Kids Incorporated

Disney superstars and their accessible tales of growl power keep the record biz afloat.

The Cheetah Girls Radio Disney
The Cheetah Girls want you -- in a Disney kinda way.
The Cheetah Girls want you -- in a Disney kinda way.
The teenage heroes of The Cheetah Girls 2, a Disney Channel movie about an aspiring girl group, are clearly destined to live in the spotlight, though it might be shining down on a stripper pole. It's their names: Galleria, Chanel, Dorinda, and Aqua. Elegant, in a rhinestone-studded Lee-Press-On-Nails kind of way. But their star power outshines any trailer-park birthright -- the official Cheetah Girls 2 soundtrack managed to debut in the Billboard Top 10 in August, with exposure limited entirely to cable TV and AM radio.

While indie-snob parents are finding solace in lullaby versions of the Cure, Metallica, Pink Floyd, and other long-since-burnt-out rock bands, more adults are discovering their kids' next CD purchase on Radio Disney. In between inhumanly chipper DJ patter and ads for straight-to-video, for-a-limited-time-only DVDs, the station gives some of the year's most popular albums their only shot at airplay.

Leading the kid-pop revolution is January's debut of High School Musical, a Disney Channel original movie about the obstacles a jock and a brain face on the way to audition for a theater production. As for the vacantly inspirational soundtrack, with sales reaching 3.3 million units as of December 1, it's poised to be the best-selling album of 2006. It should be noted that Mariah Carey claimed that spot last year with about 5 million records sold, with 50 Cent just behind at 4.9 million. Overall album sales are down by almost 5 percent this year, but kids' music is up by more than 60 percent.

HSM also pokes a hole in the theory that kids' music only nets big CD sales now -- while every other music genre continues to plummet -- because tykes don't know about downloading, illegal or otherwise. Not long after its debut, the soundtrack experienced unusually high digital sales; the label had failed to press enough copies to satisfy demand, and kids flocked to their computers in response.

HSM is the juggernaut, but plenty of like-minded releases verify the trend. At one point in February, the soundtrack was perched as Billboard's No. 1, with two other children's albums -- the ninth installment of the pop cover series Kidz Bop and Jack Johnson's Sing-A-Longs and Lullabies for the Film Curious George -- rounding out the top three, a first in the history of the Billboard 200. More recently, the Top 10 has welcomed the soundtracks to The Cheetah Girls 2 and fellow Disney creation Hannah Montana, which have each sold more than 700,000 copies.

Disney has long been a factory for teen pop stars, but Britney and Justin's roles as normal, everyday students were never put on display. Today you'll be hard-pressed to find a Disney Channel character who doesn't have to worry about the occasional science project. The company's "original" movies are strangely familiar. The opposites-attract plot of HSM is streaked with Grease (though their love for the music distracts them from ever really falling for each other), the Cheetah Girls are practically begging for comparisons to Josie and the Pussycats, and Hannah Montana's double life as a normal girl and country-pop star, who inexplicably goes unrecognized by her classmates, is straight out of Jem. But the lack of creativity isn't as important as the content. Song after song delivers the same message: Push the limits, live out your dreams, let nothing stand in your way.

For the Cheetah Girls, this means traveling to Spain to compete in an international singing competition and proving that nothing creates global unity like the lip-synching of oversung, auto-tuned melodies into headset microphones. Along the way, they supplement their inspirational themes with a constant stream of diversity, solidarity, and girl power -- excuse me, "growl power." Which raises the question: Is the hot demographic kids, or just female tweens?

"When a colleague of mine and I met a couple of the Cheetah Girls when we were visiting record companies one day, his grade-school boy was really jealous," says Billboard director of charts Geoff Mayfield, who provided the statistics for this story. "They're cute girls. Don't underestimate that appeal."

As long as Disney signs the checks, that appeal is cuteness, not sex. (Let's be clear: In the sequel's opening number, "The Party's Just Begun," the Cheetah Girls say they're going to rock the world, not your world.) If the girls attract any creepy old dudes, it's purely incidental. The ladies are gunning for the same demographic that used to fall for prefab boy bands and now wants nothing more than completely fictional groups and scripted drama that's only as scandalous as your average homeroom spat. Though *NSYNC and the Backstreet Boys had their place in the '90s, this new breed hardly represents music associated with the 21st century. HSM is Rent-inspired musical theater, while the Cheetah Girls take their biggest cues from En Vogue and the Spice Girls, including their predecessors' flat production. While the ultimate goal is to end up like Justin, they're living in a world where Timbaland doesn't exist.

But the biggest shift is that it's no longer enough for the teen superstars' personalities to be accessible; their situations have to appear attainable. Televised talent shows have cemented the idea that anyone can be a star. Strike that: Everyone is a star. The only things necessary for kids to achieve certain fame are a supportive family, a grab-life-by-the-lips attitude, and a company suit serendipitously hanging around outside choir practice. Oh, and a little talent. Sometimes very little. The student-to-stardom fable has even been adapted for the world it has helped create. In their latest movie, the Cheetah Girls' antagonist isn't talented Spanish teen Belinda, but her conniving stage mother.

While there's no apparent real-life Joe Simpson in the Cheetah Girls' real-life entourage, their act isn't completely devoid of conflict. Raven (née Symone) is the only member with her own TV show and, amid rumors of unrest, has excused herself from the group's live performances, including their current tour. So much for solidarity. And diversity? From the look of their press photos, they've achieved the same racially ambiguous, honey-colored glow that Mariah Carey's been rocking for years.

But none of that matters as long as they keep playing the role of celebrities who don't get to sign autographs until their homework is done. Because the only thing more glamorous than a pop star is a pop star who has a math test to worry about, and high school is a magical place for those not yet old enough to attend.

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