Sunday, March 14, 2010

Maybe They Will Shut Up If We Buy Them Happy Meals

Recently, a reader suggested that Kidz Bop would make for an interesting post. He didn't say what about it, and I don't know if Dave was kidding or not, but it's worth a try.

As of March 2009, 17 Kidz Bop compilations have been released, as well as 8 "special collections." The Kidz Bop albums' closest analogue is the U.S. Now That's What I Call Music! series. Beyond sharing individual tracks, which they often do, the two series have a similar M.O.: to rush out compilations, multiple times a year, of current hits. Kidz Bop albums have more PG song choices, understandably, and avoid the more risque hip-hop songs on the pop charts.

Despite that, the clear difference between the two series is that Kidz Bop feature interpretations of popular songs, rather than the tunes themselves, and if I were a betting man, I'd predict that the children's series will outlast Now That's What I Call Music, which merely repackages what I could have heard on the radio two months ago. It seems increasingly redundant in a world in which I can individually purchase, sequence, and listen to my favorite pop singles--often for less money than the cost of a CD.*

The near term future of Kidz Bop also seems assured given its sales: volumes 7-16 all debuted in the top 10, and the series has never debuted at less than number 2 on Billboard's humorously named Kid Albums chart. Strong opening weeks mean that either parents or children, probably both, are bombarded by Kidz Bop material and promos, and actually go out to purchase the albums the moment they become available. I'd love to know what percentage of purchases are by parents who assume their kids will shut up if they can bop, and what percentage are driven by kids who actually just love the music.

But what of the actual music? It is painful to listen to. The songs closely approximate the originals--in some cases they might use the same track--but always sound much chintzier. The vocals are identical on every song, regardless of lyrics, with tons of upbeat kids shouting, not always in tune. Oftentimes, an adult who sounds somewhat like the original vocalist takes the lead, though the kids will sort of answer him at the end his lines, and occasionally sing along with and overwhelm him. The videos are pretty weird, featuring presentable little kids acting like an eight year-old's idea of coolness. Surely there are pedophiles who enjoy Kidz Bop?

Kidz Bop covers completely drain pop of its element of danger. The chintzy arrangements don't help, but the children's choirs totally neuter the source material. And since sex is what makes the Top 40 tick, taking the sex out of Top 40 material makes for awful listening. Not that I'm arguing that children should listen to explicitly sexual music--they shouldn't--but desexed pop makes for awful listening for adults. Its like if you eliminated all traces of crime from any film noir: sure, you could still make a movie, but it'd be about an honest cop sitting at his desk.**

Perhaps the strangest aspect of the Kidz Bop phenomenon is its echoes of the Langley Schools Music Project. Still revered among fans of outsider music (and released in 2001 by Irwin Chusid, who compiled the bizarro Songs In the Key of Z albums), the LSMP was a choir of Canadian school kids in the 70's who sang disquieting takes on popular tunes of the time. The most famous are covers of Klaatu's "Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft" and David Bowie's "Space Oddity." Bowie was a fan of the LSMP's take on his song, and actually reenacted the project, calling it Langley Schools Revisited. He also, in an unguarded moment admitted
The backing arrangement is astounding. Coupled with the earnest if lugubrious vocal performance, you have a piece of art that I couldn't have conceived of, even with half of Colombia's finest export products in me.
Which he seems to have actually said (sources here and here). I bring up the LSMP because the obvious parallels suggest that society, not merely children, and perhaps even you, share a desire to hear scores of children's voices belting out the hit songs of the day. And that's pretty fucking weird.

*Now That's What I Call Music seems to be fairly cheap on iTunes--about $12 for 20 songs--so maybe it does have a future in the digital bargain bin.
**There probably wouldn't be any femme fatales either. If there were Venetian blinds, they would be of the chintziest variety imaginable.

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