The Incredible Power of Kidz Bop - Pacific Standard

The Incredible Power of Kidz Bop

Kidz Bop, a CD series turned multimedia empire, is changing how children consume radio hits.
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Kidz Bop 24, released on July 16, 2013. (PHOTO: COURTESY OF KIDZ BOP)

Kidz Bop 24, released on July 16, 2013. (PHOTO: COURTESY OF KIDZ BOP)

YouTube is packed with covers and parodies of “Thrift Shop,” the surprise hit from rapper Macklemore and producer Ryan Lewis, but this version that went viral in late June is genuinely one of a kind. The cover retains the gist of the song—the sauntering horns, the energetic cadence, the enthusiastic endorsement of secondhand fashion—but the vocal section consists of a girl on lead, a boy backing her, and a gaggle of adolescents occasionally chiming in. What's more, the lyrics have been scrubbed of every potentially offensive reference. “Ice on the fringe, it's so damn frosty/That people like, 'Damn! That's a cold ass honky!'” has become “Ice on the fringe, it's so, so frosty/The people like, 'Hey, the guy on the marquee!'”; “$50 for a T-shirt/That's just some ignorant bitch shit” has turned into “$50 for a T-shirt/That's just silly overpriced”; and a leopard mink that “smells like R. Kelly's sheets” now “smells like my baseball cleats.” Even Macklemore's opening line, “I'm gonna pop some tags,” which may or may not be a reference to shoplifting, has been altered to “I'm gonna rock some tags” as a preemptive measure.

This take on "Thrift Shop" can be found on Kidz Bop 24, which hit stores on July 16 and debuted at the number three spot on the Billboard 200 with sales of 62,000 in its first week. As the album's title suggests, it is the 24th volume in the Kidz Bop series of albums. Since October 2001, Greenwich Village, New York-based, multi-armed entertainment company Razor & Tie has churned out record after record (typically, two per year) of glossily produced takes on the chart's biggest tunes—sung by kids for consumption by kids. A promotional blurb for Kidz Bop 24 calls the series “the no. 1 music brand for kids age 5-12 in the U.S.” Every Kidz Bop release excluding Volumes 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 17 has debuted in the top 10. As of January 19—four days before Kidz Bop 23 debuted at number two on the Billboard 200—the brand was responsible for 13.2 million albums worth of sales.

Because of content propriety issues, not every hit has been Kidz Bopped, but the series is still a thorough survey of the last 12 years of mainstream American music, from Britney Spears' “Oops!... I Did It Again” and Franz Ferdinand's “Take Me Out,” to Rihanna's “Umbrella” and Train's "Hey, Soul Sister,” to Lady Gaga's “Born This Way” and Psy's “Gangnam Style.” In addition to “Thrift Shop,” the latest edition features renditions of The Lumineers' “Ho Hey,”Justin Timberlake's “Suit & Tie,”Pitbull's “Don't Stop the Party,”Icona Pop's “I Love It,” and Alicia Keys' “Girl on Fire.” Over the years, Kidz Bop has also dedicated special releases of covers linked to certain eras (the 1980s), bands (The Beatles), and holidays (Christmas).

Cliff Chenfeld, Kidz Bop co-creator and the CEO and co-chairman of Razor & Tie, emphasizes that Kidz Bop tunes are more about spreading all-ages content than pushing a certain genre of music or providing an overview of the pop music scene. Chenfeld argues that Kidz Bop is empowering to children, who have limited autonomy in deciding what media to consume, while simultaneously providing parents a substantial degree of control over what music their kids take in. The model, he says, is “kid-cool and parent-friendly.” But contemporary music—a constantly mutating creature that feeds off new ideas and sounds—doesn't always make the filtration process easy.

Despite the series' enormous success—which has been enough to translate it from CDs to a massive cross-platform brand—several adults have held gripes with how Kidz Bop reshapes music, both for seemingly promoting certain controversial messages and artists, and for watering down others. Some complaints are valid, others overblown. The truth regarding Kidz Bop's positives and negatives is steeped in gray. Even that Frankenstein's monster of a “Thrift Shop” cover represents the germ of a great idea.

THE HISTORY OF RAZOR & Tie traces back to 1989. After attending New York University School of Law, Chenfeld and Craig Balsam were looking to make inroads to the music business. The two had dabbled in the industry, playing in bands and maintaining jobs at record stores, but they had little success. “We just really weren't that excited about being lawyers. We didn't hate it, but it wasn't really what we wanted to do,” Chenfeld, 53, says. “We started thinking about, 'What can we do to get back to music?'”

The answer was '70s Preservation Society Presents: Those Fabulous '70s, a CD and cassette they released out of Chenfeld's living room in 1990. They collected retro hits in their original forms—Wild Cherry's “Play That Funky Music,”The Partridge Family's “I Think I Love You,”Glenn Campbell's “Rhinestone Cowboy”—and promoted the project through infomercials. The duo anticipated a wave of 1970s nostalgia throughout the '90s (the eventual popularity of That '70s Show and the Austin Powers movies proved their prescience), and sales of the release took off, allowing the business to graduate from a home to an office in time. Today, Razor & Tie encompasses an independent record label, a music publishing company, and a media-buying company. Razor & Tie's current roster of artists is heavy on metal and hardcore, but its all-time lineup is diverse, with Selena Gomez, Brand New, Suzanne Vega, Alex Chilton, P.O.D., Foreigner, Vanessa Carlton, and The Wiggles having all released albums on Razor & Tie.

Chenfeld and Balsam devised Kidz Bop around the turn of the millennium. The business partners both had children of similar ages and noticed at kids' birthday parties that there wasn't enough child-appropriate music. “The birthday parties were just a real example of seeing these five-, six-, seven-, eight-, nine-year-old kids who the music just wasn't working for,” says Chenfeld. “Parents are flipping out that there's all this new music out there that's scaring them, and the kids are like, 'We don't want to listen to 'Baby Beluga' or whatever anymore. It's something that just struck us and we saw a real opportunity.”

In a move similar to the one that launched Those Fabulous '70s, Kidz Bop originally took flight through infomercials broadcast on kids' channels such as Disney Channel and Nickelodeon, and the strategy that continues today. The CD line's success has led to Kidz Bop-themed DVDs,apparel,books,toy instruments,a Nintendo Wii game,an iOS karaoke app, and a weekly SiriusXM show. In 2009, a Kidz Bop CD was packaged with a McDonalds Happy Meal. KidzBop.com functions as a youth-oriented social media and gaming portal. In 2009, Razor & Tie assembled the first set of Kidz Bop Kids, a rotating cast of adolescents who do national tours behind the brand. A year later, the company launched Kidz Star USA, a talent search competition. (Auditions have been held at Six Flags parks across the country through the summer.)

But albums remain the brand's bread and butter. All recording is done on-site at Razor & Tie's headquarters, but first, an A&R team selects and finalizes the tracklist. “If it was just a matter of copying the top 20 songs in the country, it'd be pretty easy, but you can't do that. Half the songs that are on the radio are not appropriate for Kidz Bop. Trying to figure out what songs work and what songs don't is a big deal,” Chenfeld says. The brand's appeal to parents is intertwined with the goodwill it has established, so if there's a negative stigma attached to a certain song or artist, Razor & Tie will shy away from including them. Take Chris Brown. Although Brown's songs “With You” and “Forever” appear on Kidz Bop 14 and 15, Chenfeld notes that it's unlikely that his work will be used again (presumably because of Brown's domestic abuse altercation with Rihanna in 2009 and subsequent ailing public image).

A Kidz Bop fan is bound to not stay a Kidz Bop fan for very long, which doesn't bother Chenfeld. “We know that [a listener is] not going to probably be listening to Kidz Bop music when they're 18 years old, and that's OK,” he says. Plenty more kids are always coming down the pike, and Kidz Bop has the means to reach them.

Despite Kidz Bop's reach, Chenfeld doesn't see himself as a cultural gatekeeper for children (“Gatekeeping suggests that we can keep stuff away,” he says, “and I don't think we can do that”) but rather as a go-between who is vetting the content for parents. In truth, his role makes him a de facto gatekeeper, since parents who keep their children on a Kidz Bop-only diet will introduce them to a limited palette of pop music, and the music that Chenfeld and company decide will ultimately be what those children's hear. Because Razor & Tie's model focuses on rewriting lyrics instead of bleeping or silencing offending words or phrases, there's an element of creation to their process, too. Some kids' first or most familiar impressions of these songs will be these revised forms—and not all artists have been content with their work receiving the Kidz Bop treatment. (Speaking of the lyrics-altering process to the New York Post in 2011, Chenfeld said, “Each circumstance is different. There’s times we have [sought permission from the artist], and there’s times we haven’t.”)

In 2006, MTV.com reported that KidzBop.com posted a tentative tracklist for Kidz Bop 10. The list contained Fall Out Boy's “Dance, Dance,” a song that includes the lyrics, “I only want sympathy in the form of you crawling into bed with me” and “Why don't you show me a little bit of spine/You've been saving for his mattress,” plus a clear reference to drinking. After receiving what he called “one million emails and IMs about 'Dance, Dance' being on Kidz Bop,” FOB bassist/lyricist Pete Wentz used his band's site to discuss the situation. “We don't know what's going on because they can use a song without your permission,” he wrote. “However, I can't imagine some young kids singing 'crawling into bed with me' and all. If they change the lyrics, I believe they need to get permission. We're looking into it.” Shortly thereafter, Razor & Tie spokesperson Carise Yatter clarified that “Dance, Dance” would no longer make it to Kidz Bop 1o, saying, “Songs are frequently added or dropped from the albums in the weeks leading up to the release. ... We want the album to be as current as possible, so we make choices to reflect that.”

But there have been instances where controversial content did make the final cut. In a 2008 post on her parenting blog Momspective, Julie Maloney took umbrage at Kidz Bop 10's cover of “Because of You”—a Kelly Clarkson number inspired by her parents' divorce—after hearing it in a toy store. “What bothers me is that someone is using children to sing very poorly sung cover tunes of all the popular singers of our day, regardless of content,” Maloney wrote. She was similarly upset by Shop Boyz' “Party Like a Rockstar”—a song whose original form is heavy on sexual content—being given the makeover treatment and thus an implicit stamp of approval. “I would say that what we're doing here is not exact,” Chenfeld responds, adding that he's proud of how few complaints he receives. “They're judgment calls. If we've done 24 records with 16, 17 songs on 'em, we've had to decide about 400 songs or whatever that is, and that's probably 400 out of about 2,000 that were possible. Occasionally, there are songs here and there that are close. In light of the fact that we've sold that many albums and had almost nobody say anything to us would suggest that we get that balance right most of the time, although no one's perfect on this.”

On the other side of this coin, Kidz Bop is frequently taken to task for being too appropriate. When “Thrift Shop” arrived in late June, it swiftly made the blog fodder rounds, being widely mocked for its nonsensical new verses. BuzzFeed went all-in on hyperbole, titling its mash-up of excerpted lyrics and GIFs "The Kidz Bop Version Of Macklemore’s 'Thrift Shop' Is The Worst Song Ever Made."

It's easy to dismiss Kidz Bop with snark, but there are considerable divots left by its material when the rewriting goes overboard with its cautiousness.

IN 2011, RICH ALBERTONI, a writer at the Madison, Wisconsin, alternative weekly Isthmus, pointed out that the Kidz Bop version of Lady Gaga's “Born This Way” excluded the song's key verses about inclusivity. The passages, “No matter gay, straight or bi/Lesbian, transgendered life/I'm on the right track, baby/I was born to survive” and “No matter black, white or beige/Chola or Orient/I'm on the right track, baby/I was born to be brave” had both been axed in their entirety entirely. “Funny,” he wrote, “because for this parent, that's one of the few meaningful lines this collection of pop songs might have had to offer.”

Removing those verses deprives listeners of one of the best elements found in pop music: its ability to create positive cultural change. As an LGBT anthem that nonetheless makes it a point to champion all sorts of subcultures, “Born This Way” carries a message that shouldn't be discarded out of the fear that overzealous parents might be offended by mentions to any of these groups. And if such parents are offended, then a message of love and understanding is the sort that's worth offending them over. (A pertinent sidenote: Kidz Bop's “Born This Way” wipes out the lines above but retains the original's many positive allusions to God, so it's easy to discern that they're playing to a more socially conservative market.)

In this regard, Kidz Bop is harmful. Preemptively whitewashing a well-intentioned and well-delivered song like this is a baby-with-the-bathwater maneuver. The gesture feels especially discomforting and bloodless when done under the auspices of a brand that espouses ultra-glossy sonic and visual aesthetics, and has connections to corporations such as Six Flags and McDonald's. Rewriting lyrics without constantly taking artists' wishes into account represents an ugly shrewdness, too. Kidz Bop's occasional knack for over-editing dilutes its value.

But by the same token, not every pop song deserves to be held in such esteem. Far from it; “Born This Way” is the exception, not the rule. Loads of frivolous, materialistic pop songs have no beneficial messages, and rewriting their lyrics while keeping the tune doesn't deprive young listeners of a worthwhile experience. The Kidz Bop version of “Thrift Shop” retains the track's closest thing to a positive thesis (i.e. be thrifty and engage in a smarter kind of conspicuous consumption) while extracting references that have little to no effect on that song's message. Are the rewritten results corny? Certainly, but they're also there to be consumed by children who'll accept, laugh at, or entirely overlook the new turns of phrase.

If a kid is so deeply invested in “Thrift Shop” that she wants to hear the piss-stains-and-all original, she is free to do so when older. If a parent is fine with their child hearing the original, they can buy that song and bypass Kidz Bop 24 or the whole notion of Kidz Bop entirely. Chenfeld makes a salient point that Kidz Bop gives parents and children an expanded range of listening options, especially in cases where parents deeply disapprove of their children engaging with any contemporary music in the first place. For all of the immense power it wields, the Kidz Bop brand is still a niche product since its songs do not receive the same kind of airplay and widespread popularity as the originals. “We're not claiming that if you listen to Kidz Bop, you never need to listen to the original artists. We're just trying to give parents and kids a solution so that they can get this music and feel comfortable with it. The parents, by the way, also love it because it turns them onto what songs are big right now. They typically will be not that connected to what's going on,” Chenfeld says. “Now, they know what the top 15 songs are in the country. I would argue that 15 million copies are people who are now more exposed to contemporary pop music and going to become bigger pop music fans. If anything, we've helped that process.”

In concept, Kidz Bop is a smart gateway, insulating children from pop music's harmful elements while pointing them toward its more exciting sounds and fascinating themes. If the series was curated to keener, more judicious effect—that is, directly collaborating with artists on lyrical rewrites, retaining positive messages when they do pop up (even if they present controversy), focusing more on covering songs that require fewer tweaks in the first place, and easing up on the gloss—it would win even more goodwill and allow less room for criticism. Its execution needs work, but a good start is reason enough for Kidz Bop to exist.

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