What does it mean for children to say that adults have become like them? (Some thoughts on Adorno, Kidz Bop, and “regression” inspired by @musicalurbanism)

Leonard Nevarez, blogging at his site Musical Urbanism, has a fascinating post up about Kidz Bop, which is an ongoing topic of interest for me. This post is the first of a series, and it focuses on Kidz Bop’s history and the contexts of it’s production (economic, corporate, technological, etc). It’s incredibly thorough — I don’t think I’ve seen all this material assembled in one place, and it’s telling a fascinating story already about the role of children’s music in a changing commercial music environment. The post is a masterful overview and history of Kidz Bop — definitely a much better introduction to the topic than my own published work is.

Nevarez pulls a quote from Adorno’s essay on the “regression of listening“:

The counterpart to the fetishism of music is a regression of listening. Not only do listeners lose, along with freedom of choice and responsibility, the capacity for conscious perception of music, but listeners come to stubbornly reject the notion that any such perception is possible. They listen atomistically and dissociate what they hear. They are childish. However, their primitivism is not that of the undeveloped, but that of the forcibly retarded.

I’ve always kind of loved this piece of Adorno’s in particular, mostly because I think it’s remarkably insightful about how commodity fetishism works as listening practices. (One of my main goals in my MA thesis on karaoke was to find some empirical verification for Adorno’s account of listening here.) Funnily, however, I haven’t returned to that one since I’ve started working on children and music, and so I forgot the role that “childishness” and a sort of age- or development-based “regression” played in its structure of values.

Also, lately I’ve been sort of collecting statements by prominent cultural theorists who say that the (adult) world is becoming childish somehow — things like Lauren Berlant’s “infantile public sphere” or Benjamin Barber’s jeremiad against consumer culture as puerile, infantilizing, juvenile, etc. (For the record: the former is wonderful and in the best tradition of feminist critique of the figure of the child and reproduction; the latter is a deeply reactionary and sensationalist howl of unreconstructed prejudice.) In principle I take these with a grain of salt, but I also enjoy ironically repurposing them to justify my own interests: if the adult world is being infantilized, what does that mean for children?! So it’s pretty wonderful to return to this piece by Adorno that once influenced me very deeply and see exactly the same thing!

The questions for me are (1) whether Adorno and other critics are correct that the phenomena they identify are somehow characteristic of children or childhood, (2) whether that’s good or bad or something else, and (3) whether such an account of adults provides some insight for understanding children. I think (1) remains an open question that probably depends on too strong a definition of “childhood” to ever be really answerable. And personally I’m happy not to confirm it because from some neurosis built as a scholar of childhood I take a lot of pleasure in letting major theorists assert the importance of childishness for me.

Regarding (3), Nevarez suggests that Adorno’s references to childishness and development make it clearly relevant to a product like Kidz Bop, but I’m not so sure. It seems a bit circular to talk about kids and the regression of listening, so long as “childishness” (or worse, “retardation”) is what makes regressive listening regressive. If Adorno’s right and commodity music reflects the regression of adults, then shouldn’t it be developmentally appropriate for children themselves? But if anything it seems like the popularity of products like Kidz Bop would reveal more the similarities rather than developmental differences between kids and adults (or at least older youths), which is that everyone loves pop music (it’s great!), while younger kids have been artificially excluded from participation as pop audiences for a long time. That is, it’s not teenagers and young adults who are turning to a childish medium, it’s children who are being provided with a genre associated with older people. That’s not obviously infantilization. (I also disagree somewhat with the “getting-older-younger” thesis, but that’s for a different post.)

Regarding (2), I think we need a critique of capitalism that doesn’t require that childhood or disability (regression as “retardation”) be definitionally abject. Cultural critics have been discovering the infantilization of adults or public culture or what-have-you for long enough that it would seem to reflect more on them than on any actual cultural development. Or, to say the same thing, regressive listening is only bad if we think childhood and disability are bad. I tend to think that the more convincing answer is that adults (especially parents) are stodgy ideologues desperately consolidating their own elevation above the vulgarities of consumer culture by deciding that their children’s pleasure must be either abject, unsophisticated, or inauthentic (manipulated). I’ve been looking for an excuse to post this video, which I think illustrates the point as well as anything could:

(edited July 2017 with new video link. For some reason the Ad Council took down the original?)

So I love Adorno’s essay because I think it’s correct about a lot of empirical questions about how pop music works, but it evaluates them through a set of liberal/enlightenment (rather than properly Marxist) values around ability/maturity that I don’t think hold up to scrutiny. To the extent that someone like Adorno (or Benjamin Barber) is correct that the world is becoming childish, it is important to at least ask if that might reflect something desirable — an openness to relations of care and dependence, an emphasis on pleasure and consumption over against “productive investment” and the classic capitalist traps of wage labor, relations like “friend” rather than “spouse” or “coworker,” valuing silliness over seriousness, etc. (And as music scholars we’re supposed to always end up hating the music we study, but to be honest I like kids’ music more and more. The Super Duper Party Troopers in that video above are really good! Maybe kids’ music in general is good? [For the record: I do know that the answer to these questions is that I have no taste, but I still can’t help but raise them.])

Anyways, none of this should be read as a critique of Nevarez’s piece, since he doesn’t really develop his Adornian critique so much in that first post. More this is a welcome opportunity for me to return to an essay by Adorno that I haven’t read in a while and be pleasantly surprised how relevant it still is. I’m looking forward to seeing how he explores these question in the text/consumption posts to come.

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Kids’ pop culture canon?

This week I was working through some materials from my dissertation for a talk and was reminded that for some reason AC/DC was a big deal to the elementary- and middle-school kids I was working with in 2007/2008, for reasons I could never figure out. Related, perhaps, the UK-based research team at CelebYouth.org included boxer Mike Tyson in their tentative list of the Top 12 celebrities from their interviews with young people in the UK. I know scandal kept Tyson in the public eye long past his boxing prime, and I guess I saw an ad for his one-man show on the TV the other day (?!) so he’s still around and kicking. But Mike Tyson! In kids’ Top 12 celebrities across sports, music, movies, everything! That can’t possibly be explained just as a comeback. (And in their short writeup the CelebYouth researchers don’t mention his recent exploits, suggesting they didn’t come up in their interviews.) And I’m pretty confident that it isn’t the case that this stuff stays alive for kids as part of a mainstream public cultural memory. For starters I can’t believe that Tyson would be in the top 12 celebrities for adults. But also because other figures that do get archived in public cultural memory can be totally unknown to kids. For instance when I was teaching music in 2001 I was surprised that middle-school kids had no idea who Nirvana were (which I remember because it completely ruined a lesson plan).

Instead I think there’s some sort of process of canonization that takes place largely inside kids’ peer culture. Other examples from my research are MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice, which combined with Tyson suggests a strange interest in early nineties pop culture? Those three also fit into a canon of campy, gimmicky, or novelty performances (Tyson’s small voice, Hammer’s pants, Vanilla Ice’s whole act). Of course Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back,” and Michael Jackson’s music too, but both of those are definitely part of a mainstream public canon too. (Jackson and Tyson have similar trajectories of astonishing talent and a long tail of scandal, combined with voices that are ripe for public ridicule…) Another example of this kids’ canon is the 1997 novelty hit “Barbie Girl” by Aqua:

Also “Bad Touch” (1999) by the Bloodhound Gang:

And in 2007 the kids I worked with were discovering the “Gummy Bear” song, which I imagine may stick around for a while too:

AC/DC doesn’t fit this story about camp/novelty, while KISS would, so that one’s a bit of a surprise I guess. Nelly’s “Country Grammar” (with it’s “Down Down Baby” chorus) would seem like a fair candidate, but definitely wasn’t one that the kids I worked with were into.

I should probably go back to my fieldnotes and make a comprehensive list of these. There’s something interesting happening.

“Tween Music Industry” article for Popular Music

My article about the current state of children’s music, “The New ‘Tween’ Music Industry: The Disney Channel, Kidz Bop, and an Emerging Childhood Counterpublic,” was recently accepted in Popular Music, published by Cambridge University Press, where it will appear in revised form. A PDF is here. Here’s the abstract:

This article examines the expansion of the U.S. children’s music industry in the last decade. It considers the sanitizing of Top 40 pop for child audiences in the Kidz Bop compilations, the entrance of Disney into the popular music market, and the meteoric rise of “tween” music products such as High School Musical, Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus, the Jonas Brothers, and Justin Bieber. Children increasingly consume mainstream musical products and, in the converse dynamic, children’s artists themselves play an increasingly prominent role in popular culture. In many ways they have taken the lead both in commercial success and in stylistic innovations. Examining public expressions of age-based solidarity among celebrity musicians associated with children, this article argues that children’s music is increasingly articulated through tropes of identity politics, representing the emergence of a childhood counterpublic.