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The sound comes popping and stuttering out of tinny-tiny speakers from all around, and underfoot. Glitchy, itchy beats blare from little HitClips micro boom boxes key-chained 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 oversize, over-the-shoulder boom boxes of the '80s, today's biggest musical revolution is being broadcast by the tiny arsenal of 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 catalogue 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?
What we once dismissed as irritating kiddy noise we 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, like sometime rock guitarist and Village Voice columnist Metal Mike Saunders, have found themselves bitten by the pre-teen pop bug. "This current stuff's the best Top 40 girl-pop since 1962-'63 -- maybe better," enthuses Saunders. "'Cause the beats are better."
The anthem of the new pop, fittingly, is 'N SYNC's inescapable "Pop." Bouncing with gimmicky scratches and frackle-stutter edits that lend a "so what?" transparency to the genre's oft-criticized prefabricated, manufactured sound, "Pop" plants its insidiously catchy melody deep in the listener's noggin, then double-dares even the band's biggest detractors not to sing along on the soaring chorus: "Do you ever wonder why/This music gets you high/Makes you wanna fly."
Dirty pop, indeed. From the very start of the song, lead heartthrob (and Britney Spears' beau) Justin Timberlake goads the diehard rock defender with some biting verse every bit as swaggering and defiant as the rap-metal jams filling the parking lot of the local high school: "Sick and tired of hearin' all these people talk about/What's the deal with this pop life/And when is it gonna fade out?"
No doubt about it, pipsqueak pop is here to stay, and it's finally demanding its propers. And the epicenter for this new musical revolution? The cutting-edge broadcasting maverick taste-watchers and music marketers are dubbing Ground Zero of the new "pop underground"? Why, it's none other than that squeaky-clean icon of family-friendly tunes (which just celebrated its fifth birthday in November), 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, "[they're] 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 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-1580 in Phoenix).
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 7-to-11-year-olds] and what they request," insists Jones. "That's the one thing that hasn't changed since the beginning."
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 and Disney soundtrack tunes 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 or whatever.