As I shuttled my three children to swim lessons one afternoon, the back seat of the minivan finally went quiet. No more squabbling over the music, jockeying for a better seat or crying over lost goggles. This blessed moment of silence was brought to me by Kidz Bop.
Kidz Bop — for those who haven’t cared for a 4-to-10-year-old in the past two decades — is a music empire of, it touts, “today’s biggest hits sung by kids, for kids.”
And the music is, indeed, kid-friendly: All remotely risque lyrics are changed to something more, some would say, appropriate. Liquor turns into water. Champagne becomes a milkshake. Tequila becomes “nice to meet ya.” And those are just the beverages.
In the minivan, we listened to a sanitized version of the Cardi B hit “I Like It.” “They call me Cardi Bardi/Bangin’ body” became “They call us Kidz Bop/Bangin’ party”; they subbed the word “song” for both the s-word and the b-word. A chorus of sweet young voices in harmony replaced Cardi B’s signature confrontational Bronx sass.
Fine. Nobody wants 3-year-olds dropping s-bombs at preschool. But next came a rendition of “Youngblood” by 5 Seconds of Summer, and the lyrics had changed from “the day I die” to “the day I fly” and “drunk” to (sort of profoundly) “lost.”
Other lyrics that Kidz Bop has changed: “tattoo” to “hairdo”; “skull belt” to “cool belt”; “Marilyn Manson” to “we relaxin’.”
By the time we got to the pool, I was deep in thought about censorship and the nature of childhood in America.
Hating on Kidz Bop is pretty standard among parents at playgrounds. Many complaints are of the nails-on-a-chalkboard variety. But for me, the more grating part is the patronizing. It starts right there in the cutesy spelling of Kidz with a ‘z’ instead of an ‘s’ and assumes a world where children can’t handle the existence of death, tattoos or skull belts.
Is that what we want for our kids? Or should music just be what it is, art we can discuss and use to introduce ideas to our children, at the risk of them asking about tequila from the back seat?
My family listens to Kidz Bop because it’s the low-hanging fruit of musical compromise. It’s easy to find on every platform — my oldest streams it on Spotify, and my youngest grabs the CDs off the library shelf and brings them to me with his pudgy hands. I gripe about listening to twee voices singing neutered versions of the songs I really want to hear, but it beats listening to most children’s music. When my children were infants and toddlers, though, we listened to the songs from their Kindermusik classes because they loved them; I’m not a monster.
The whole reason Kidz Bop exists is as an escape hatch from fare such as “The Wheels on the Bus” and “Down By The Bay.” Literally. Kidz Bop’s origin story is that two record executives, Craig Balsam and Cliff Chenfeld, were taking their children to birthday parties where there seemed to be no middle ground between inappropriate Top 40 songs and baby folk music. They filled the market gap when they launched Kidz Bop in 2001.
Kidz Bop is now the No. 1 music brand for kids, selling more than 20 million albums and generating 3 billion streams, according to its parent company, Concord. It’s a universe that started with albums (the 40th drops in November) and has grown to include a Sirius XM channel, a YouTube channel with about 150 videos a year and the Kidz Bop World Tour, a summer-long bonanza that stops at Jiffy Lube Live in Bristow, Va., on Sunday.
For a more immersive experience, fans can pay $115 for a half-day pop-star workshop (it comes to Baltimore on Aug. 3) or visit Kidz Bop Experience at one of two international Hard Rock Hotel locations. The Kidz Bop Kids are now stars in their own right, a modern Mickey Mouse Club that helped launch the careers of Zendaya and singer and actor Ross Lynch.
Vic Zaraya, the president of Kidz Bop, explains that an in-house team of producers and musicians are the ones who adjust the lyrics. There’s no official list of topics or words that are off-limits. Rather, they use “common sense and good judgment” and almost two decades of experience to choose which of the most popular songs they can record.
“If you listen to the catalogue of 20 years, yeah, you’ll find examples of songs where it wasn’t perfect. But, in general, we do a pretty good job of getting it in the right place,” he says of the lyric changes. “If you look at our 4-to-10-year-olds, they’re pretty forgiving. They’re not like adults.”
Kidz Bop doesn’t need permission from artists to record their songs, but the original songwriters do get royalties, according to the company.
Zaraya downplays the importance of the lyrics changes in Kidz Bop adaptations and emphasizes the importance of nailing the beat, flow and style of a song. An extra challenge is that the singles they record are so new, there’s no sheet music for the musicians to work with. Kidz Bop tries to “capture a cultural moment,” Zaraya says, so when a song blows up in popularity, the Kidz Bop Kids head to the studio to lay down the track and shoot a music video.
He’s a true believer: “Haven’t your kids ever gotten out of the car but Kidz Bop is on and you’ll still listen to it?” I explained that my fandom didn’t extend that far; he took it well. Once on a long family road trip, though, out of boredom and perhaps Stockholm syndrome, I decided that the Kidz Bop version of the Pink song “Perfect” elevated the original with the addition of children singing in harmony, which sounded almost religious.
Jacob Jones, 13, is from Catonsville, Md., and has been a Kidz Bop Kid for a year (the kids are typically 10 to 14 years old). He called me from the tour bus, which was en route to that night’s concert in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. His rock-and-roll lifestyle on the Kidz Bop bus includes doing schoolwork with a tutor, practicing harmonies and playing hide-and-seek in the bunks.
“It’s great to be able to cut out all the bad words in the song,” Jacob says. “That’s what Kidz Bop is all about, is the family being able to listen to the songs without having to listen to the bad words.”
I can brush off most of the lyric changes, but “die” to “fly,” especially, is antithetical to how I parent. “Brief and true” is how I try to answer my kids’ difficult questions, and that means I’ve already gotten real with them about death, sex and Santa Claus. If they’re mature enough to ask the question, denying them a true answer feels disrespectful.
“We overwhelmingly sell kids short on their capacity to handle hard life lessons,” says Shayna Coburn, psychologist and assistant professor at Children’s National Health System. “There’s no reason to shy away from teaching your child that people die. It doesn’t mean we want to give them so much information they become terrified. But kids will experience some lesson of death at some point, even if it’s squishing a bug and realizing it’s not moving anymore.”
I had lofty ambitions for my children’s musical education during pregnancy, that aspirational and naive time. Music enriches my life daily; I want that for them, too. Songs “by kids, for kids”? Maybe if it’s the Jackson 5 singing “ABC,” I thought. I curated a playlist for my daughter of cool but kid-appropriate songs by artists such as Bob Marley, the Beatles and Van Morrison.
I even got into the “Rockabye Baby!” series, which “transforms timeless rock songs into beautiful instrumental lullabies.” My baby fell asleep to a xylophone version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” that was just the suggestion of the band that I worshipped in middle school, like a Nirvana-flavored La Croix. She fell asleep to sweet, tinkling instruments instead of Kurt Cobain screaming in her ear, “I feel stupid and contagious.” Everybody wins?
As for that playlist, the kids have enjoyed it, but they can’t listen to 50 songs on repeat forever. When we listen to Kidz Bop, I love seeing their little heads bounce to the beat when I sneak glances in the rearview mirror. I let them listen to uncensored pop music, too, though that has burned me at least once. Mortifyingly, my daughter’s teacher once brought it to my attention that she was walking around her preschool singing the Ellie Goulding song “Love Me Like You Do.” Lyrics: “Touch me like you do/what are you waiting for?”
“Censorship is not the approach we advocate for,” says Jill Murphy the editor in chief of Common Sense Media, which helps parents make age-appropriate entertainment choices for their children. “It feels like an inauthentic way to share someone’s music. It’s not editing swear words out of a movie. You’re retooling someone’s art to make it appropriate for a child.”
Murphy suggests introducing children to soundtracks, teen artists such as Grace VanderWaal who play instruments and, yes, the O.G. of children’s music: Raffi. (She does admit that listening to him “takes patience.”) Finding interesting and age-appropriate music takes time and energy, though, and can be a “heavy lift” for busy parents, Murphy says.
Silver Spring parent Katie Sheketoff loves de-stressing with her sons with impromptu Kidz Bop dance parties in the kitchen while she’s making dinner. While all the wine has turned into water, so to speak, the underlying message of a song remains.
“I do think about that a lot as we listen to Kidz Bop, how none of the lyrics are objectionable, but I don’t love the message they’re getting,” she says.
Kidz Bop recorded a version of “Tik Tok” by Kesha that maintains the party-all-night vibe, even slowing the beat way down to depict drunkenness like in the original (though they say they’re getting “silly” instead of “tipsy”). Or there’s the materialism in the Cardi B song, where she covets diamonds, luxury cars and designer clothes. For positive, empowering messages, Sheketoff prefers to play her kids Disney songs or musical theater soundtracks.
But she’s not silencing Kidz Bop completely. In fact, she hoped to take her sons to the Kidz Bop concert this weekend, but she couldn’t get any of her friends to join in.
“The response has mostly been, ‘Please never mention this in front of my child.’ ”