All Ears

Disney Dreams Up the Best Radio Station in 30 Years

THE seminal moment of the teenpop era is of course in the Clueless movie, where Cher refers to college-rock R.E.M.-crap as "mope rock," or "dope rock," or "slope rock," whatever. When Hollywood says it in a script, it's alllllllll over. Anyone who runs into Alicia Silverstone remind her, and thank her. (The movie dates from when, 1995? Pre-Spice Girls, pre-Backstreet, pre-everything. They should recut the movie with a modern soundtrack dropped in—the Valley party would be better with "Genie in a Bottle" as "our song." LFO could be on the patio playing "Summer Girls," instead of that stupid ska band.)

Anyway, if you're collecting predictions on teenpop era span, I say through Year 2010 and beyond, EASY—that would be about 15 years, total. It's a gigantic land shift like the 1964 Beatles ("rock" era), or genre-wise like "heavy metal" (30 long years, right?—the last 20 mostly useless. . . . It's gonna take 20 years of new-era vocal groups just to neutralize that). Best spinoff would be if all the "serious musicians" and "singer-songwriters" gave up and went to work at Macy's. Can you imagine how preposterous a "singer-songwriter" would've seemed in 1963, 1964? (Actually, they were called folkies then.) From what I'm told they can't dance too good.

Funny that the truest pop underground of Year 2000 turns out to be grade schoolers (the trailing half of the 1996-1999 teenpop boom), but hardly surprising. This has been threatening to happen ever since Aqua snuck through 2.5 million copies of Aquarium in 1997-98 (ALL to preteens) in America—and throw in the Spice Girls' young kid-crowd for further confusion. So who knows how it will play out? Like, in 1982, who would've ever thought MTV would mean shit? It was all videos 24/7, and every 180 minutes you'd go, "OH FUCK, they're playing Sammy Hagar's 'Three Lock Box' AGAIN." But (along with Haysi Fantayzee's assassination of Ronald Reagan) it turned out to be one of the biggest music stories of the '80s.

I've finally figured it out, though—aliens landed several years ago, and Radio Disney is their beachhead! It's all very very clear: Hook the young minds, and then later start with the subliminal messages . . . "radio for kids!" is hardly one step away from "kill your parents" backwards three times per song. Or maybe Jesuscame back, took a look around, and went, "Screw the grown-ups, I'm starting from scratch," and he'sthe PD for Radio Disney—nationally syndicated, now with actual airwave stations in about 80% of the U.S.'s largest markets including 1560 AM in New York, plus the Internet station at disney.go.com/radiodisney/?clk=11808. They're not self-supporting, so they cross-advertise other Disney sectors heavily to get their money's worth. And Web-search business articles say their demographic is mostly ages two-to-11. (Wonder what songs those two-year-olds like? The Pokémontheme??)

Station IDs/promos in chirpy grade school voices ("Radio Disney . . . We're all EARS!") that drive high schoolers and other 12-to-20s out the door screaming, but charm the heck out of parents, aunts, and uncles (that's me!). It's like the old hippie cliché, where you take that "tab of acid," walk into the next room, and BOOM! Everything's now in Technicolor! Upbeat! Happy! Wacky! YOU NEED THIS STATION! PRODUCTIVITY WILL INCREASE BY XX%!

. . . Oh man, I give up. RadioD just ran Britney Spears's "Soda Pop" (I'm thinking, "I don't hate this QUITE that much," it actually sounded OK) straight into the Beatles' "I Want to Hold Your Hand," and neither song blinked. That Beatles song can sound reallllll good when set up properly. (Fake reggae into exploding guitar—in 1964, Millie Small would have been the lead-in.) Thirty minutes later, Little Eva's "The Loco-Motion" is on the Disney deck (yesterday they played Kylie Minogue's), and not too long after, the Stones'—I mean Britney's—" . . .Baby One More Time" into "Yakety Yak" from 1958.

I'm just jotting down the non-current-Top 30 tunes that spring out ('60s, '70s, and '80s), which keep getting more wack/astounding with each additional hour. Lots of novelty and dance songs spanning the last 40 years of hit radio . . . everything from "Yellow Submarine" to "Cars" by Gary Numan to a deranged version of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," and over to "The Curly Shuffle" and "Do the Bartman" and Alvin & the Chipmunks disco ("Turn the Beat Around"). Lots of KC on weekends. And TONS of vintage Weird Al, this station/core audience's Numero Uno all-time act, sort of their parallel universe Beatles. (Hey, "I Want a New Duck" rocks!)

The most surreal segue I've heard on Disney so far is the Contours' "Do You Love Me" (certainly one of my Top 10 or 20 dance songs ever) right into "We Like to Party" by my beloved doofus Vengaboys: classic DJ synergy, where a great track makes an adjoining one sound better (and "We Like to Party" back on CHR-pop was truly annoying). Then there's the greatest pop sequence I've ever heard on commercial radio in my entire life: Toy-Box's "Tarzan and Jane" cavorting into the Backstreet Boys' fantab "I Want It That Way" sliding into the Archies' epochal "Sugar Sugar." "My Boyfriend's Back" and "I Got You (I Feel Good)" sandwiched around 'N Sync's new single (very catchy!). The Jetsons TV theme song, Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti," and the Isleys' "Shout," right next to Christina Aguilera, that damned Vengas bus, and the BSBoys. Joan Jett's glorious "Summertime Blues" hyperdrive Ramonesola, on a Monday afternoon! An insanely cute modern techno-ballad (movie track?) of Rosie and the Originals' "Angel Baby." The Happy Daystheme, sounding as goofy as in 1976. Girl-pop-rock heaven: "Boys Will Be Boys" from the swell TLC-meets-new-wave 1998 Beyond Pink Barbie album. The great Clueless TV theme song (written by the Go-Gos' Charlotte Caffey), full version(can I buy this somewhere??), into Elvis's "Hound Dog." (Charlotte Caffey back-to-back with Scotty Moore? Don't think that's ever happened before on radio in this galaxy.)

An amazing playlist, I'm telling you, almost freeform! Plus their modern Top 30 is 100% hyper teenpop, simple as that—sometimes eight of the top 21 Disney chart slots are Backstreet or Britney. (On the Web page disney.go.com/radiodisney/?loc=Top30, you can play or download samples of most of the hits, if you have Real Player on your PC. And the most requested songs are compiled now, on two Radio Disney JamsCDs.) The square Top 40 scene is still polluted with creaky Celine/Mariah dinosaurs and snooze r&b and horrid faux-"rock" bands NOT heard on RadioDiz—Blink 182, Foo Fighters, etc., mercifully DON'T EXIST!! But they just played "Hand Jive" by what's his name (Johnny Otis?). . . . Why? They're trying to pass down the Diddley-beat? Or does that beat count as novelty? And they play "One Way or Another" regularly, too—the Sabrinaversion. Nuts.

Or 8 p.m. prime time, the Ramones' "Surfin' Bird"—guitars are obviously allowed if it's a "novelty song," Melissa Joan Hart included, so I figure Disney was just checking if the kids were paying attention. (I've heard them play the much superior Trashmen version several times.) "Crocodile Rock," "Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye," "Twist and Shout" by the Beatles, "We Will Rock You," 1910 Fruitgum Co.'s "Simon Says" (!), the eternally swank "Green Onions," SSledge's "We Are Family," all alternating in barely an hour's time with the week's current Top 30 fab hit teenpop sounds of BritneyChristinaBSBoysMandy'NSyncLFOVenga-boysRickyMLouBegaEiffel65, all of whom completely hold their own in context. I heard the tail end (1965-66) of "screaming Top 40" radio in eighth or ninth grade, and it was cool—but not as cool as this! In '65 we just had the Beatles; oldies only on "oldies weekend," and they sounded silly back-to-back with Them or the Yardbirds or whoever.


The best thing about the teenpop era is that we're back to 1956 or '57 in the pre-Beatles(= pre-guitar bands) era, musically speaking. Wiped the slate clean and started fucking over, back to when vocals meant something and had room to breathe. And those two million rock bands who've wasted everyone's time for the last 30 years are extinct as surely as Bobby Vee or Rydell were back in 1964, when that same initially swell "rock era" began courtesy of the Beatles. (You seriously think some 10-year-old's gonna listen to the Eagles or Fleetwood Mac? Not to mention U2 or R.E.M. or . . . ) Until 1966 and artsy rock (Revolver),NO ONE but teenagers bought/followed rock and roll; it was a very small, self-contained, nutty little universe, with novelty records (or death tunes, sort of the same thing) every 30 minutes on the AM. Not unlike what the preteens seem to have going during this, their magic bubble of time.

All across the world—for a year now!—thousands of girls (ages 5 to 15?) have been screwing around in front of their moms' big mirrors, going, "I could do this!" Britney is their '65 Stones, i.e., the blueprint from which thousands copied ('65 Stones spawning roughly 66.7% of all 1966 garage bands). This current stuff's the best Top 40 girlpop since 1962-63, and MAYBE BETTER. 'Cause the beats are better, and there's even more diversity of "styles," white to black to Euro to domestic. ('60s girl groups being one of my favorite rock genres ever—they could really fuckin' sing—but they relied on a few too many lame, uninterested session drummers, once you got past Phil Spector's and David Gates's productions.) On the Disney AM, the "Drive Me Crazy" Stop remix is as relentless as "Satisfaction" in 1965 (meaning they play it constantly), altho I much prefer Britney's rhythm track.

And Backstreet get mega-all-hits rotation about equal to the Beatles of back then, so that's about a draw (Beatles—better songs; BSB—better beats). Harmony vocals are cool. Dancing is cool, always has been. I never had a problem with "I Want It That Way" being the greatest song of the century, but I'm getting into it after the fact. Which reminds me of my hostile initial reactions to at least two previous giant changings-of-the-guards in pop/rock: (1) the "heavy rock" of 1970, right before Sabbbath/realmetal happened . . . I HATED the stuff, as a '60s fan cranky about all the '60s bands going lame or worse. First couple times "Iron Man" came up early summer 1971 on latenite FM, me and my brother snickered, like, "how DUMB is this?" But by the fourth time we were air-banging our heads like Beavis and Butt-head. . . . It just happened, no conscious rethink involved. And (2) I REALLY hated the Ramones and '70s punk for one-entire-year-plus (from the first Ramones LP right up till the first Generation X album, 1978 U.S. version, which rocked hard enough to pull in us suburban metalheads). I mean, I wanted to KILL them; that's how much their brand-new take on rock offended my ears. I remember watching the Ramones' Don Kirshner Rock Concert 15-minute segment when it aired, and hating every single second.

So, it's hardly any surprise that I hated the BSB for a good while. . . . I was looking at them and not listening. But now that I'm hearing them constantly in the Radio Disney context, their best songs (without the irritating videos to distract) do indeed sound like a true refraction of the pre-Beatles white vocal groups. Who I think is a really great lead singer is the white guy who parts his hair in the middle—Nick, with the highest-pitched voice. He REALLY has the Belmonts vibe, sings like he MEANS it. Without a hint of retro on the surface, BSB are the first act since December 1963 to be a white male vocal group and be "cool." (Trust me, the minute the Beatles landed at the airport, Frankie Valli/4 Seasons were the epitome of anti-cool.) 35+ years is quite a stretch. In the Beatles' heyday, backing up 35 years would've taken you before swing music.

In 1962-63, the smart kids wouldn't touch the rock scene; they were off playing Coltrane or blues or ethnic folk and being beatniks. Likewise, Joni Mitchell (promoting some stupid cover song album) was in the paper last month grousing about "talentless puff figure" teenpop singers, and Rolling Stoneand Spinthese days run plenty of quotes from '80s rock fossils claiming, "MTV doesn't even play videos anymore!" Uh, sure—since Total Request Live = late '50s American Bandstandas a gonzo über-pop cultural touchstone, I guess Bandstandmust NOT've played music. . . . It was just a mass cultural delusion. And the all-teen audience was a bunch of dozing sheep, just like the half-asleep bad-white-dancer kids in the Bandstandfootage. (Twelve-year-old girls, ah, they're silly little kids, and they buy that silly music like, y'know, Elvis and the Beatles, and [their own kidlets] Madonna. I mean, where're the moog solos? The guitar jams? Some REAL music, y'know?) (Wonder what "real music" was in 1956—bebop??) BUT 38+YRS ONWARD, man, you get the total impression that the teenpop audience is culturally SHARP. Computer kids. The little elementary schoolers who call up the Radio Disney phone lines throw back one-liners as fast as any screaming 1965 AM jock. RDisney's weekly "mailbag" segment, where they play the new feature song of the week and dozens of listeners get to call in on-air (between subsequent songs) and voice their opinions, has more insightful comments than a roomful of rock critics high on Sterno. The record? Madonna's "American Pie." Sample comments? "I liked it 'cause it reminded me of Weird Al and he's my all-time favorite act!" "It's STUPID . . . it's sooooo messed up." "It's awesome! Better than the '50s original." Madonna just barely passed, favorable-over-unfavorable. Good thing they didn't play Pearl Jam.

I'm guessing this station would add .5 to anyone's GPA just as homework music. And the type of format Disney is pushing definitely makes it cool for boys to listen to their sisters' radio hits, too. But what % of actual genre sales are going to boys, and what acts would a 10-year-old boy like? Novelty songs? Sure can't imagine the real-life Stan and Kyle—who don't really like girls yet (so scratch Mandy and Brandy and Britney and . . . )—liking 'N Sync. But "Mambo No. 5" and "Blue," hell yeah. You'll recall that much of the youngest part of the mid-'60s pop audience gave us (my distant memory is flickering) punk/new wave—like, that great story about the Ramones trying to play "Indian Giver" upon forming, but it sounded like shit, so they just had to write their own attempted bubblegum songs instead. Well, I bet you my 401(k) the average really sharp eighth-grade boy would be trying to write a song like LFO right now—including to impress the girls! (You know it's a happening scene when the second-tier groups have great songs in them. Rich's lyrics on "Summer Girls" and "Girl on TV" are all-universe.) The kid'd be bright enough to figure out that the retard-rock-rap Woodstock-mosh stuff is duller than death. . . . It'd take about two seconds of watching dimwits à la Fred Durst to arrive at that conclusion, obviously.

So whoever Disney's PD is, is a stone genius. Alan Freed, in 1954, only had current r&b cross-over breakthrough trends to work with and help mold. Disney's PD is taking 40 YEARS of the pop/dance/novelty side of rock music and mixing it into an artistic statement. And phone call-ins HAVE to be a certain % of their feedback/input, once a pre-1996 song has been played once. (Can you imagine an eight-year-old going into a big all-formats mom-and-pop store and asking where he could find "Yummy Yummy Yummy"? They'd have a coronary.) Maybe Disney's PD was traumatized by hippie CSN&Y-lovin' parents, and the station is revenge? What goes around comes around, ya fuckin' pothead doobie-smoking mellow fellow granolahead deadheads.

Underground? Check this: On Disney's Sunday February 6 Top 30 Countdown, those Swede wackokids the A*Teens' unspeakably great and happy-feet-inducing bubble-techno-pop Abba remake "Mamma Mia" was a breakout hit, up five to #22. Melancholic words? No problem, run it over with the happy truck. I checked the week's Billboardtwo blocks over from loading up the month's canned goods and bathroom groceries, and "Mamma Mia" wasn't even in the pop Top 100. The A*Teens' "Dancing Queen"—also not in Billboard yet—EXPLODED on Disney, jumping from #27 to #10 in a week. Now it's inescapable: Wake up in the morning, it will find you. Come home from work, it has followed you. RD's playlist is a mile ahead of national CHR-pop on ALL the teenpop stuff (Hanson's new single every hour on the hour!), kinda like Murray the K breaking the Supremes' (total loser act till then) "Where Did Our Love Go" nationally out of his New York powerhouse show back in the days of classic Top 40. Keeping up with the pop underground could become a full-time job.

In fact, if Billie Joe of Green Day were truly the genius I've always claimed, he'd write a song about teenpop music, and make it funny, not sarcastic. "Getting High With Backstreet"—that'd make Green Day Dylan to the BSBs' Beatles. "One night I died/I got so high/And at the gates were Backstreet/They said you've got to dance/Like pigs a-squealin'/Sing like you mean it/With extra feelin'/I went to hell/And I don't care/I went to hell/And guess who's there/Singing I want it that way/I got it that way/Counting money for eternity/Printing contracts for you and me." Very last chorus refrain: "I got high with Backstreet/I got high with Backstreet/I got high with Backstreet/And I don't care."

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