The Kidz Bop Is All Right: A Night Alone With America's Shrillest Pop FranchiseLatest
As I took my divinely ordained place in a long line of screaming six-year-olds in puffy jackets outside the “Kidz Bop: Make Some Noise” tour stop at a 500-cap venue in Manhattan, I experienced the unfortunately familiar sensation of walking towards something truly off-putting but feeling, instead of trepidation, a deep certainty that I belong.
It was dusk on a colorless Sunday. The mother in front of me glanced over her shoulder and scooted her kid up in line. “Stay where I can see you,” she whispered, glancing again.
At the door, the bouncer scanned the ticket. “Just one?” he asked. “For Kidz Bop?”
“Yeah,” I said, and walked in.
Kidz Bop, the babies-cover-the-hits franchise that occupies about a fifth of the children’s music market and routinely lands albums in the Billboard Top 10, is the brainchild of two canny ex-lawyers named Craig Balsam and Cliff Chenfeld, who in the ’90s started making good money packaging radio hits into CD collections and selling them via direct-order on cable TV. (Their biggest hit, before Kidz Bop, was the ubiquitous Monster Ballads.)
Around the turn of the century, Balsam and Chenfeld, according to Bloomberg, noticed the Eminem-psychotic, Britney-sexy edge creeping into the pop music market and decided to “split the difference” between the radio hits that parents didn’t want their kids listening to and the children’s music that their parents couldn’t stand. The first Kidz Bop collection came out auspiciously (September 2001), featuring a murderer’s row of aesthetically bleeped bangers: there was “All The Small Things” and “That Don’t Impress Me Much,” the one-two punch of “Blue” and then “Summer Girls,” Sugar Ray’s “Fly,” and so on.
On this first CD, the vocals and instrumentation are at about a local-jingle level of professionalism, and—as would be true for a few years—there aren’t actually very many kids. The lead vocalists sound like adult choir directors for a Christian summer camp; the children sing in the background and on choruses, harmonizing shallowly. “This is one CD that my kids and I can listen to together,” says a catalogue mom in the TV spot.Both my younger brother and I were too old for Kidz Bop at the time, so I remained only hazily aware of the idea until an extremely weed-heavy portion of my freshman year at college, which was the same year that “Since U Been Gone” was the best song in the world.
The Kidz Bop cover of Kelly Clarkson was the opener of Kidz Bop 8, an album that still featured adult vocalists but went heavier on the youth and slightly better with the backing tracks. The selection on this one was particularly tight—there was “1, 2 Step,” “1 Thing,” and “Karma”—but I don’t think I ever found cause to listen to the album at the time. The Trojan horse to the Kidz Bop kingdom was one child in the “Since U Been Gone” video:
That kid is basically my Walt Whitman. He is a paragon of individual intensity. Kid, I Bop somewhere, waiting for you.
The majority of the crowd at Kidz Bop looked to be mostly in the first-to-third grade range, which is to say, this was a population guaranteed to respond very strongly to a man wearing light-up Kanye glasses and screaming, “You have been given permission to make some noise!” Crowding the stage was a kid mosh pit of sorts, with a ring of parents hovering closely behind, only about 15 percent of whom would eventually relax enough to dance with their kids.
I stood at the back of the floor, terrified to step on or offend either of my two sets of peers. Very slowly, I inched towards the bar. “No, I’m not okay!” screamed the bartender. A floor staffer had just inquired how she was doing. “We! Need! More! Candy!” she howled.
A dad walked away with a double, sipping. A woman hawked light-up microphones. “I’ll take five,” rasped a mom, desperately pulling out cash. The Kidz Bop Hype Man screamed, “Who’s ready to see the Kidz Bop Kids?” and the crowd reached a pitch so unhinged and doglike that I choked on my beer. And then four 13-year-olds ran out onstage in tracksuits, like miniature cruise ship directors from a casting company specializing in Future America, the caramel and queer. It took me the entire show, plus intermission, to hear their names right.
Cam, Maria, Ashley, and Brant, I typed into my phone, as they played electric guitars for a Meghan Trainor song and standing toms for Bastille. They sang “K-I-D-Z, got my name in bold” for “Fancy” and did a capella harmony for “Happy.” They put on beanies and pulled out trash cans to drum on for “Rude,” which almost ended me. They made moms do an ‘80s karaoke competition and made dads do a countrified “Gangnam Style” competition and wined within a certain prescribed range of hip motion and shilled their own social media accounts. They did aerials across the stage wearing light-up pleather and used a pitch pipe to test each others’ perfect pitch. Ashton (??), I wrote, did A+ and F++ woww! Other ones named Brad, Freya, and Greg??
It’s actually Matt (Martinez), Bredia (Santoro), Ashlynn (Chong), and Grant (Knoche). They’re the third iteration, again according to Bloomberg, of the Kidz Bop Menudo Model, in which the session tweens of cut-rate yore have been replaced by Branded Faces, more Disney star than demo singer—although, of course, the difference between the two is slight.
Kidz Bop used to put out two albums a year and bank on CD sales, but now you can’t do the latter. So they’ve expanded, releasing an album every quarter, running an XM station, fronting a YouTube channel (millions upon millions of views, of course) and sending their Kidz out for 45-show tours.And—watch them, they’re good. The Kidz are all right! Live, they have the ease, exuberance, stamina and projected generosity of pop stars, even if they understandably haven’t developed the same levels of control. Through an extremely taxing 90-minute set, they let fatigue flicker across their faces occasionally, and frequently landed on the very edge of their notes. But in a general sense, they were really out there: their backing track was no louder than it is with plenty of buzzy pop acts currently, and they’ve got much less processing on the sound. They also dance much more than most performers today, and much better. The girls give off restless Mouseketeer—they visibly keep their flirtatiousness PG in the same way that Taylor Swift, live, exerts obvious effort to get hers up to PG-13—and the boys, hustling and charming, give off baby Jason Derulo, or maybe baby Ne-Yo.
I wondered what they would move on to. Kidz Bop turns the age corner sharply: consumers lose interest well before double digits, and for performers, the only workable spot is “tween.” I bet two of them will be famous-ish, I wrote. Past Kidz Bop alumni include Zendaya, who now has her own Barbie doll, and Becky G, who’s nailing it on Empire, and an actor who played the son in the Anna Nicole Smith movie (starring Willa Ford, the “I Wanna Be Bad” girl—oh, the constellations of minor stardom!), and someone named Noah Munck whose Wikipedia says he “produces trap music under the name NoxiK” and also that he was born in 1996.
But we graduate away from ourselves constantly. The toddlers around me would never know what they looked like, bouncing on dad shoulders; the cliques of third-grade girlfriends dancing around me would forget all their old games, their jokes. I used to love performing in a way that I can’t quite remember now. I was in choirs, competed as a gymnast, spent months on runs of multiple musicals per year. I think I was lucky: just competent enough to participate, never sufficiently talented to have ambitions. My poor mother drove carpool for hours just because her daughter liked the practice of it, wanted to learn something pretty, to dress up and dance with her friends.
Kidz Bop has sold 15.4 million albums since its inception. With the recent production bump of four albums a year, the output moves so quickly that songs that are still contemporaneous on radio will be spread across four or five collections: their most-streamed song on Spotify, “Shake It Off,” was from Kidz Bop 27, three albums ago. “Shake It Off” contains one of the great pleasures of Kidz Bop, which is the nitpicking, censoring word switch. “My ex boy brought his new girlfriend,” blap the singers on the bridge, “she’s like, oh my god, but, I’m just gonna shake it.” If you’re keeping track, it’s actually Taylor Swift’s man that’s inappropriate, but in another song, the word god might’ve been bleeped, as it is on the Kidz version of “You Found Me,” by the Fray. The franchise’s code for what is and isn’t appropriate is shifting and wonderfully inconsistent: they tend to avoid hip-hop, but the latest Kidz Bop (number 30) includes Silento’s “Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae),” in which the verse about stanky leg is voided but the one about “supermanning” remains. In “California Gurls,” it’s a sun-kissed beach, but it’ll still melt your popsicle. In “Come and Get It,” Selena’s “open invitation” waits for you still.
You can’t truly scrub sex out of top 40. But Kidz Bop is a testament to the fact that you can’t scrub the innocence out of it, either—the tackiness, the cheese. The contrast is often insanely, stupidly funny: I spent half of the show laughing helplessly to myself, as Kidz Bop Ashlynn snarled with her latex skirt and electric guitar through a bleeped Meghan Trainor line (“I’m bringing pretty baaaaack,” she sang, sounding vocally more adult than Meghan Trainor). Sometimes the foursome would hop out of a full club pop-and-lock groove to strike a pose, elementary-school-talent-show style, and yell “Kidz Bop!!”
In a dream, the franchise would play their extremes up even sharper to hit either thematic poignancy (“If I Were A Boy” is pretty appropriate, with kids singing it) or the G.I. Joe overdub sweet spot that awaits them: there’s a fake Kidz Bop version of “Coco” on YouTube that’s magnificent (and why not—it could be “cocoa”). In another dream, the franchise would use the angelic awkwardness of kid voices to better effect in their arrangements, flushing the tracks with vocal harmonies, like P.S. 22 does. They flirt with this tactic, sometimes, as in their very moving version of “The Club Can’t Even Handle Me Right Now.”
But mostly, Kidz Bop just roves indiscriminately around Top 40, benefiting from the fact that there are plenty of hits so saccharine that they almost sound better when sung by children—the Kidz Bop versions of “Thrift Shop,” “All About That Bass” and “Happy” sound like final edits on the original tracks—and also the fact that most big-budget pop tracks are too hooky and also too generic to truly, even with kiddie alteration, sound bad.
On their recordings, they negotiate bringing Kidz and Bop together through basic mix and match, the specifics of which have changed throughout the years. Their early albums used explicitly childish backing tracks, plus adults on lead vocals, plus kid voices occasionally chiming in. Then, they hit a brief period where they upgraded the instrumentation to a truer facsimile but let kid vocalists that truly sounded like kid vocalists—artless, gawky—take the lead. The effect was very dumb, and very wonderful. These kiddos, singing “No Air,” have no idea what words they’re saying:And neither do the two or three youthful souls who are struggling valiantly through Keri Hilson’s opening verse on “Knocks You Down”: Now, though, they are using kid vocalists like Matt and Bredia and Ashlynn and Grant, who know how to manipulate their voices like adults do. The new Kidz, switching off on “Elastic Heart,” sing taut and brassy, flip silvery and loose. They bell and distort their vowels in a credible Sia impression—yeah another one bites the doirst—and the kidzy production is only slightly softened from the original, even pleasantly so, as it is on “Where Are U Now.” A decade and a half after it was born in a money machine, Kidz Bop’s sound has started asymptotically approaching what the franchise by definition must differentiate themselves against, which is actual pop music.
That only goes for the recordings, thankfully. Live, it was much dumber, which made it much better—just a bunch of kids. The four onstage cranked through songs like workhorses, assuring hundreds of slightly younger children that they were “THE BEST! AUDIENCE! EVER!!” as a few blessed parents raged their faces off and the rest of them murmured stone-faced to each other about dinner and parking and the train. “You’re so pretty-beautiful,” the Kidz Bop Kidz sang on their Nick Jonas cover, “and everyone likes you too, that’s why!”I hadn’t been around so many kids in a long time, had forgotten the exhausting and comforting way they remind you that time barrels all of us straight into forgetfulness. Me, I can’t remember a single specific performance out of hundreds, squirming under makeup and burning myself on curling irons and pulling leotard wedgies out of my butt. I was just practicing, like the toddlers at the show were practicing keeping their eyes open, and the six-year-olds were practicing being out at night, and the parents were practicing being generous to their children, and the Kidz Bop Kids were practicing what it feels like to nail something, at any age. Out of 90 minutes, they only blew one note completely: it was one of the guys, who yelped “Whoa!” right after, and let out a real giggle. It was great.
Image via YouTube
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