I Watched Kidz Bop Live at Six Flags and It Made Me Realize Indie Rock Is Bullshit
Maybe Frank Black should check out Kidz Bop.
Looking at the music world right now is kind of a bummer. For a while there, we found ourselves in something of a Golden Age of Indie, where concerts were cheap, bands were idealistic, everyone was getting laid, the drugs were secret but not that well hidden, and everyone was just sorta happy but miserable at the same time. Most importantly, we were doing it in a way that made us feel like we were really making a difference even though we were serving people drinks for a living.
Pop music never went away during this time, it just wasn't cool to like it, but now the major labels that were on life-support seem to be fully back in control. The bad part is that the "indie bands" now resemble more of their pop contemporaries than the bands from the last decade that built a fan base that makes "indie rock" a commercially viable career path for a musician. It's like they co-opted the sound and left the ethos behind. As a writer and a photographer, you see it at every level, with bands are being weirder about when they give out their promos and what they do regarding interviews and how they let people photograph their concerts.
And worse, bands are even alienating their fans, forbidding them to use their phone at concerts or trying to push $30 American Apparel t-shirts on them. But, it doesn't have to be this way. I've seen another world of music as business, as entertainment, and as Lynchian macabre.
It's called Kidz Bop.
For those of you not hip to the under-48 inches crowd, Kidz Bop's initial offering came out in the year 2000 from Razor & Tie, the company that brought you excellent informercials for Monster Ballads and Buzz Ballads. The first Kidz Bop featured songs from Ricky Martin. Blink 182, Smash Mouth, and a ton more, including songs you forgot even existed, like "Steal My Sunshine."
By the time Kidz Bop Ten hit, they were flat-out predicting the sound of the Lumineers years before that band would emerge.
In 2013, the songs still come up short in matching those they are modeled after, but they are better than karaoke versions at least.
Many critics and music fans take an immediate position of dismissal when presented with the concept of Kidz Bop, but really, what is so wrong with Kidz Bop? Sure there are the obvious lacks in vocal skill and musical sophistication present, but how many of pop's stars can we bring up similar gripes about? And really, how are songs adhering to over-produced, slick formulas with no substance written by hired guns more ethically sound than Kidz Bop, which is, again, just covers of those songs, but as done by children? Is pop "better" than Kidz Bop to the extent that one is written about endlessly and the other is ridiculed by these same writers? No. This is why I am writing about Kidz Bop.
I wound up at a Kidz Bop performance recently not because I am a fan of the album series, but because they were appearing as part of the Kidz Star USA finale held in Southern California. This is basically a nationwide talent search for the next possible Kidz Bopper, with the winner gets an RCA recording contract and presumably the severed head of a goat or whatever they give you when you join the Illuminati. The finalists performed at the event and the winner would be chosen on the spot, but the real main event was a performance from the Kidz Bop Kids. The draw for me, though, was the venue, Six Flags Magic Mountain, meaning an afternoon of roller coasters on someone else's dime.
But working with Kidz Bop, there were instance after instance where they set the bar of what to expect from musical acts, both on a professional level and on a consumer level, and it started from the get go.
The publicist for Kidz Bop was insanely supportive of the idea to feature the band on Noisey. But, then she found out exactly what VICE is and called me to ensure that the children would not be exploited, noting a particular article of a sexual nature that she read on VICE. I assured her nothing was intended to be inappropriate, but what she was doing was vetting, not trying to make the story positive or control the content.
The concert, part of a three-hour event, featured songs from the four Kidz Star Finalists, then a solo Kidz Bopper rapping a Mackemore song, and closing with a pretty epic Kidz Bop show spanning pop's narrow realm.
Regular concerts usually stick to the tunes the artist has recorded with maybe a cover or two, and Kidz Bop is the same, but the thing is, they record songs from everyone. So, essentially it is like seeing every major pop artist condensed into a 40-minute, non-stop spectacle. We get all pumped up like it's a big deal when Bon Iver covers Townes Van Zandt or whatever, and we don't even know the song. Hell, we probably don't even know a Townes Van Zandt song at all, it's just more that the idea that Bon Iver is covering Townes Van Zandt, who we're pretty sure is important, and therefore it's an Event. Bon Iver covering Townes Van Zandt will get approximately 12% more applause from an audience than Bon Iver playing any non-"Holocene"/"Skinny Love" Bon Iver song. Contrast this to a group of relatively anonymous kids covering "Gangnam Style." Now that is a song that can unite a crowd. And better yet, Kidz Bop does this thing where songs appear in abbreviated version again after they are played. So as "Gangnam Style" finishes, the kids might tag on the line "So call me, maybe," and you'll be like, "Oh!!!! They played that earlier. How clever to 'mash up' the songs like that."
Small bands give you access. They play tiny clubs and stay and sell you merchandise afterwards, maybe drink some beers with their friends and politely smile when you tell them how much you liked their show. Kidz Bop owns them. After their set, the kids sat at a table side-stage and met every fan that wanted to, signing autographs, taking pictures, even striking up interactions with people not wanting to. Better yet, there wasn't anything for sale to go along with it. Better still, the kids gave away t-shirts during the set, tossing them from the stage. I'm not trying to preach or say artists shouldn't be selling things, but it was a refreshing change rather than being shamed by the Polyphonic Spree into buying a t-shirt so they can continue their self-indulgent need to travel with 78 band members.
From a media perspective, I was allowed to do whatever I wanted. Side-stage, back stage, interview anyone: whatever helps make the story better. Now, these are kids, and they did not require the protective arm of publicists keeping the media from over stepping their bounds. What are adult artists so afraid of? Or, is the state of fear that they need to exist in a completely controlled environment actually created to keep people having jobs and keep certain companies in place? People are paid to make sure photographers keep to their photo policy, to connect artists with writers for interviews, and shit like that. Not saying their job isn't needed, but maybe they could better spend their time.
We don't go to concerts just to watch. We want to be a part of the show. Kidz Bop recognizes this and often asks the crowd how it's doing. But, sure as water is wet, the kids know we, the audience, can be louder and happier and more in the moment than when we first respond to the question. So they pull our legs and say that they can't hear us, when surely they can, but we just scream louder, never actually answering their question as to how we are doing, but clearly screaming here, like bedrooms and roller coasters, is a positive, and not a negative like most instances of screaming. I saw the Pixies the other day and Frank Black didn't say a word to us. Maybe Frank Black doesn't know you're supposed to ask the crowd how it's doing. Maybe Frank Black should check out Kidz Bop.
Philip Cosoreswas only ridiculed by children once during this assignment. He tweets - @philip_cosores