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 broadcast by tiny music-playing gadgets from Toys "R" Us. The catchy, inoffensive music that plays on those little gizmos is not even just for kids anymore, as adults fall victim to the calculated charms of pure pop created for young ears. Don't look now, but isn't that an 'N Sync song you're humming on your way to work?
What adults once dismissed as irritating kiddy noise they now embrace as classic, timeless bubblegum. In Rolling Stone's list of the "Pop 100 of All Time," the Backstreet Boys' "I Want It That Way" came in at No. 10 -- just behind the Jackson 5's "I Want You Back," and two slots ahead of the Supremes' "Where Did Our Love Go." Even staunch music critics, such as sometime rock guitarist and Village Voice columnist Metal Mike Saunders, have found themselves enthused over preteen pop. "This current stuff's the best Top 40 girl-pop since 1962-'63 -- maybe better," he says. "'Cause the beats are better."
Pipsqueak pop is finally demanding its propers. And the epicenter of this new "pop underground"? 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 [Contemporary Hit Radio] 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. Whoever Disney's PD is, [that person's] a stone genius."
As it turns out, Radio Disney's PD, or program director, is a parent -- 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 back seat," says Robin Jones, the station's music picker since its launch November 18, 1996, on what was then just a handful of AM stations around the country (including AM-1260 in Cleveland).
Originally modeled on (some say stolen from) the smaller Children's Broadcasting Corporation's radio network, which pioneered the "radio just for kids" format in the early '90s, Radio Disney's initial playlist was heavy on Raffi and Disney soundtrack tunes.
But 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.
Thanks in part to the existence of Radio Disney as an outlet, and the music industry's sudden awareness that there was gold to be mined from 27 million kids between 8 and 14, the charts have since been invaded by precocious pop stars from Mandy Moore to Aaron Carter.
Aaron, who turned 14 on December 7, embodies everything that a Newsweek cover story from last October warned about the country's exploding population of "tweens." "They are a generation stuck on fast forward," the article proclaimed, "in a fearsome hurry to grow up. Richer than ever, they're also a retailer's dream, with a seemingly insatiable desire for the latest in everything." Aaron's current Radio Disney hit, the anthemic "Not Too Young, Not Too Old," defines his generation pretty much the same way. But from his jubilant first-person perspective, it sounds like a good thing.
Over a jammin' piano and guitar track, Aaron boasts about having everything a tween could dream of: the coolest after-school schedule ("I'm all up in the video/Catch me at the studio/ That's my life, bro"), his own website ("It's gonna be the bomb/Hit me all baby, Aaron Carter Dot Com!"), and unbeatable playground skills ("Don't even talk about your Sony PlayStation").
It's no accident, then, that Aaron is one of the most-played artists on Radio Disney -- or that he's managed to sell more than a million copies of his last two albums without airplay on any other stations.
"He's the perfect model of what's called K-GOY: Kids Getting Older Younger," says Sarah Stone, Radio Disney's head of marketing. "It's this phenomenon of age-compression, where our kids are maturing -- particularly in terms of their media savvy and taste sense -- faster than ever before. So where kids used to watch Sesame Street until they were 4 or 5, now they mature out of things so much faster. And they go through musical phases faster, too, so we need to stay on top of that."
Of course, that's not to say Radio Disney can just drop in anything from the college playlists now and then to keep the, uh, listener base ("Kids don't like to be called 'kids,'" Stone warns) feeling more grown-up.
"Blink-182 is a band that our kids love," Jones says. "But I haven't been able to play anything by them yet."
She explains that kids understand that they won't hear profanity on Radio Disney -- and labels with their sights set on the tweens-and-under group now routinely send edited versions of their latest hits to the wholesome-branded station. Where it gets a little hairy, though, is when a song contains thinly veiled sexual innuendo (the line "I'm not so innocent" was axed from Britney Spears's megahit "Oops! I Did It Again") or even themes that might keep RD's audience up at night.
"Blink-182's new one, 'Stay Together for the Kids,' might seem like a natural for us," Jones says. "But it's kind of . . . depressing, actually."
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 and feel happy again -- particularly after 9-11," says Jones. Radio Disney, after all, was the one station kids could tune in to that 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 on that day," 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, bad things don't happen.