The music from which teen idols are made - songs like the Partridge Family's "I Think I Love You" or New Kids' "The Right Stuff" - do not fit easily into any of these formats. And the music video channels avoid it as well.

MTV, Reisfeld said, "could be very helpful" to the cause of creating new teen idols. But, she said, "they have absolutely no interest in cultivating that audience. MTV has gone the Generation X, hipper-than-thou route."

Perhaps because of this hipness problem, even some of today's teen idols seem ambivalent about being identified that way. Joey Lawrence, who produced several popular songs in addition to starring on "Blossom," said that he is now focusing on moving beyond teen idol status.

"The teen thing is something that is cool for a while and then you grow out of it," he said in an interview. "There's a transition. The lucky ones make it and survive and the ones that don't, don't."