Pop music through rosy kid glasses
It was on a recent fun trip with my nieces that I was fully exposed to Kidz Bop. I’m aware of what it is: a music series of “at the moment” rock and pop songs as covered by a generic cast of kids, a studio band and occasionally a tame adult singer at lead vocals.
I’d just never been forced to listen to a whole CD before.
To those who haven’t seen more than a few seconds of its slap-happy commercial, Kidz Bop is the musical equivalent of elevator music, or the way department stores in the modern era are able to pipe in Jimi Hendrix music without the bass and treble — effectively neutering it.
What the near decade-long series does is take songs that children hear on the radio or at the roller rink and capitalize on them by sanitizing the songs and making them more accessible through familiar timbre and tone. The selected songs tend to carry themes that kids ages 8 to 14 can still identify with, like encouragement to dance, courage in the face of ridicule and breaking free of parental control. The real commentary may be what that says about the level of musical discourse available in adult contemporary music today.
In all fairness, the idea of a tamer act covering a popular song isn’t new. I remember being that age and finding a Beatles album at a garage sale. I loved the Beatles back then, even though I knew they weren’t from my era (I had a hard time identifying with contemporaries of the early 1980s like Duran Duran).
If covers are done nowadays, especially by unlikely acts like Paul Anka and Shirley Bassey covering Nirvana and Pink, they are done with a sense of humor. Other good moments in covers include turning a song upside down, like the Ryan Adams version of the Rolling Stone’s “Brown Sugar.”
The Glee version of modern songs isn’t new; just ask The Bobs or The Nylons. What does feel new is the inclusion of marching bands in modern rock songs instead of just watching a college football halftime show band cover “Soulja Boy.” OK GO, most famous for that music video on treadmills, recently blew the doors off this idea with a one-take shot music video involving stealthy marching band folk.
There is none of this creativity in a Kidz Bop video. If you’ve ever seen a Hannah Montana, Naked Brothers Band or High School Musical video, Kidz Bop imagery feels more like Barney and Friends by comparison. Plus, the musical styling and singing itself seems pretty bland until you realize that there isn’t much difference between the music and lyrics on the just-released original and the kid-friendly version.
For example: Vol. 17 includes “You Belong With Me,” a song co-written by Liz Rose and the singer Taylor Swift. The lyrics are pretty wholesome (except for a passage about “driving to my house in the middle of the night,” which remains strangely intact on the Kidz Bop version), and the music is modern country-pop.
Another example has a bit more ‘tinge of regret’ attached: Vol. 17 includes “I Gotta Feeling” by the Black Eyed Peas. Reading the lyrics, it’s pretty roller rink friendly. There is one mystery line — Look at her dancing/just take it Off! Still pretty veiled, except for the fact that the original explicit version of the video is highly suggestive and includes drunken partyers and an exposed breast right at the word “off.” Other Black Eyed Peas songs have self-censored (‘Started’ instead of ‘Retarded’), and others would never be kid-appropriate (“My Humps”).
I won’t even discuss the inability to kid-translate Fergie’s solo hit, “London Bridges.”
The one song that struck me up front upon reading the Vol. 17 CD list is Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi.” Say what you will about the woman as an artist who can still manage to be provocative in the unshockable western world, but it’s the music video and the decidedly vitrolic and critical lyrics that makes it a strange choice for this kids’ collection.
The lyrics have been appropriately sanitized. In the original, it goes Yeah, cause you’re my rock star in between the sets/Eyeliner and Cigarettes.
In the Kidz Bop version, that part is: ‘Cause you know I’m starring between the sets/Eyeliner and all the rest.
Anyone who has seen the Lady Gaga video or knows of the other adult songs in her repertoire (she’s said in print that “Poker Face” was inspired by having sexual relationships with women behind a boyfriend’s back) realizes that the Bop rendition is merely an effort to grab the license for a top ten hit at the expense of meaning for younger ears.
Children are going to hear these songs anyway, and for the most part, they won’t know the meaning hidden in the lyrics. But marketing an album directly to this demographic so that such songs become regular musical mantras is a little disturbing. How removed are we from modern pop music’s meanings that the words mean nothing?