The sound comes popping and stuttering out of tinny-tiny speakers from all around, and underfoot. Glitchy, itchy beats blare from little HitClips micro boomboxes keychained to bicycle handlebars and school backpacks. Chunky guitar rhythms and airy, kittenish vocal harmonies ring out on bright, translucent pocket CD players, scooter radios and music-activated game systems.
If rap's arrival in mainstream America was announced with the oversized, over-the-shoulder boomboxes of the '80s, today's biggest musical revolution is being broadcast by the arsenal of tiny music-playing gadgets in the Toys "R" Us audio department. Eager to equip our kids with child-priced variations of the MP3-playing toys we crave -- and their own catalog of catchy, inoffensive music to jam on those little gizmos -- we now find ourselves falling victim to the calculated charms of the pure pop being created for younger and younger ears. Don't look now, but isn't that an 'N Sync song you're humming on your way to work?
Even staunch music critics, like sometime rock guitarist and Village Voice columnist Metal Mike Saunders, have found themselves bitten by the preteen pop bug. "This current stuff's the best Top 40 girl-pop since 1962-'63 -- maybe better," enthuses Saunders. "'Cause the beats are better."
No doubt about it, pipsqueak pop is here to stay. And the epicenter for this new musical revolution? Why, it's none other than that squeaky-clean icon of family-friendly tunes, the nationally syndicated Radio Disney.
"RD's playlist is a mile ahead of national CHR-pop on all the teen-pop stuff," says Saunders. "The A*Teens' 'Dancing Queen' exploded on Disney, jumping from No. 27 to No. 10 in a week, before it even cracked the Billboard Top 100. Now they're inescapable."
"I think a lot of record companies are looking at Radio Disney," Joe Riccitelli, promotions VP for Jive Records, recently told the Los Angeles Times. "It's a pop era, and this could be a perfect stepping stone."
It's certainly worked for Jive, the Orlando hit factory that's already given us Britney, Backstreet, 'N Sync and now O-Town. Radio Disney was, in fact, the first U.S. radio outlet to play the Backstreet Boys, and it was spinning Britney's debut single, " Baby, One More Time," months before all the dirty old contemporary hit radio DJs began slobbering over her record jackets.
"Whoever Disney's PD is," muses Saunders, he or she is "a stone genius."
As it turns out, Radio Disney's PD, or program director, is a regular mom -- like most of the station's adult listeners.
"My job is to provide kids with the sound that they like, but with lyrics that parents won't mind them singing from the backseat," says Robin Jones, the station's music-picker since its 1996 launch on what was then just a handful of AM stations around the country (including 1590 AM here).
That Radio Disney has become suddenly cool among more sophisticated music fans and record label execs is a "fortunate accident" for the network, Jones says. But it was never part of their plan -- and still isn't. "We're still targeting specifically to our audience" -- RD's core listeners are age seven to 11 -- "and what they request," insists Jones.
Originally modeled on (some say stolen from) the smaller Children's Broadcasting Network's Radio AAHS, which pioneered the "radio just for kids" format in the early '90s, Radio Disney's initial playlist was heavy on the Raffi but light on anything that wouldn't send the average teenager running from the room.
"When we first started, there wasn't a lot of pop music out there," Jones points out. "In fact, the station's creation was really a direct result of radio and music going down a very angry and raunchy path. It had gotten so parents couldn't even turn on the radio while they were driving their kids to school or day care without hearing everybody talking about sex or making gender- or race-disparaging comments."
Jones remembers spending countless hours trying to decipher the lyrics to Hanson's "MMMBop" to determine if it passed that backseat sing-along test. But apart from that fluky pop breakthrough and a couple of innuendo-free songs by the Spice Girls, there wasn't a whole lot of Top 40 fare in '97 that fit the family-friendly format. According to Jones, the playlist then was full of novelty oldies, movie and TV soundtrack songs, and kids' songs sung by children's artists.
Then came Britney. And the Backstreet Boys. And 'N Sync. And soon, a whole candy-coated assembly line of kid-friendly boy bands and girl groups.
Fueled in part by the existence of Radio Disney as an outlet and the industry's sudden awareness that there was gold to be mined from those 27 million kids out there between eight and 14, the music charts have since been invaded by heartthrob herds with alphabet-mangling monikers (LFO, M2M, 3LW), pint-sized rappers still working on their sixth-grade spelling lists (Aaron Carter, Lil' Romeo), and pop princesses with double-take looks (Jessica Simpson, Mandy Moore) or single-name hooks (Hoku, Myra, Krystal). And Radio Disney, naturally, has become a happy home to them all.
Even if an artist is not specifically targeting the tweens and kids market, there's good reason for them to include at least one Disney-worthy track on their latest CD: If the album stiffs but still manages to produce one Radio Disney hit, that hit can live on virtually forever.
"The thing about kids is they hold on to their favorite songs longer," Jones explains. "If a kid really loves [Smash Mouth's] 'All Star,' for example, they really love it for a long time. It's part of who they are. And if you study the psyche of a nine- to 11-year-old, you'll see that the whole familiarity thing is very important. It's that warm blanket: 'I know this record, I know the lyrics.' "
Radio Disney is also one of the few radio stations today that is genuinely request-driven. "If the kids still like it, we keep playing it," Jones says. "And if they don't, it's gone."
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That kind of throwback quality to the classic days of screaming Top 40 radio in the '60s -- and the fact that the network can be found only on AM radio in most cities -- may be one reason older, perhaps even childless music fans are tuning in to Radio Disney now. Filled with the sound of hyper kids' voices on the call-in lines and possibly the best manufactured pop songs ever -- Mandy Moore's ethereal "Crush" has got to be how first love would sound if it had its own theme, and Dream Street's "It Happens Every Time" and "I Say Yeah" are quintessential bubblegum classics -- Radio Disney brings the older listener back to the days when pop radio was its own wacky, self-contained world, and somehow alters the future so that all the depressing, angry rock of the last three decades never happened.
In the end, it may be Radio Disney's preservation of that happy, peaceful universe that's really drawing people of all ages to the station now.
"My gut tells me that people are just looking for a positive place to kind of rejuvenate themselves -- particularly after 9/11," says Robin Jones. Radio Disney, after all, was the one station kids could tune in to on that fateful day and actually hear nothing whatsoever about the terrorist attacks. "We specifically told our phone ops to instruct kids to talk to their parents or teachers if they called in scared," Jones says. "But we didn't say anything about it on the air. We wanted it to be that safe haven."
In the perfect, positive world of Radio Disney, after all, those things the other stations claimed really happened on September 11 are simply unconscionable.