Do Squeaky-Clean Child Pop Stars Even Matter Anymore?
I didn’t belong there. That fact was abundantly clear. If I wasn’t tipped off by the parents who winced at me dead-eyed as I stood behind their bedazzled progeny, it was probably the box-office clerk who asked me thrice, “One? Just one ticket... One?” when I exchanged my hard-earned cash for admittance into the concert of a ten-year old rapper named Matty B.
My shame was most definitely felt as I was then escorted by one of the venue’s mute employees to the highly coveted front-row-center seat. I glanced to my neighbors and found a sleepy four-year-old leaning on her overweight mother, and before they could question my presence I was off into the crowd, desperate for a read.
Were these hundreds of children about to attend their own personal Beatlemania? The glittery signs and homemade T-shirts were certainly a hint in the right direction, but there was something off. Beyond the weird cavernous ‘off-hours’ feeling a music venue has during the light of day, the tone of this concert was met with equal-parts confusion and compliance. As if to say, “Should we have a good time? We should have a good time.” These kids could’ve been anywhere.
I leaned against the bar, nibbling on the tip of my beer cup and thinking about the Spice Girls. For me, they were the thriving heartbeat behind every slumber party, the basis of our elementary school playground games, the soundtrack to our young impressionable lives. It is my belief that every young child deserves their own Spice Girls—the pop celebrities that give kids famous imaginary friends and an excuse to assert your own music taste in post-soccer car rides. I assumed Matty B was this to the hundreds of kids surrounding me, but something seemed off.
I found a kindred spirit in the Matty B merch guy whose mutual exhaustion spoke to me. He similarly stood out, and through his wispy beard strained to seem stoked to be peddling pastel-hued fanny-packs. “So, have you been touring with Matty B this entire time?” The guy shrugged his shoulders, “To be honest, I’ve never heard of him before today. I work for the merch company, not for the artists themselves. I just show up where they tell me to show up.”
He didn’t seem startled in the slightest that a grown-ass woman was there solo. He didn’t seem to know where he was, but he did bring light to the general lack of fanfare received from the adults in charge. For them, it was just another day on the job—which I partly expected, but the lack of acknowledgment that this kid was anything close to a pop sensation was weird to me.
The tween crowd waited with bored anticipation as the opening act took the stage. A fourteen-year-old who dressed nineteen sang cover after cover of Selena Gomez songs and struggled to get a rise out of the joint. She contained a bubblegum sweetness that left a murky residue in the mouths of all who remembered the ‘90s. Pausing before every chorus shouting a rehearsed, “Y’all havin’ fun tonight?” to a crowd that politely raised their arms with a half-assed “Wooooo,” I sensed just how far off this was on the rock ’n’ roll map. As if that were not enough, her DJ sidekick's nodding joylessly to the beat of the music really “took it to the next lev.”
Why was it nap time for this audience? I had anticipated the chaotic glass-shattering atmosphere that only occurs when more than five little girls are gathered in a room. Instead, I saw slumped-over children, parents with a glazed stare, little girls sitting poised with their Matty B signs waiting for the signal to begin having their good time. This certainly wasn’t the atmosphere I'd imagined would accompany a room full of young girls attending the concert of one of their tween idols.
Finally, the big moment approached: the lights dimmed as a black-and-white portrait of the star shone brightly on a projector screen. A countdown began to toll as his backup dancers took their places. For a moment, I felt transported to an elementary school auditorium, about to bear witness to the most lavish fourth-grade Talent Show there ever was.
The first thing I noticed was Matty B’s “posse,” a handful of kids ages seven to 12 who popped ’n’ locked and fumbled through other breakdancey-like moves. It was as if they had just been picked up from a Gymboree dance class and shuttled over in one of those minivans where every member of the family was represented in sticker form.
Matty B began his set with a couple of his original songs, something about wanting to hang out with his friends but having to do chores. You know, shit we can all relate to. He’s a normal kid, this Matty B, not one of them ‘big city rappers,’ like his voting-age peers.
My favorite dancer emerged in the form of a tiny African American kid who swagged with his oversized dreads and obediently waited for his cue onstage, even if it lagged a little from the rest of the posse. If I was recasting The Little Rascals, I’d have found my Buckwheat.
I became fixated on the scope of ages present: A five-year-old who seemed to hold excitement within five minute spurts. A fourteen-year-old was only half aware that she was quickly fading out of the appropriate age bracket. An eager father dressed all in pink stood apart as an anomaly to the crowd of consenting adults. More on him: Was he gregariously dressed to gain the enthusiasm of his spawn? Was he alone—like me? Does Matty B remind him of the son he never had? I wish I knew the answers.
Covers were a big theme throughout the afternoon, as the young girl pop singer returned to the stage to sing yet another Top 40 hit. It was as if the fame machine moved so fast into town and the parents of these ministars pushed them in so hastily, producing original music never even occurred to them. It used to be that you paid your dues by learning to write your own music, parading your malleable persona in front of a team of managers and record labels. Now all you need is a checkbook and a gimmick, and this kid’s is slowly slipping with each birthday.
A lot of the songs performed were G-rated versions of pop hits, similar to the popular CD series, “Kidz Bop” where the lyrics were swapped out. Justin Bieber’s, “If I Were Your Boyfriend,” was cleverly switched to, “If I Was Your Best Friend” to make it more age-appropriate. Though, with the recent Miley Cyrus reputation-burning VMAs performance, one wonders if there is a sustainability and need for squeaky-clean pop stars. Do these kids realize that this may be a waiting room for a latex-bikini phase? Do the parents thank the heavens that their kid is here and not at a Lady Gaga concert? Perhaps that’s what motivated the enthusiasm of the elaborately dressed father in pink; or the families that dressed in homemade shirts with Matty B’s face ironed on. Maybe we do need a kid like Matty after all, to pose the other side of the argument. At least, until puberty hits.
I left during the last song in an attempt to avoid the rush of families. I quickly caught the attention of the Merch Guy as I left. “Where’s your next stop?” He sighed, “Atlanta. Some kid who was reblogged by a famous rapper. I dunno. It’s weird.” I nodded like I knew what he was talking about. Like I was a part of "the biz" somehow. “See ya around.” I lied, making my way to the exit.
As I walked out, I felt a billion miles away from the earth-shattering excitement a little girl feels over finding her first “pop idol.” In my opinion, these new kids they got driving the bus can’t possibly hold a candle to the five girl-power goddesses I desperately tried to emulate. In truth, behind every tween idol is a Merch Guy who doesn’t know what the fuck is going on. In every concert venue is a group of girls who follow suit in their admiration robotically, and some that bide their time by napping until their parent’s “Sunday day out,” commences over curly fries. The players have changed, but the game is just the same.
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