Pop and the Kids

Or, Child Exploitation in Music of Mass Consumption

Pop y niñatos

By Sergio del Amo

Not so long ago, we read a piece of news in The Sun which left us somewhere between astonished and laughing hysterically. It was the story of Campbell Britney, an eight-year old kid whose mother is having her body waxed and injected with botox every few months, with the objective of making her daughter a superstar. The methods of the mum to assure herself and her daughter of a good life is police court material –and with a bit of luck she’ll lose custody of the child– but if this flagrant demonstration of tabloid garbage has served any goal, it’s to ask ourselves this not so underlying question: why does the industry need to serve up a new batch of premenstrual girls and boys with no pubic hair –and who don’t say anything in protest, either– every so often, so that they can record music and videos and become mass idols? Is there an obscene media exploitation going on with the parents’ consent, or is it something tolerable within the logic of a market economy?

The search for premature fame is, without a doubt, one of the primordial attractions in history, and it’s a force to be reckoned with at all times. Many failed parents use all their energy for their kids to become what they’re not. It doesn’t matter whether they’re babies announcing nappies or pony-tailed girls in shampoo ads. The problem is that he minor is always the last one to understand what it’s all about, and sometimes they reach adulthood without a single penny in their bank account. The parents, supposedly their protectors and spiritual guides, can turn out to be evil incarnate and act like a flock of vultures in order to see their own bank accounts flourish. The kids, when they become adults, as said, never see a penny of it, of course. (If you don’t believe it, ask Macaulay Culkin.)

Which factors have contributed to the fact that nowadays, the phenomenon of “super young pop artists covering the walls of schoolgirls’ rooms” is bigger than ever? Should we allow the radio and TV to shove just any teen down our throats at all times? Many are the questions that come to mind. It has to be said, many of those kids are real artists, and many of the records –or products- are well-made and, while the procedure is as abhorrent as putting a thousand Chinese kids to work at a sneaker manufacturing plant, some undisputable hits come out (just like some really good sneakers are produced). But it’s not the child prodigies we want to condemn here, but those who pull the strings behind the curtain. Those are the ones who should be hated.

The Death of the Cartoon

When looking for the source, we should take a look at Disney Channel. Disney used to be an entertainment channel featuring animated cartoons until suddenly they started working with (rather unanimated) artists who hadn’t yet reached legal age. One of the pioneers of the pre-teen phenomenon is Lindsay Lohan, who was there before anyone else. Before she tried to become some kind of new Winona Ryder, shoplifting all over the place and going in and out of jail, and before she became part of Paris Hilton’s entourage, Lohan had already tasted the sweet juice of child stardom, acting, singing and working as a model. The memorable remake of “The Parent Trap” (1998) made our beloved LiLo a premature show biz star, a star that, as we all know, has faded over time due to the scandals, the accidental loss of bras and knickers, the coke excesses and other cock-ups by an adolescent who never knew how to manage her huge bank account. Money can lead to bad habits.

Thanks to the Lohan phenomenon, Disney Channel knew they had struck gold, and that’s where the whole affair as we know it now began to take shape. In 2001, they signed the now disappeared Hillary Duff for the “Lizzie McGuire” series. It was perfect marketing: blond girl, cute and singing like a bird, the goose with the golden eggs until another one arrived with even bigger points to her favour (when it comes to popularity): “Hannah Montana” and “High School Musical”.

We’re in 2006 –seems like yesterday, doesn’t it?– and a girl with a Cabbage Patch Kids look called Miley Cyrus became a teen idol after her dad, Billy Ray, a pathetic country singer competing with Garth Brooks in the late eighties, took her to every talent hunt in Tennessee. With the alter ego of Hannah Montana, and under direction of Disney, Miley became the perfect friend (and the first mental image for prepubescent masturbation sessions) of millions of kids all over the world. She had it: her perfect smile was on all kinds of merchandise items. She grew up over time, got rid of her jeans and started wearing little more than underwear (causing some kind of stir in the process) and the girl became a woman before the eyes of the paparazzi and the fans who preferred the candid version. And that’s where we stop picking on her, because at the end of the day, that guilty pleasure called “Party In The U.S.A.” carries her name, and we have to respect that.

At the same time, Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens, via “High School Musical” and its insufferable sequels, wanted to reinvent the adolescent musical ( “Glee” would come years later as a cooler and more gay-friendly answer). But the madness would come two years later with “Camp Rock”, in which three brothers added the testosterone Efron lacked. Yes, we’re talking about the Jonas Brothers. While in the nineties, the boy and girl bands that were hot were all about fast-food pop manufactured by some casting directors slash managers (New Kids On The Block, Take That, Backstreet Boys, Spice Girls, All Saints and their many, many imitators - like Bananarama and The Flirts in the old days), Jonas Brothers are a different affair. The Brothers tried to gain the sympathy of the nitwit adolescent girls showing off their guitar skills and without the need for athletic choreographies. Rock (to give it a name) found a new target audience at the school gates and in 2008 Disney achieved what Avril Lavigne had dreamed about eight years earlier: the brats were asking leather jackets for Christmas.

Disney has awoken the monster of child artists adapted to the 21st century, in an urban context, and creating real phenomena of aggressive marketing. Some of them, like Miley Cyrus, have already escaped from their nets. So the only thing we hope for is that the American resorts they call rehab centres won’t close their doors any time soon. There’s usually quite some traffic going through there.

Internet as a shop window

Once the fury is unleashed, anything goes. There we have the recent example of the viral phenomenon Rebecca Black and that dodgy (when it comes to their intentions) Auto-tune factory called Ark Music Factory, a company that aims to get money from unsuspecting parents in exchange for low-cost videos and songs written on automatic pilot, so that the girls can feel like stars for a day. Which makes Ark Music Factory the biggest example of the lack of scruples that reigns in the American music industry. Take a girl (the younger the better, as they’ll understand less), compose a borderline track and launch her on the internet. Purely statistically, some or other Ark Music Factory singer will give us something to talk about in the future. However, someone ought to tell those people that those new hopes of pop should at least look like they can sing and dance (even though they’re sporting braces), because if not, we’re heading in a very wrong direction. In the era of fast food, not all is comestible, and the people are sovereign. Ark has showed us that not everything goes in this commercial affair and that there are limits that shouldn’t be crossed. More specifically, the limit of bad taste.

The internet is also a platform for artists like Willow Smith. Will Smith and Jada Pinkett’s little girl is destined to become a pocket version of Rihanna at the age of ten, without breasts yet, and with her hair not yet dyed. Jay-Z has already signed her to his label Roc Nation. And the truth is that the kid seems to be good, after that “Whip My Hair” (though with “21st Century Girl” she wasn’t that impressive). It will be fascinating to see if Willow can end up being a pop star. Time puts the little stars in their place, never mind their last name.

But if one name is synonymous with the YouTube generation, it’s Justin Bieber. The Canadian, 17 years old and under the protection of Usher (Justin Timberlake also tried to get a hold of him), was all over the schoolgirls’ walls last year, thanks to his clean face and semicircular hairdo. There’s a lot of people out there wishing he’d disappear ( “South Park” and especially “C.S.I.” have already given us the opportunity to imagine what it would be like), but that doesn’t take away the fact that young Bieber is the personification of the 21st Century child star. The most curious thing about the Bieber case is not that he is so successful –which is logical, as he has a decent voice and look, and he has a team of producers behind him that create tailor-made hits, like “Baby”– but how some holy cows of metrosexual rap, like Drake or Kanye West, are using him to get a bigger market share. In the old world, things would have been different. Something is going on if Justin Bieber is a celebrity magnet.

Scooter Braun, So So Def exec, discovered him on YouTube by chance, after seeing videos of him playing drums and singing cover versions with a girly voice. He got in touch with the boy’s mother (who uploaded those videos) and invited them both to Atlanta, to give them a contract that would change their lives. The rest, as they say, is history: Bieber started to get instruction from choreographers, stylists and other market opportunists, his private life was outlined (he has been coupled with Selena Gómez, in spite of Ricky Martin’s long shadow) and his face appeared in all the adolescent publications. His road to stardom will only end when his vocal chords mature and he becomes a tenor. That is, if his mum won’t walk the dodgy path of hormone treatment.

That said, something is very clear to yours truly: when I’m a dad, I swear, I will take my kid to each and every casting and I will upload all of his or her artistic outings on the internet, hoping that the whole world will drool over him or her and that someone will offer me a fat check in exchange for my offspring’s talent. While I’m living off my parent, I’ll keep dreaming that one day it will be my kid who will support me and that I will be able to buy a mansion with a gym in the hills, a private jet and an Armani wardrobe thanks to his or her talent. And don’t give me that look, wouldn’t you want the same thing?

Now Justin Bieber is on tour in Europe, we explore the phenomenon he represents: the boom of teen stars making urban music. Does anything go in this game? An analysis.

britney justin Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake in MIckey Mouse Club

Macaulay Culkin

Lindsay Lohan

Miley Cyrus

Jonas Brothers

Rebecca Black

Justin Bieber

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