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Disney kids: The hot commodity

 

Jesseka Kadylak

Observer Staff
April 16, 2008

 

Many young musicians’ careers start in the Disney system. The Jonas Brothers, whose music videos are featured in between programming on the Disney channel, caught a break this past fall by opening for fellow Disney star Miley Cyrus, better known as Hannah Montana. The band’s self-titled album debuted at No. 5 on the Billboard charts, and the album and single maintain on the charts as they prepare for a 38-date summer tour kicking off July 4.

If the band’s name does not ring a bell, do not fret. The Jonas Brothers are only “the next big thing” for “tweens” according to music critics and fans.

12-year-old Phoebe Langdon of Syracuse, N.Y., said that the band is her favorite for two reasons.

“My friends like them,” she said, “and because of their looks.”

Most of the bands she likes are from the Disney channel she said.

Phoebe’s mother agrees that her daughter watches Disney and enjoys the music acts that are featured, but she said the acts are corny and that Disney’s marketing plans seem dishonest.

“It’s unethical – it’s more about the product than the music,” Virginia Langdon, 41, of Syracuse, N.Y., said. “It’s all merchandising, from hairbrushes to clothing lines. The music is kind of the second part of it.”

The way Disney markets its acts strikes a sour note for some people because the focus is not on the musician as a performer, but as a product, according to an entertainment critic and editor at cleveland.com.

“It’s totally about the product – and the related merchandise,” said Nate Paige, who also covers and reviews concerts for a living. “That’s where the big money is made.”

Disney is all about the marketing and the cross-promotion according to Paige.

“I doubt that Disney ever does anything ‘just because.’ The bottom line is always the priority,” Paige said.

The Disney channel prides itself as “commercial free,” but Kathryn Montgomery, acting associate dean and American University professor, begs to differ.

“Disney says ‘We don’t have commercials,’ but it’s all one big commercial for [them],” Montgomery said. “It’s extremely profitable for them.”

The Jonas Brothers were awarded their first Gold (500,000 copies sold) and Platinum (1 million sold) certifications for their self-titled album on Hollywood Records for sales as of January 2008, according to the Recording Industry Association of America—the organization that grants the accreditation.

Even though Disney, technically, does not have commercial breaks, the cross promotion functions the same way. The company tends to keep it in the family by taking actors from Disney shows, putting them in made-for-television movies and then offering them a record deal.

For example, Ashley Tisdale started acting in Disney’s original series “The Suite Life of Zack & Cody.” In 2006 she starred as Sharpay Evans in the Disney Channel original movie, “High School Musical”—a role that she reprised in the sequel and will play again in “High School Musical 3,” which will have a theatrical debut. In 2007 Tisdale released her solo debut album on Warner Bros. Records. Although her full-length album is not on Disney’s Hollywood Records, she is a part of the Disney Channel Circle of Stars, which remixes Disney songs on the Disney label. And to prove she is the full Disney package, Tisdale even has a doll in her likeness, according to her Web site.

Because Disney is a huge franchise it does not have to go beyond the cross-promotion described above to get the word out about its acts, according to Montgomery who is also the author of “Generation Digital: Politics, Commerce, and Childhood in the Age of the Internet ” and a former media policy advocate.

“They sort of manufacture star material along certain lines,” Montgomery said. “It’s somewhat formulaic.”

She said that musicians like the Jonas Brothers are the “Disney Brand” because they are cast into predictable, wholesome roles.

Disney has mastered the technique of “hooking” kids early with music, movies, and TV programming, Paige added. The material is kind of fluffy, and there is tongue-in-cheek humor associated with it, which is why Paige said he thinks the children enjoy Disney acts.

“Disney is the icon of childhood,” Montgomery said. “Disney defines childhood in American culture.”

The wholesome look, the good messages and the focus on family life are what draws children and parents alike to the “Disney Brand” according to Montgomery.

Not only are Disney acts more successful because of their wholesome looks, but contestants on American Idol are as well, according to Paige.

“It’s pretty much the way things are now,” Paige said. “If you don’t fit the mold, and don’t appear to possess ‘good-old-fashioned American values’ your chances are pretty slim. A perfect example is ‘American Idol.’ Most recently, David Hernandez was a shoe-in to make it into the finals – until his past occupation as a stripper came into play. Now he’s been voted off.”

Paige is right, especially when it comes to the “Disney Brand.” The company wants its stars to embody its label of wholesomeness, according to a July 24, 2006, “Newsweek” article.

Disney “looks at more than how well a kid can perform,” the article said. “Casting is as much about personal character as it is about talent.”

The purpose of casting on a “look” more so than talent is also a marketing scheme Paige said.

“Simon Cowell always mentions whether contestants have the ‘look’ or not,” Paige said referring again to “American Idol.”

“If you’re not appealing to the eye, your PR camp would have that much more difficulty marketing you. Have you ever seen a fat Mouseketeer? I haven’t. And if Disney does cast a fat and/or unattractive child, it’s usually specifically for that reason – on both humorous and sympathetic levels,” she said.

He said that certain skills can be worked on after the fact.

“A new performer can always be taught to dance, and if their vocals aren’t the best, lip synching/singing to pre-recorded tracks is always an option,” Paige said, but there is no class in wholesomeness.

“A few years ago, I listened to Radio Disney regularly while driving – when Britney [Spears’] ‘Oops, I Did It Again’ was a big hit,” Paige said.

“Britney’s songs were in very heavy rotation, but eventually, the station removed the line ‘I’m not that innocent’ from the song. I have no way of knowing the reason, but I wouldn’t be surprised if parents were complaining…that lyric goes against what image Disney tries to promote. I think that was the beginning of Disney distancing themselves from Ms. Spears.”

Spears is now a part of the good-kids-gone-bad in the eyes of Langdon. Luckily, she said, her children—she is a mother of four—aren’t interested in any acts that have moved on from Disney because “they get kind of raunchy” and plastered on the tabloids.

In addition to the family-oriented disposition of Disney acts playing a major role in their success, Paige said the fact that people simply trust Disney helps.

“Parents TRUST Disney. If it’s got the Disney stamp of approval, then there’s really no reason to question content [or] morals,” Paige said. “Disney, especially in its early days, has always been a promoter of wholesome family entertainment. If it was a Disney product, there was rarely any question about its family-friendliness or immoral content; even if it was good versus evil (their trademark), in most cases, the evil was never really scary enough to upset children.”

As a child, Paige said he was taken to any Disney film he wanted to see because much of the entertainment was family-based the family unit was much stronger back then.

The family-friendly Jonas Brothers’ first album was released on Columbia Records, but the label dropped the band after the album flopped. Since being picked up by Disney’s Hollywood Records, the group has been rising up the charts. The Brothers’ self-titled album has been on Billboard’s Comprehensive Albums chart for 35 weeks, and the band has a new album coming out in August according to the Jonas’ online merchandise store. The trio will make a stop in the District during the summer tour on August 18, with ticket prices ranging from $84 to $402, according to ticketsnow.com.

Some may wonder if the Jonas Brothers are only successful due to the Disney backing. It is a crazy business according to Montgomery, but Paige said he wouldn’t be surprised.

“By having the Disney backing, an actor is stamped ‘pre-approved and family-friendly,’ so it seems easier to have a successful childhood career,” Paige said.

Even though the ticket prices are “outrageous” according to Paige, he said parents are willing to spend that money again because they trust Disney.

None of Langdon’s three children own any Disney artist CD’s, but she said that she would not be opposed to buying them one if they asked.

Disney has been around for a long time, building its family-friendly image, according to the company history on Disney’s Web site.

“For more than eight decades, the name Walt Disney has been preeminent in the field of family entertainment,” the site states.

The fans’ parents were children who also grew up with Disney according to Montgomery. She said “Disney Brand” stars are not a new fad; they have been following an old model.

Annette Funicello who started out as a Disney Mouseketeer — “unquestionably the best known” according to Disney’s site — went on to make beach movies with fellow teen idol Frankie Avalon. Even Kurt Russell has Disney beginnings, with movies like “The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes” and “The Strongest Man in the World.”

Both Montgomery and Paige agree there is a similar formula in the past and present Disney acts and that it is hard for these stars to shed the innocence and cuteness, but that it is possible. One example is Hilary Duff whose career began on Disney’s “Lizzie McGuire.”

“The difference now is that nearly everything is initially done on a global scale, thanks largely to the Internet [and] mp3s,” Paige said. “The instant accessibility we have now doesn’t compare to the exposure they had back then. A perfect example is Justin Timberlake – from Mouseketeer to singer to actor – seemingly with the greatest of ease. He’s proof that it is possible, but he’s playing on a much grander scale of success than Frankie and Annette.”

Some stars have a better time than others breaking out as adults according to Montgomery.

“I do think there is a legacy if you start out on that channel,” Montgomery said. But she said that she does not think that the “Disney Brand” is a curse that cannot be shed.

Paige agrees that some stars have a hard adjustment, but said they must attempt to reinvent themselves in order to succeed.

“I think no matter how big they become, no one ever forgets their Disney beginnings,” Paige said. “Yes, a lot of them do have trouble adjusting once they outgrow the childhood ‘cuteness’ – in some cases, they are literally discarded like an unwanted item. That has to be difficult to experience.”

The lucky stars that make it to the next level then have to work on keeping fans, according to Paige.

“I think fans follow their idols—to a point,” Paige said. “Eventually, most fans outgrow whatever it is that attracted them in the first place, which is why performers have to constantly re-invent themselves.”

Like 12-year-old Phoebe, Paige also described the Jonas Brothers as the “next big thing.”

Hugely successful bands appear to have a short life span, and their fan base—largely adolescent and, in some cases, pre-adolescent girls—is locked in from junior high through high school, Paige said. But as the fan base matures, interest wanes, and those bands lose momentum, and this is the curse of the “next big thing” artists Paige added.

It’s “just like Hanson was a generation ago, and Nelson a decade before that. It’s all cyclical,” Paige said about the former “next big thing” groups. “Certain acts just happen to strike at the right time – either offering something new, or a gimmick that’s too catchy to ignore – and it propels them into mega-stardom.”

Both Hanson and Nelson fizzled out after their first albums, according to Billboard charts, although both groups attempted to sustain their careers. Hanson’s only No. 1 single was “Mmmbop” from the band’s first album, and “After the Rain,” Nelson’s first record was the bands only album to make it on to the Billboard charts.

This leaves one question in mind when it comes to the Jonas Brothers: what does the future hold for today’s “next big thing?”

 

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