Pop Cultural Mimesis and Neoliberal Propaganda: A Marxist Critique of KidzBop, Part One
This piece began as a satirical essay titled KidzBop Remakes Ranked According to Their Level of Subtle Neoliberal Capitalist Propaganda. But after rereading Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, for reasons completely unrelated to the writing of that essay, I felt compelled to approach my critiques of the brand through multiple lenses instead of one that is primarily humor-based. Though, all things considered, my choice to spend an exorbitant amount of time immersed in the KidzBop universe during a global pandemic might seem funny to some people.
Initially, my current interest in KidzBop — that differs greatly from my general interest in the brand’s productions when I was a child — amused me, too, but in a way akin to what Neil Postman referred to as a “perpetual round of entertainments.” Basically a will-my-existence-be-defined-by-passivity-and-egoism, as a result of mindless consumption of sounds and images created to brainwash the masses into silence and inaction, kind of way. I’m still laughing.
In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Postman’s sociocultural critiques centered around the impacts that television had on the so-called public and private sectors of society while offering readers a critical analysis of the function of pleasure and entertainment in American lives. Given the countless ways in which technology has evolved since the book’s publication in 1985, particularly with respect to the advent social and new media, Postman’s criticisms remain relevant with added dimensions and global rezch. Even if only to offer a point of departure from which to begin honest and transparent conversations about art, consumption, marketing, ideology, and, especially in this case, child labor and censorship.
Pastiche and Performance Art for Kids
Postman argued that when Sesame Street first aired on television in 1969, its “use of cute puppets, celebrities, catchy tunes, and rapid-fire editing was certain to give pleasure to the children and would therefore serve as adequate preparation for their entry into a fun-loving culture.” Additionally, he explained that Sesame Street is an educational show in ways that transcend the obvious. “[Sesame Street] is, in fact, nothing but educational — in the sense that every television show is educational. Just as reading a book, any kind of book, repromotes a particular orientation toward learning, watching a television show does the same.”
Originally Sesame Street aired on public television stations and helped countless children prepare for entry into primary school. But, recent financial troubles led to operative changes. In October 2019, Vulture reported that “HBO Max, WarnerMedia’s upcoming streaming platform, will be the exclusive home for new episodes of the iconic children’s series, starting [in 2020] with the show’s 51st season.” One writer for Indie Wire argued that the HBO Max deal was “ghastly” because it “formalizes the tiered access that means those with more resources will see the most timely, important episodes first.” She added that “those with an HBO Max subscription — about $15 a month and an Internet connection required, mind you — will see episodes first. Those with access to PBS Kids from a browser, set-top box or the free app — and, of course, the ability to pay for the cable or Internet required and for the necessary equipment — will get them nine months after.”
In 2019, Financial Times economist Time Harford joined the conversation and said that “Sesame Street was a bet that good television could make a real difference to children’s readiness for school, particularly for those starved of other opportunities to learn. Not only would it help them to read and count, but it would be racially integrated. Over the years it would tackle issues including death, divorce, autism, infertility, adoption and HIV.” Moreover, decades of research revealed that kids exposed to the show learn better.
One study, as reported by Parents, concluded that “children [with] access to the show were more positively impacted throughout the course of elementary school than children who were not. Additionally, those who watched the show were more likely to stay on track academically, and the largest benefits were seen in children from economically disadvantaged communities.”
So, as Postman explained, Sesame Street is an educational show. But, as recent news revealed, issues related to accessibility will keep some children from the benefits of the show. Luckily, there are countless other shows and types of content for children to consume that can help them prepare for school. Many of which exist on social media or online video-sharing platforms, making access possible for any child with stable internet, a smart device, and time to consume the content.
For context I’m beginning my investigation into Kidz Bop with a brief history of Sesame Street because, of the handful of children’s television shows that my child actually enjoys watching, it’s one that I appreciate most of all because of my nostalgia-fueled relationship to the show, the fact that it promotes values that I hold dear, and it is similar to KidzBop in the sense that it captivates and teaches children by way of explicit pastiche. Both KidzBop and Sesame Street introduce children to elements of popular culture, history, and politics with the help of performance art that is bound primarily by the frameworks of parody and adaptation.
Sesame Street features sketches that parody or satirize popular television shows and movies like Orange Is the New Black, True Blood, Les Mis, Harry Potter, Twilight, and countless others. KidzBop does the same with popular songs. Responding to critiques regarding KidzBop’s use of censorship of adult content, in 2018 Vox reported that “replacing phrases does not actually wipe lyrical recognition from children’s minds if they have already heard the original song” so the use of censorship is controversial and could be “pushing kids out of their childhood earlier and earlier.”
Sesame Street, on the other hand, doesn’t appear to function in that way but there is still much to be said about Postman’s argument that it “does not encourage children to love school or anything about school. It encourages them to love television.” One could argue that KidzBop is similar in the sense that it encourages children to consume content that features music and dancing instead of a love of the arts. Both KidzBop and Sesame Street offer children a way to passively consume content that is educational and/or entertaining while also, as Benjamin explained, “[introducing children] to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses.”