If there is an age when Kidz Bop is cool, I was never that age. Kidz Bop's mission is to make " kid-friendly versions of today's biggest pop music hits," which translates to compilation albums of kids covering popular songs stripped of obscenities and suggestive language.As a kid, an ensemble of nasal voices singing castrated covers of the most overplayed songs on the radio was always upsetting to me (even in the condensed form of a one-minute commercial between Spongebob episodes). Now it's something I forget exists unless I unfortunately stumble on it during one of the few times a year I have access to cable.
Yet somehow Kidz Bop has proven to be an enduring brand. As of this year, it has released more than 38 albums. The Kidz Bop Kids were Billboard's No. 1 kids' album artists from 2011 to 2017 and have had 22 Top 10 albums on the Billboard Top 200 chart - more than Madonna or Elton John. Since its genesis in 2001, the brand has expanded to live music, merchandise, and brand partnerships. The rotating roster of Kidz Bop Kids have gone on six national tours, serenading audiences across the country. There is a Sirius XM channel that plays Kidz Bop music 24/7 (something that seems specifically manufactured by the Bad Place).
What makes Kidz Bop such a confusing success is that it fails in its primary mission: Though it sanitizes popular songs, the music that results could not fairly be called "kid-friendly."
A 2017 study on the effects of censorship in Kidz Bop found that replacing phrases does not actually wipe lyrical recognition from children's minds if they have already heard the original song. Even if it did, what Kidz Bop is enforcing is also not kid-appropriate: The study says the music perpetuates the sociological phenomenon of "kids getting older younger" (KGOY), which claims that marketing is pushing kids out of their childhood earlier and earlier. The study says that repackaging adult music as kids' music doesn't eliminate the adult messages, even though some words and phrases are changed.
One source quoted in the study is Christopher Bell, an associate professor of media studies at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs who is an expert on how race, class, and gender intersect with children's media. He has hosted a TED talk on female superheroes, is currently consulting on an upcoming Pixar movie (which he cannot talk about because of a very long NDA), and is an avowed Kidz Bop hater.
He sees the product as both lazy and emblematic of our mistaken views on what censorship accomplishes. Kids' media may take out "bad words," but it doesn't fix the problem of violence and oversexualization of women in media and pop culture. I asked him about how what is censored, in Kidz Bop and otherwise, can affect what children learn. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
We all know Kidz Bop censorship to be kind of odd and annoying, but is it actually insufficient?
Kidz Bop is an abomination because it censors language but it doesn't censor content. I don't need a sanitized version of "Despacito" - I need 8-year-olds not to be singing "Despacito" because that [song] is super dirty. And Kidz Bop doesn't always make that distinction. Fundamentally, I don't understand why Kidz Bop has to exist. It's like censorship of the most banal kind.
It's very gender conformist and racial conformist. You've got kids posturing in ways that I don't know if they understand what they are doing, but the people filming definitely understand. Kids are doing dances that are sanitized but sexual at the same time because no one understands content; they just understand form.
"We are weird about what we censor and weird about what we care about"
Do you think kids can recognize context even with the censors Kidz Bop applies?
I believe they can. People don't give children enough credit for cognitive development. I think it's lazy parenting. I think it's listening to a song where someone says a quote-unquote bad word and then taking the bad word out without ever being like, "What is this song about?" I think it's super lazy.
Do you think what Americans censor in general align with what Kidz Bop censors?
Well, look around: Our culture prioritizes censoring language over violence. Take a movie like The Avengers: Black Widow shows up in a skintight black latex outfit for the visual, sexual pleasure of the audience. She engages in horrific physical violence - kicks the holy shit out of eight guys on the screen. Tasers them, electrocutes them, kicks them in the face, throws them across the room. That is a PG-13 movie, but if it had said the word "fuck" once, it would have been rated R. That's the nature of our society.
We are weird about what we censor and weird about what we care about. And violence is always at the bottom of that list. With language, say two "bad words" and you have to be rated R, but go ahead and shoot 15 people in the face. We censor words and we censor explicit sex, but we don't censor sexual content and we absolutely don't censor violence.
Does this lack of censorship when it comes to sexual content and violence affect boys and girls differently? Especially when it comes to KGOY?
I do think it's geared toward girls. Particularly in terms of this whole getting older younger thing. We have the exact opposite effect when it comes to boys, and if you don't believe me, you haven't been paying attention for the past two weeks. This whole idea that "boys will be boys" - no, grown-ass men will be responsible for their actions. It's a complete double standard in our culture.
So boys don't have the pressure to grow up faster?
Our boys are getting older younger, too, but it manifests itself differently. With girls, it manifests itself with sexualization. With boys, it manifests itself with violence and this sort of never-ending stream of violent content and the ideology that violence is an acceptable means to solve your problems.
For girls, adulthood is tied to their sexuality; for boys, adulthood is tied to the ability to win. And winning, in our culture, almost always has the baseline that is violence.
"At the end of the day, no culture in our society gets produced if it can't sell"
Pixar hired you to consult. Are you seeing a change in companies wanting to learn how to craft more conscientious kids' content?
I think a generation of people who have been in charge of things for a very long time are slowly moving out of those positions of power, and the people coming in after them have a different sensibility.
If you look at the acquisition of Lucasfilm, for example, the way George Lucas runs that company is not the way Kathleen Kennedy is running that company. We see the direct result of what happens when there is a woman in charge and not a man. We get The Force Awakens, we get Rogue One, we get Forces of Destiny, we get all these great things.
When you look at things like Moana, that couldn't have been made 25 years ago. We know Moana couldn't have been made 25 years ago because 25 years ago they were making Pocahontas, which is an incredibly horrific film. We live in a time where they're contemplating canonizing the fact that Elsa from Frozen is a lesbian. They had to redesign the Transformers series because it got too Michael Bay violent for no reason and people stopped going because it had no soul.
It's showing that there's a market for inclusiveness. There's a market for dealing with sex and violence differently in our culture. It can be profitable. And at the end of the day, no culture in our society gets produced if it can't sell.
How are the effects of companies not understanding what should be censored felt today?
This whole cultural concept of boys will be boys is one of our most problematic core ideologies that we are literally, in real time, witnessing the cultural backlash against. We are literally witnessing our society evolve for the better. It's going to be Brett Kavanaugh [on the Supreme Court], and that's going to be sad for everyone, and it's Trump right now [as president], and that's sad for everyone, but I honestly believe that's because we are watching the death throes of this ideology, and our culture reflects that as more women and more people of color are put into positions where they are the ones telling the story. The main thing I teach my students every day is if you control the means of production, you control the narrative. Who gets to tell the story matters the most.
That's a very optimistic view.
Well, you know, it's either that or I not get out of bed tomorrow.