Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Cramp rock

Did you see what I did there two weeks ago? I really socked it to the Disney company. But did you see how I did it? I started out hitting them from the left and, by the time it was over, I was hitting them from the right. I gave it to them coming and going.

A person reading that might think I really don’t like Disney. Actually, I have a great fondness for that corporation even though they are a huge monolith and potentially evil. Some of my fondest childhood memories are tied up with their movies, cartoons, TV shows, books and theme parks. And I have gotten an additional round of vicarious enjoyment with my daughter experiencing all of that stuff.

But, as an adult, it is hard not to feel somewhat besieged by all the company’s marketing power and relentless targeting of the young, as I wrote about last year. At that time, all the hysteria was about High School Musical and its impending sequel. There is still plenty of buzz about HSM, as the second sequel which, in a strange turnabout on the usual movie pattern, will be released to cinemas even though the first two films were made directly for television. (Note: when I speak of “hysteria” and “buzz,” I am pretty much referring to a self-contained world that consists of the various Disney channels on satellite and cable and my daughter and her friends and cousins.) But, for the moment, the HSM energy seems to have been eclipsed by another musical made-for-TV movie called Camp Rock, starring another one of those pre-packaged teen idol constructions called Jonas Brothers. If you haven’t seen them (which would mean that you not only do not have children between the ages of about 6 and 18 but you don’t even know any), they can best be described as multiple attempts, with varying success, at cloning David Cassidy. Okay, that was a bit arch. These kids actually have talent, and it may not be completelyfair to stick them with the bubblegum label.

Frankly, I don’t know what passes for bubblegum pop music anymore. There was a time when bubblegum was fairly easy to spot. It was Bobby Sherman and the Partridge Family and artists like that. The boys’ hair might be a bit long (i.e. for the taste of the parents of baby boomers), but they were generally well-scrubbed and clean-cut and they weren’t the sort who would put off your parents if you brought them into the house. Another sure=fire way to know if singers were bubblegum was whether they had any association with Disney. Now that isn’t exactly fair either, since during the years Disney has hired quality musical artists in all kinds of genres for various films and TV shows, including everyone from Burl Ives (singing away in 1963’s Summer Magic) to Bobby Darin (crooning the title tune from 1965’s That Darn Cat!). But, when it came to any teenage artists (say Annette Funicello), the Disney association bespoke a squeaky-cleanness that has always been the antithesis of real rock and roll.

But the current crop of Disney teenybopper performers—e.g. Myley Cyrus (aka Hannah Montana), Ashley Tisdale and the brothers Jonas—have more edge and energy in their music than what used to be considered bubblegum. A lot of this has to do with changing times. Envelope-pushing music like rap has been co-opted and incorporated into Disney music and essentially been made safe. When listening, your toe taps despite the fact that deep down you know there is something more authentic that inspired what you are listening to. Also a bit nagging, for older listeners, is the distinct feeling that this young talent is being carefully managed by its corporate masters. Disney has wisely not tried to keep its youth entertainment stuck in the 1950s, but it has done its best to keep all aspects of the artists under the same kind of control, at least for public image purposes, as Walt himself always did. Every so often one of the tribe goes off the reservation (Vanessa Hudgens with her embarrassing photos on the internet, Cyrus with that Vanity Fair photo spread), but these things do not seem to cut short a Disney-fueled career the way they once might have. If anything, such episodes seem to give these young stars a much-needed dose of humanness, softening the picture of perfection they often project. What once would have been a scandal is now a teachable moment.

The Disney teen celebrity machine seems to be win-win. The kids seem to enjoy it, and parents can feel fairly safe with it and even join in appreciating the young stars. If there is any parental trepidation, it is from the baby boomer curse of worrying about selling out to corporate greed and inauthentic art. But these days parents are probably too caught up with what’s happening to their stock portfolios to spend much time agonizing about such things. Still, there is something relentless and wearing about the way Disney pushes its marketing creations down young consumers’ throats. On a recent weekend over at her cousins’, our Munchkin saw Camp Rock, either wholly and partially, at least three times in one evening. If you turn on any of the Disney channels, you are constantly besieged with promotions for Jonas Brothers and Camp Rock and HSM3. Older viewers (if there are any) can simply change the channel when they (quickly) get sick of it. Kids don’t seem to have the same built-in thermostat to tell them that they have been exposed to too much hype and maybe now’s a good time to hit the off switch. But, in saying this, I am just paraphrasing what earlier generation of parents said about MTV and an even earlier generation said about that loud, obnoxious rock and roll radio station their kids were always listening to.

Let’s face it. We’ve come a long way since Spin and Marty. And yet some things never change.

Speaking of things that don’t change, once again I will be in Cork for their great international film festival. Only three days to go until opening night!

-S.L., 9 October 2008

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