It’s 1999 and another girl band are partying on the set of their
video shoot. BreZe had all the obligatory marketing trademarks:
they wore make-up, had tattoos, pouted and swung their hips.
However, one of the group had a minor mishap during filming: she
lost a milk tooth. She was nine years old. The oldest member was
Despite outcries, the pre-teen pop band’s creator, producer Bill
Kimber, remained unmoved, saying if they were classical violinists
there wouldn’t be this criticism. Kimber was also the man behind
the 1980s series Minipops where pre-teen lookalikes, including his
own 10-year-old daughter, sang hits. However, the sight of young
children singing (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction saw it
BreZe’s debut single My Heart Goes Boom failed to trouble
the chart compilers. But they were the forerunners of S Club
Juniors who, although aged 11 to 14, are veritable chart
sensations. They are the proteges of Simon Fuller, creator of ITV’s
Pop Idol. If children are major players in purchasing pop
music, goes the marketing strategy logic, then why not sell records
to children by children?
Record producer Pete Waterman, a judge on Pop Idol, is
scathing of child groups. “There are things that even this industry
has to draw the line at, and exposing small children to these sort
of pressures can’t be justified,” he says.
And Waterman can speak with some authority: he gave Musical Youth
to the world. And the world wanted them – making 1983’s Pass
the Dutchie a global hit. But fame took the group’s own world
off them too. The subsequent death of former band member Patrick
Waite, 13 at the time of the group’s peak, still preys on
He says: “I can’t help thinking he might still be alive if he
hadn’t been in the band. You can’t completely protect them from the
harm drugs and money do. One day Michael Jackson was inviting them
round to play music with him in LA, and the next they were back in
Birmingham struggling to cope with failure. If you’re a star at 11,
what happens after that?”
Former Suede guitarist Bernard Butler believes the music industry
is exploiting youngsters desperate for fame. “There’s a lot of
child abuse in the music industry. They’re going to end up in the
gutter with a needle in their arm, or The Sun will find them in a
brothel, and everyone knows that’s going to happen to them,” he
The British Phonographic Institute represents the music industry.
It did not comment on the use and marketing of children but did
send a copy of The Engagement of Children and Young People for
Recording Work, which provides advice on how to apply for
licences from local authorities.
Only two of the 12 “points worth noting” stumble near the welfare
of the child: one refers to the child’s education; the other
informs that “special arrangements must be made regarding the
child’s accommodation, the location of the performance, the child’s
remuneration, medicals, supervision and working hours”.
Waterman says that, although there are “strict laws governing what
you can do with children, make no mistake, they will be worked very
hard. There will be too much money riding on them. This is a very
dangerous world – just look what it did to Michael Jackson.”
Indeed, the Jackson Five began touring in 1963, when the oldest
member Jackie was 12 and Michael was just five. They were worked
hard, later releasing 13 albums in seven years. Jackson says he
suffered physical and emotional abuse from his domineering father.
However, it has been allegations of him as abuser that have hit the
headlines. The most notorious were the sex abuse allegations
brought by 13-year-old Jordie Chandler, to whom Jackson reportedly
paid $20m (£14m) in a pre-court settlement.
Indeed, prominent music industry figures have been linked to child
abuse and child pornography. Tam Paton, manager of the Bay City
Rollers, the boy band of the 1970s, was jailed in 1982 after being
convicted of sex offences against young boys. The group’s drummer,
Derek Longmuir, was convicted in 2000 of possessing child
pornography. And the man who “discovered” the Bay City Rollers,
Jonathan King, is serving a seven-year prison sentence for child
sex offences. Gary Glitter has also served two months for
possessing child pornography.
But as long as records are sold and the profits tumble in, the
marketing of child pop stars seemingly faces fewer
In 1999, American Christina Aguilera charted at number one with her
highly suggestive song Genie in a Bottle. She was 16 at
the time. A 17-year-old Britney Spears was photographed draped on a
bed in a school uniform for the cover of Rolling Stone
magazine. And 16-year-old Charlotte Church has altered her choir
girl image with more provocative clothing – and being awarded “rear
of the year”.
“I just think that because I’m 16 I’m allowed to get awards like
this now – when I was 15 it would have been seen as sick,” she told
Last month Russian teenagers Lena Katina and Julia Volkova of the
pop act Tatu (pronounced “tattoo”) debuted at number one with their
single, All The Things She Said. They have been promoted
with a splash of lesbianism by their manager Ivan Shapovalov who
describes Tatu as an “underage sex project”. This saw daytime
television hosts Richard and Judy protesting about “paedophile
pop”, but sales, ever the barometer, continued to soar.
As they have for R&B singer R Kelly despite being charged under
child pornography laws in the US. Last month, his seventh album,
Chocolate Factory, went straight to number one. Police are
in possession of a videotape that allegedly has Kelly and an
underage girl engaged in various sex acts. With Kelly awaiting
trial, at least three lawsuits have been filed by young women who
say they were similarly exploited by him while minors. Kelly, who
has maintained his innocence, has settled two of the suits.
Neither did the scandal convince Epic Records to think again about
the release of a song written and produced by Kelly – Bump,
Bump, Bump – for boy-teen band B2K. The money men were truly
vindicated with another chart-topper. “A hit record is a hit
record,” as a company source said.
The life of Australian singer Debra Byrne, who started her career
as a 12-year-old performer, also took a dive after her rise to
stardom. She reportedly tried to commit suicide at 13 and later
suffered problems with alcohol and heroin.
But it’s all about churning out the hits. It’s not enough that S
Club Juniors have TV, video and recording commitments. These
lollipop idols need to tour. They are, according to their website,
“currently hard at work gearing up for the mega S Club United tour”
and “practising like ker-azee”. An aide says Fuller “believes that,
to these kids, performing in front of people on stage is no
different from being in front of a school assembly”. The group
first performed together in 2002 at Manchester’s MEN Arena in front
of 12,000 fans. Some assembly.