The Kidz Are All Right

That’s what Kidz Bop promises parents, with more and more sanitized versions of pop hits.

Kidz Bop Kidz Matt, Grant, Bredia and Ashlynn.
Kidz Bop kidz Matt, Grant, Bredia, and Ashlynn.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Taylor Hill/Getty Images.

Of course you know “Bad Blood.” Taylor Swift’s song has spent a considerable amount of time in the cultural consciousness: It was quickly identified as a rejoinder in Swift’s ongoing feud with Katy Perry, its video’s parade of cameos helped it set a Vevo viewership record, it rose to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, and was even the lead single from Ryan Adams’ recording of Swift’s 1989 album. And yet the cultural cycle of “Bad Blood” wasn’t complete until the song was sung for kids, by kids.

Or, rather, by kidz. Kidz Bop has become one of the most powerful brands in music, translating contemporary pop hits into kid-friendly versions since 2000. As the company’s 30th numbered compilation album hits stores, it’s worth looking at how its mission has evolved. The Kidz Bop rendition of “Bad Blood,” just released on Kidz Bop 30, sounds a little different from Swift’s original. The song is stripped of its central metaphor, with any reference to being “stabbed in the back” removed; the bridge is also adjusted such that instead of “Band-Aids don’t fix bullet holes,” the song suggests “Band-Aids don’t fix, don’t you know?” In their efforts to sanitize popular music, Kidz Bop’s rewrites often operate in opposition to basic principles of rhyme and meter, believing that making songs safe is more important than songs making complete sense.

The idea of editing songs for suggestive content is not exclusive to Kidz Bop: Labels often create their own radio edits to address similar issues and make their music more accessible to wider audiences, such that Kidz Bop has contributed to what ethnomusicologist Tyler Bickford frames as a “spectrum of appropriateness” across versions of popular songs. But if we isolate Kidz Bop’s versions of songs from Swift’s album 1989, we see lyric changes that go well beyond the traditional scope of a radio edit. “Blank Space,” “Style,” and “Bad Blood” are all songs about adult relationships, so it is not surprising that Kidz Bop would make adjustments; the company has been swapping out problem words—heck for hell, pretty for sexy, etc.—since its early albums. But these Swift singles go deeper than replacing God with gosh in “Blank Space,” or removing the “lights are off, he’s taking off his coat” section of “Style.”

Some have treated these lyric changes as an ongoing joke, and they can admittedly be funny in an absurdist way. But the brand is becoming increasingly, oddly conservative. Gone from both “Style” and “Bad Blood” are any mentions of red lips; as recently as 2010’s Kidz Bop 18, lipstick remained in the company’s version of Train’s “Hey Soul Sister,” meaning its potential danger to young listeners is a recent decision. Each Kidz Bop recording must adhere to a worldview the brand’s managers deem suitable for young audiences, but that worldview is constantly changing: Kidz Bop, once simply satisfied to strip popular music of blatantly suggestive material, is increasingly removing from hit songs any semblance of cultural meaning that disrupts the identity-free world the company’s promising to concerned parents.

Kidz Bop has faced such criticism before, drawing complaints in 2011 for removing the explicit references to issues of sexuality, race, and ethnicity from Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way.” But in light of the brand’s growing conservatism, it’s not shocking that Kidz Bop’s values would shy away from addressing issues of identity and struggle in contemporary society. While we could identify these as “post-identity” politics (post-feminist, post-racial, etc.), here they are closer to “pre-identity” politics, operating under the belief that kids should not yet be dealing with these issues. Kidz Bop is in a position to help introduce meaningful concerns regarding social and cultural identity to children, in a media space where these ideas could be raised productively, but doing so threatens their reputation as a safe space for even the most protective parents. So although the body-positive message of Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” managed to survive the Kidz Bop translation process, other instincts are more protective than productive, as when Swift’s “tight little skirt” in “Style” gets turned into “favorite shirt,” as though even the idea of a “favorite skirt” is too risqué.

This conservatism is also uneven. The version of Nick Jonas’ “Jealous” on Kidz Bop 28 removes the use of “hellish” but retains the notion the narrator has “the right to be jealous” of his partner. And although Andy Grammer’s “Honey, I’m Good” is stripped of the possibility he “could probably have another [woman]” and that he “might not leave alone” on Kidz Bop 29, the song is still at its core a reminder of the gaggle of girls the narrator could have if not for his devotion to his existing partner. Whereas lipstick and skirts are too suggestive, these themes fit comfortably in the Kidz Bop value system, which fails to extend beyond the most basic of conservative impulses to think about breaking down the worldviews baked into these songs and others.

The conservatism at the heart of such edits is undoubtedly a matter of perspective—many parents would applaud these choices, which theoretically remain in line with the original brand mission. Created by record executives Craig Balsam and Cliff Chenfeld after realizing the challenge of finding kid-appropriate music that parents could tolerate, Kidz Bop set out to “take the edge off [pop songs] a little bit so that parents and kids both feel comfortable.” But in the beginning, that edge had very little to do with lyrics. In the first Kidz Bop compilation album, the “edge” of popular music was defined as the adult voices singing the songs, rather than their content, which is why a backing chorus of children was added: Shania Twain’s “That Don’t Impress Me Much” was still invested in staying warm in the middle of the night, and the subject of Ricky Martin’s “Livin’ La Vida Loca” has “devil red” lips and is still “like a bullet to your brain,” despite the chorus of preteens screaming along with the adult lead vocal (and rendering the earlier albums nigh unlistenable).

A former Kidz Bop marketing coordinator who hosted a Reddit “Ask Me Anything”  in 2013 had “no idea” who rewrote the lyrics to the songs he was marketing, and a recent Bloomberg profile of the company offered no further insight into the company’s rewriting process. It’s possible that the 2009 switch to a recurring group of young people as the face of the brand—rather than a random chorus of kids backing up adult vocalists—has increased concerns over song content. However, it may just be the simple fact that Kidz Bop has always been a market-driven enterprise, mining the creativity of others and transforming it into mini-movies, merchandise, YouTube channels, and concert tours. Whatever changes the brand has made over the years have been made in response to the market, whether concerned over increased competition from Radio Disney or YouTube, or simply realizing that there was more money to be made by restricting the brand’s worldview even further.

The Oct. 16 release of Kidz Bop 30 marked a key milestone, with the arrival of the brand’s first original song, “Make Some Noise.” As Kidz Bop’s first effort at creating—rather than translating—music for kids, the single offers insight into what it would like popular music to be. Its lyrics instruct kids on how to clap their hands above their heads, with the promise to continue making the song’s eponymous request “until the whole room’s jumpin’.” It contains vague gestures toward kids embracing their individuality, but only through the universal language of dance, a popular replacement for sexual topics in the rest of the brand’s catalog. It is the Kidz Bop ideal: bouncy and vacuous, devoid of meaning beyond encouraging the crowds of young kids to dance along to the beat.

But the pop songs that Kidz Bop transforms will never be the empty vessels of rhythm the brand wants them to be. No matter how conservative the brand’s lyric changes become, contemporary music will always contain deeper, richer cultural meaning. Kidz Bop is building an empire selling parents on the idea they’re capable of removing it.