Small World

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.

"We wanted to build a station where kids and families could go to hear good, contemporary, relevant music that they liked, but that also had appropriate messages parents didn't mind them hearing."

At first, those musical gems were few and far between. Jones remembers spending countless hours trying to decipher the lyrics to Hanson's "MMMBop" to determine if it passed that back-seat sing-along test. But apart from the young Tulsa brothers' 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.

"So our playlist in the beginning had a higher percentage of novelty oldies, movie and TV soundtrack songs and kids' songs sung by children's artists like Craig 'N Co., Joanie Bartels and others."

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 8 and 14 -- the largest number in this age group in two decades, according to a recent Newsweek cover story, who now account for a full 10 percent of all CD sales -- the music charts have since been invaded by heartthrob herds with alphabet-mangling monikers (LFO, M2M, 3LW, LMNT, A*Teens, BB Mak, B*Witched), pint-size 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.

Today, there are so many young pop acts being launched on a monthly basis that even Radio Disney can afford to be a little snobbish on which new inductees to the Fake ID Club (the name given the phenomenon in a November MTV special) it deems to play.

"It used to be, 'Oh, so-and-so's only 12,' and you'd be like, 'Wow, really?'" Jones says, laughing. "Now it's like, 'Okay. What else?' Because they're all 12-to-14 now!"

If you had to pick a poster boy for today's Radio Disney, a singular moppet who miraculously represented both the average listener and the typical Radio Disney pop star, it would be Aaron Carter.

Kid brother to the well-known Backstreet Boys hunk ("the blond one, Nick," Aaron raps in his incessantly played hit "Oh Aaron"), the younger Carter, who turned 14 on December 7, embodies everything that the Newsweek cover story from last October warned us about in our 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." Carter'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 decidedly like a good thing.

Over a jammin' piano and guitar track, Carter 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 Web site ("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"). Mostly, though, Carter revels in the unique pleasures of being able to work both sides of the ambiguous age-range tweens affect.

"See, when it comes to girls, I'm not too young," he winks, "but when I get in trouble . . . I pull my cap way down and say I'm 7 years old." By the time Carter gets to the final verse of the song, "That's how we roll/And when it suits me/I'm anywhere between 12 and 18 years old," he's detailed a top-of-the-world lifestyle that even Jay-Z and P. Diddy would envy.

It's no accident, then, that Aaron Carter 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. "The thing is, while we know that kids are maturing faster in terms of the media and entertainment they seek, developmentally, they're not maturing any faster," she says. "So taste-wise, they might be interested in rock music, but developmentally, not all rock music is appropriate for them."

That's where Robin Jones' job gets tricky. "Blink-182 is a band that our kids love," she says. "But I haven't been able to play anything by them yet!" Jones says the 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 is when a song contains thinly veiled sexual innuendo (the line "I'm not so innocent" was axed from Spear'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!" Same for Everclear's "Wonderful," a hit single from last year that brilliantly spoke of divorce from a child's perspective ("I don't want to meet your friends/I don't wanna start all over again"). Wonderful, yes. But in Radio Disney's relentlessly happy universe, much too downbeat.

Occasionally, Jones will find a track on even a Parental Guidance-stickered album that fits in Radio Disneyland -- she's currently testing Gorillaz's "19-2000" -- but in those cases, the station won't promote or give away the CD. "That's one reason we started the 'Radio Disney Jams' series," Jones notes, explaining the success of the compilation CDs, now on their fourth volume. "Because we could put on there all the hit songs that the kids like, without the companion titles on some of the albums that aren't really appropriate for kids.

"It's one of the services, I guess, that we're able to provide for parents," Jones adds. "We're in charge of going through all the latest albums and filtering them. Because they know if Radio Disney has put it on the air, there's nothing offensive in it: no bad words, no sex, no killing -- no nothing!"

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.

Smash Mouth's "All Star," an across-the-board hit that actually broke first on Radio Disney, is still played nearly a dozen times a day on Disney -- a full two years after its release. Ditto for Eiffel 65's "Blue," a Europop oddity on CHR that somehow continues to enthrall on RD. If nothing else, Radio Disney is heaven for the one-hit wonder.

"Oh yeah, they love us!" Jones says, laughing. "Because they continue to sell records. I mean, we played 'Macarena' until the DJs were screaming, 'I can't play this record another second!'

"The thing about kids is they hold on to their favorite songs longer," she explains. "If a kid really loves '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 9-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.' All that is very important to a kid."

Radio Disney is also one of the few radio stations today that is still genuinely request-driven. "If the kids still like it, we keep playing it," Jones says. "And if they don't like a record, it's gone."

That kind of throwback quality to the classic days of screaming Top 40 radio in the '60s -- and the fact that the network can only be found on old-fashioned, monophonic AM radio in most cities -- may be one reason older music fans, who maybe don't even have kids, 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 (not to mention Howard Stern and Eminem) 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 and feel happy again -- 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 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, those things the other stations claimed really happened on 9-11 are simply unconscionable.Small World

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