The tween music industry and child counterpublics

My article on the tween music industry came out at Popular Music recently: “The new ‘tween’ music industry: The Disney Channel, Kidz Bop and an emerging childhood counterpublic” (Popular Music 31/3, October 2012, pp. 417–36).

The article is here, and below is a version of the paper that I presented at the Society for American Music last year:

In the period from 2005–2009, the ‘tween’ music industry in the U.S. emerged as a major economic and cultural force. One week early in 2006, for example, the three top-selling records on the Billboard sales charts were children’s albums, and the top-selling album in the U.S. for the entire year was the soundtrack to the massively popular Disney Channel original movie High School Musical. Pop music for children has become a significant area of growth in an otherwise struggling music industry, and brands such as Kidz Bop, the High School Musical movies, and the still-prominent acts Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus, the Jonas Brothers, and Justin Bieber topped numerous sales charts and have achieved mainstream—if fraught and uncertain—prominence in the popular music industry. Through these developments, age has emerged as a key marker of identity and affiliation that position the children’s music industry, and children themselves, in a complicated role in media and public culture.

The category tween emerged in the early 1990s to identify a marketing demographic of young people ‘between’ childhood and adolescence—9–12 year old kids (narrowly, or broadly 4–15 years old, according to some marketing literature) who might otherwise be called pre-adolescents (Cook and Kaiser 2004). The history of tweens coincides with a dramatic increase in children’s purchasing power: children directly spend tens of billions of dollars annually, and influence as much as $200 billion in family spending. The cutesy play on ‘teen’ and ‘between’ reflects the significant insight that tweens embody the contradictions of separation and inclusion seen in television channels like Nickelodeon, whose mantra, ‘let kids be kids’ (McDonough 2004), framed children’s increasing status as media audiences as empowering of them as a distinct and separate group (Banet-Weiser 2007).

The tensions involving tween participation in mainstream consumer culture came to a head at the MTV Video Music Awards in 2008 and 2009, as adult and tween public figures shared the stage, embodying the conflicts that emerge as tweens increasingly occupy the limelight. Televised awards shows have been filled with tween stars the last several years, and hosts frequently make jokes at their expense. Pointing out stars like the Jonas Brothers or Zac Efron from High School Musical in the audience seems at times to be a punchline in itself, suggesting a sort of bewilderment on the part of show hosts at the popularity of these youthful stars. In the examples I consider in this paper, onstage at the VMAs we can identify traces of an emerging group identity and solidarity among tween-oriented acts. No longer simply about avoiding conflict and ameliorating adult concerns to legitimate children’s consumption, we can see tween media as a counterpublic field of conflict and opposition that presents children as a visible and powerful group.

At the VMAs in 2008, host Russell Brand, a British comedian whose act is intentionally vulgar and shocking, made fun of the Jonas Brothers’ promise rings and ridiculed their abstinence.

It is a little bit ungrateful, cause they could literally have sex with any woman that they want, they’re just not gonna do it.

Brand continued to riff on the Jonas Brothers’ virginity throughout the show, until Jordin Sparks, who had won American Idol the year before at 17, came on to introduce an award.

All right I just have one thing to say about promise rings. It’s not bad to wear a promise ring cause not everybody, guy or girl, wants to be a slut.

Brand’s good-natured poking fun of the Jonas Brothers for being virgins was now being seriously thrown back at him in much stronger terms. Sparks, it appeared, was standing up, publicly, in solidarity with other young artists, and suggesting that their values might be significantly different, even preferable.

The next time Brand was on stage, he apologized:

I’ve got to say sorry, cause I said them things about promise rings. That were bad of me. I don’t mean to take it lightly or whatever. I love the Jonas Brothers, think it’s really good, and you know, look, let me be honest, I don’t want to piss off teenage fans all right? In fact, quite the opposite – So promise rings, I’m well up for it, well done everyone. It’s just you know a bit of sex occasionally never hurt anybody.

The following year at the VMAs there was an even more prominent collision between adult and tween stars. Nineteen-year-old country-pop singer Taylor Swift’s first success came at age sixteen, and she continued to be hugely popular with tweens and to write songs and star in videos with school and teenage themes. Swift won the 2009 Best Female Video award for her ‘You Belong to Me’ video, a conventional narrative video about high-school romance, over visually and conceptually groundbreaking videos by Beyoncé and Lady Gaga.

As Swift, clearly overcome by the recognition, began her acceptance speech, rapper Kanye West also ran onto the stage and grabbed the microphone from Swift:

Yo Taylor, I’m really happy for you, I’m gonna let you finish, but Beyoncé had one of the best videos of ALL TIME. One of the best videos of all time.

He shrugged and handed the microphone back to Swift, who was speechless. West was widely vilified in the press and on the Internet as a jerk to the young and sensitive Swift.

Ten minutes later in the show (after several intervening acts), Justin Bieber, a 15-year-old singer who had only just broken out, and Miranda Cosgrove, the star of the popular Nickelodeon show, iCarly, came out to introduce a performance. Like Sparks the year before, the very young-looking Bieber interrupted the script:

First of all, I’d just like to say give it up for Taylor Swift; she deserved that award!

Cosgrove concurred:

Yeah! Whooo! Taylor Swift!

Cosgrove and Bieber went on to introduce Swift herself in a performance of the winning song.

West later apologized—on his website, on the Jay Leno Show, and directly to Swift.

The good-natured, if insistent, tone of Brand’s prodding of the Jonas Brothers—who, with their promise rings, seemed to be willingly submitting to, even inviting, the sort of sexual hypocrisy that normally only female celebrities have to endure—was overwhelmed by Sparks’s reactionary application of the awful term ‘slut’ to Brand and, presumably, his ilk. And West, who seemed to be publicly, if rudely, standing up for a strongly held conviction, was forced instead to publicly grovel before tween-affiliated artist Swift.

I am interested in these moments at the VMAs as very public collisions between adult and tween performers. In fact the audiences for all these acts overlap significantly, as the audience for pop music is overwhelmingly young and tween media increasingly targets older children, so both incidents at the VMAs were potentially intelligible without reference to age. The Brand-Sparks encounter was, in part, just another flare up in the culture wars, an existing framework into which young artists like Sparks or the Jonas Brothers could easily be slotted (and Sparks did later appeared the Fox News Channel’s Hannity & Colmes as a courageous exemplar of ‘values’). The West-Swift incident fits less neatly into any one framework, except that it fits so neatly into all the available frameworks: a confident/adult/black/male/hip-hop/superstar aggressively dominating a meek/young/white/woman/country/singer-songwriter.

But in the expressions of solidarity among young celebrities, supporting one another against the apparently unfair and powerful attacks of mainstream adult stars, we can see them claiming each other as members of a group. If their ages and mainstream success made Swift and Sparks potentially marginal figures in tween entertainment, the Jonas Brothers and Justin Bieber were full members, who were understood first and foremost as tween stars. (Perhaps by virtue of their maleness and whiteness, their age might be the first ‘marked’ aspect of their identities.) Despite not necessarily being identified primarily as a tween star by others, Sparks herself seemed to demonstrate an identification with whatever group the Jonas Brothers represented, by presuming to speak for them, or at least in their defense. And lest the cultural conservatism obscure the age identification, Brand returned to the stage to emphasize that the powerful group for whom Sparks spoke was precisely an audience specified by age—‘teenage fans’—rather than political affiliation. (Though since the audience for Brand’s own style of shock comedy presumably includes many teenagers I imagine he intends something more like “tween-age fans.”) Whereas Sparks claimed for herself the role of spokesperson on behalf of tween artists, Justin Bieber interpellated Taylor Swift (whose self-presentation as an outsider emphasized that she sings country) as someone with whom he has solidarity, and thus, despite her almost twenty years of age, a member in good standing of the tweens he and Miranda Cosgrove unquestionably represented. Russell Brand and Kanye West, on the other hand, seemed to dismiss the Jonas Brothers and Taylor Swift as marginal curiosities undeserving of respect or, in West’s case, even notice, until the overwhelming power of tween solidarity forced them to show deference, even to grovel.

Tweens’ ‘power,’ of course, derives substantially from adults who mobilize on behalf of put-upon kids—very different from adolescent logics of youth-cultural defiance. The commercial interests invested in acts like the Jonas Brothers would certainly feel along with Brand that the ‘teenage fans’ are not an audience to be glibly dismissed, and Brand’s apology after returning from backstage might well be the result of direct or understood pressure from MTV and the other corporate backers of the VMAs. In addition to direct commercial interest, an unlikely resource in the emerging power of tweens is a widespread cultural logic that understands children as powerless—vulnerable, even helpless—along with the more mundane compunctions not to ‘pick on’ kids. Sparks’s ‘defensive’ response—though in my view perhaps the most aggressive act described here—positioned Brand as the attacker, and an unprovoked attack on ‘children’ by an adult (especially a rather disheveled, dangerous-looking adult) is of course completely unacceptable in polite society, because the power dynamics are asymmetrical: supposedly children can’t defend themselves against such attacks. The irony is that Sparks could and did defend herself and those she identified as her peers. ‘Tween’ is generally coded as white and feminine, and the logic of vulnerability applied in even greater force to the encounter between West and Swift, where the asymmetry of a powerful adult man ‘attacking’ a meek young woman was all the more apparent. By going after the Jonas Brothers or Taylor Swift, Brand and West immediately lost any moral advantage that might have motivated them. Thus the construction of childhood as naturally innocent and vulnerable is mobilized as a powerful resource in tweens increasing claims of authority and agency on a public stage.

So tween media positions kids as legitimate consumers in the marketplace, but also, through anticipatory tropes of maturity and contradictory tropes of innocence, as particular, marked subjects, following a familiar logic. Michael Warner writes:

It is at the very moment of recognizing ourselves as the mass subject, for example, that we also recognize ourselves as minority subjects. As participants in the mass subject, we are the ‘we’ that can describe our particular affiliations of class, gender, sexual orientation, race, or subculture [or age] only as ‘they.’ This self-alienation is common to all of the contexts of publicity, but it can be variously interpreted within each. (Warner 1992:387)

This sort of double-consciousness plays out in the alternately childish and mature presentations of children’s media, producing the reinforcing dialectic of marginality and participation, authenticity and assimilation, that is common to subcultural movements. Children’s media play both sides of the dialectic, presenting a vision of childhood that, as anthropologist Mizuko Ito writes, “is distinguished from and resistant to certain structures of adult society without being depicted as inferior” (Ito 2007:105). Appeals to the vulnerability of kids in criticisms of adults picking on them frame celebrities with normative tropes of childhood, despite those celebrities’ presence on major televised stages. And portrayals of artists as ‘asexual’ are essentially infantilizing moves that characterize them as children more so than the adults or adolescents that they may actually be. Depictions of celebrities’ personal lives similarly present visions of authentic childishness: Miley Cyrus, for instance, released on the Internet a series of apparently impromptu home videos in which she and her ‘girlfriends’—other Disney personalities—appeared without makeup or stage costume, in what were ostensibly girlish sleepovers during which they playfully talked into their computer’s webcam.

The usefulness of this appeal to—and construction of—authenticity is that for many groups marginality can be seen alternately as a site for powerful critique and transformation, or as a space of exclusion and disenfranchisement, and this is the tension that allows children to articulate their powerful public presence precisely as vulnerable, private, childish children. The things about childhood that make it seem unsuitable to public participation are also the things that allow it to be articulated in terms of solidarity and group identity upon entry into the public sphere.

The emergence of tweens as a group that is increasingly able to speak up for itself makes sense as a straightforward example of a “public,” to continue using Warner’s terms (Warner 2002)—that is, a social space created by the reflexive circulation of expressive discourse (here read: entertainment media). Insofar as this expanding tween public is constituted negatively—through explicit opposition to adults in the VMA incidents, through exclusive tropes of authentic childishness, or simply because ‘between’ requires something not itself on either side—it is a counterpublic, which “maintains at some level, conscious or not, an awareness of its subordinate status. The cultural horizon against which it marks itself off is not just a general or wider public, but a dominant one” (Warner 2002:119). Sparks’s and Bieber’s comments positioned themselves as individuals who could legitimately speak for a dispersed group constructed through this spiraling circulation of discourse, and in opposition to representatives of another group, performing on TV for everyone to see the dynamics of exclusion and inclusion that Warner argues are inherent in the constitution of any public, or any counterpublic, for that matter (2002:113).

Cited:

  • Banet-Weiser, Sarah. 2007. Kids Rule! Nickelodeon and Consumer Citizenship. Durham: Duke University Press.
  • Cook, Daniel Thomas, and Susan B. Kaiser. 2004. “Betwixt and be Tween: Age Ambiguity and the Sexualization of the Female Consuming Subject.” Journal of Consumer Culture4 (2): 203–27.
  • Ito, Mizuko. 2007. “Technologies of the Childhood Imagination: Yu-Gi-Oh!, Media Mixes, and Everyday Cultural Production.” In Structures of Participation in Digital Culture, edited by Joe Karaganis, pp. 88–110. New York: Social Science Research Council.
  • McDonough, John. 2004. “It’s ‘Kids First’ Philosophy and ‘Let Kids Be Kids’ Mantra Drive the Mighty Nickelodeon Engine.” Special advertising section of Advertising Age (March 15): N2–N10.
  • Warner, Michael. 1992. “The Mass Public and the Mass Subject.” In Habermas and the Public Sphere, edited by Craig Calhoun, pp. 377–401. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • ———. 2002. Publics and Counterpublics. New York: Zone Books.
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