“THE MINI POPS ARE BACK” the chipper announcer’s voice said excitedly from the television Emma was watching. His statement momentarily grabbed my attention away from Emma’s mother and little sister. What? Mini Pops? Back? It had been a long time since I heard the term “Mini Pops” in any context that wasn’t as a punch line concerning somebody’s bad musical taste. I drew my attention to the television and saw, to my horror, a group of multi-cultural, spunky, fresh-faced kids wearing trendy clothes, doing dance routines and singing songs like “Beverly Hills” and “My Boo”. The announcer went on to say that all my favourite songs were being performed by the legendary Mini Pops on a specially priced two disk CD set. Legendary Mini Pops? Mini Pops are back? All my favourite songs? It was hard not to be cynical. The CD may say Mini Pops. They were definitely kids singing popular songs like the original Mini Pops. But the advertisement just didn’t seem to reflect the Mini Pops I remembered as a child. It all looked so… well… crappy. Yet the original Mini Pops weren’t exactly what you’d call high art. So why did the new Mini Pops seem to bother me so much? I mean everything from the 1980′s – from He-Man to the Care Bears – is resurfacing, only proving that everything old is new again. Yet as I watched these kids dancing their little routines I had a hard time accepting that they were the Mini Pops. They weren’t… I don’t know… gritty enough. Gritty? Am I serious? I’m talking the Mini Pops here. Not Lou Reed! Something just seemed different. I wasn’t sure what, but something just wasn’t right about this whole thing. I decided to explore this phenomena called the Mini Pops and try to figure out the answer to my unease. Join me through this journey of music, mayhem and, yes, even a bit of controversy as
CONFESSIONS OF A POP CULTURE ADDICT PRESENTS
THE CONTROVERSIAL RISE AND FALL OF THE
The Mini Pops story started in 1982 when a little British girl named Joanna Wyatt and her friends were spending an afternoon like many little girls do, by dressing up and acting like their favourite musical acts. The little girls acting out their musical fantasies caught the attention of Joanna’s father, record producer Martin Wyatt, who realized that whether they wanted to be Debbie Harry or whether they wanted to be Dee Snider that there were kids all over the world playing out their own musical fantasies in their bedrooms, basements and backyards. Martin Wyatt brought this idea to BBC television producer Mike Mansfield and together the two of them developed a concept that would be a weekly half hour television series titled, of course, “Mini Pops.” The show would feature middle class youngsters between the ages of eight and twelve who would dress up like their favourite stars and be able to sing their favourite pop songs in cheesy and cheaply made music videos. The casting call for pre-teen children with the gift of singing went out, and over a thousand kids and their mothers packed the BBC studios in response. Once the kids were cast, a series of six episodes were made and aired on BBC 4 in the fall of 1982. The public, however, was divided in their reaction to the series. Many viewers enjoyed the series immensely and it proved to be popular amongst kids. However, critics deemed it immoral, stating that putting children in revealing clothes, heavy make-up and singing sexual lyrics was only an invitation to entice the fantasies of pedophiles. Now while today we might scoff and think that the stuffy British media was overreacting (I mean these kids weren’t exactly Hot Gossip) but the days of Britney Spears and Jon Bennet Ramsey were still a long way off. In the early 1980′s the media was still concerned with allowing children to hang on to their childhoods as long as possible. In a sense, Mini Pops was one of the earliest programs to push children in overly sexualized adult roles. Although the series was deemed popular, the BBC did not want to be connected to the controversy surrounding it and, as a result, no new episodes were made.
However, Mansfield and Wyatt were not finished with their concept yet. The next step was the Mini Pops first album titled “We’re the Mini Pops”. Featuring tracks from the television series, “We’re the Mini Pops” was released in 1983. The album was hugely successful in the UK and then was sent on to the global market. The rest of the world, however, wasn’t as enthusiastic about the British series with the exception of France and Canada. Brought into Canada by K-Tel records, the Mini Pops became a bit of a phenomena. Anybody who grew up in the 1980′s and says they didn’t own at least one Mini Pops album is a liar. They were hugely successful. Later that year the second Mini Pops album, “Let’s Dance”, featuring the unused tracks from the original series, was put out on the market with similar success. The television series was also packaged on two VHS tapes. Four more original Mini Pops albums were eventually released between 1983 and 1987.
Now I am going to admit right up front, that while I never saw an episode of the Mini Pops television show in my life that I, like thousands of Canadian children, owned a copy of “We’re the Mini Pops” and it wasn’t just something that was given to me as a birthday gift. No, I begged my mother for it and I had to do a ton of chores before she gave in and bought it for me. I remember once I got it that I was actually sort of disappointed in it. The commercial for the album seemed to be much more exciting. However, it was an early introduction for me to many great new wave pop songs like “Video Killed the Radio Star”, “Turning Japanese” and “Baggy Trousers”. However, I remember what it was that made me want that album. It was definitely K-Tel’s advertising campaign. Taking clips from the original BBC series the album promised all the songs I loved on one album. The kids singing the album looked cool and hip and kind of dangerous. Unlike any of the kids I ever knew. Mind you, that was probably the difference between blue collar South London and the Peterborough suburbs. “Mini Pops” wasn’t exactly what I would call a prized possession of my album collection as a child, but it was definitely a staple. It didn’t go un-played.
So if it was the original commercial that caught my attention back in 1983 and got me thinking the Mini Pops were great, then why I am less than enthralled in 2006? Is it the difference between being eight years old and being an adult? Perhaps. However, I think that the direction and the timing for the new Mini Pops is all wrong. Just like the kids that were the original Mini Pops, the world grew up and there isn’t any place for the Mini Pops today.
First, I think the real difference between the original Mini Pops and the new Mini Pops is regional. The new Mini Pops is a North American production while the original Mini Pops were British. Now I can’t explain it but everything made in Britain is always distinctively different from American productions. Although the British are notorious for being stuffy, the cutting edge of European culture always remains evident. When you look at the original track listening on “Mini Pops” it’s definitely a British production with a heavy concentration being put on British new wave and punk acts. I also think the cutting edge provocativeness that horrified the critics also had a little to do with the success of the original Mini Pops. The new Mini Pops just seem so squeaky clean and obnoxious. Furthermore, the lack of imagination in the commercial set makes the whole production seem cheap. The original Mini Pops performed in something that looked like an old soda shop. The new Mini Pops sing and dance in and area that looks like a cleared out party room at a local cinema. Really bland.
I also think that the music of the late 1970′s and early 1980′s made for better transition from adult to children’s entertainment. The performers were more colourful and the songs were a lot more fun. One of the original appeals of the Mini Pops phenomena was the fact that the children could dress up and be easily identifiable to the pop act they were emulating. You had kids dressed up as Abba, Boy George, Wham, the Village People, Boney M, Adam Ant, Cindy Lauper, Elton John, the Vapours, Billy Idol, Prince and so on and so forth. Who are the kids supposed to dress up like today? Eminem? Celine Dion? Fergie? Today’s musical market doesn’t have the same style and the same quirkiness that the 1980′s had. Looking at the commercial for the new Mini Pops. One of the saddest things was that the children were not actually dressed up as anyone. The original concept of children being able to pretend to be their childhood idols is not evident in the new Mini Pops. It’s like K-Tel missed the point completely.
Finally, the biggest problem the new Mini Pops faces, is that children, as well as methods to get music, just aren’t the same as they were twenty five years ago. In the 1980′s video stations such as MTV were a luxury. Today they are evident in every household and children discover music at an even earlier age as sung by the original artists. They don’t want their favourite songs being sung by some dippy kid. Who wants to hear twelve year old Jimmy sing the White Stripes when you can listen to the White Stripes sing the White Stripes? Kids today want the real thing, not the child-like imitators. However, another of the differences is the advent of music downloading. When I was a kid one of the real appeals of the Mini Pops albums was having all those songs on one piece of vinyl. Today, your average eight year old is fully equipped to download all their favourite songs on one CD. They don’t need the help of the Mini Pops to get all those songs. They can get all the original version, all on one CD, for free.
I think that K-Tel missed both the point and the boat when they decided to bring back the Mini Pops. The Mini Pops was really a cultural phenomena of the 1980′s, and now, in a far more politically correct world which doesn’t have the same fun musical scene, nor dependency on the record buying public, the new Mini Pops is doomed to be the updated failure of a long dead franchise. My only advice to the new Mini Pops is this: Don’t put all your dreams of stardom on these CD’s. You are not the New Mickey Mouse Club. You’re nothing more than glorified Karaoke singers. I hope you had fun and that you put a bit of money away for college but ask yourself this – Where are the original Mini Pops kids now? They are not the pop legends that they dreamed of being. You know that creepy British guy with the bad teeth who sings “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go” at the local fish market? That’s right. That’s where the Mini Pops ended up. You kids were born decades too late to reap any of the success of the Mini Pops. Good luck on your next musical project.
And my message to K-Tel records? Give it up guys. Lightening isn’t going to strike twice.