Bubblegum Pop: That Sweet, Sweet Music

The CD cover for the The Monkees' self-titled album.

Believe it or not, in the first two weeks of its release in mid-July, Kidz Bop 26 by Kidz Bop Kids ranked in the top five of the Billboard 200, which compiles the week's top-selling albums across all genres. For the uninitiated, the producers of the Kidz Bop series procure currently popular songs (taking care not to include inappropriate subject matter or lyrics) and rerecord them with child singers. For instance, on the current edition are remakes of such songs as Pharrell Williams’ “Happy,” Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse,” and John Legend’s “All of Me.” The producers of the series say that they are targeting five to twelve year-old music fans. Well, judging by the surprisingly brisk sales of Kidz Bop 26, they’re right on target. It just goes to show that there’s still a sizeable market for bubblegum pop.

For those of you who are familiar with the term bubblegum pop, you probably recognize it as a somewhat pejorative term. In fact, I'll admit that my use of it above wasn't exactly complimentary. I don't mean to disparage the songs, or even the bubblegum genre as a whole, even though bubblegum pop never strived to be high art. In fact, it was meant to be commercial, very commercial, because from its inception, it was a producer's medium rather than an artist's medium. The music was conceived, created, manipulated and marketed by suits in an office, not by struggling musicians in a garage. Regardless, you can't deny the instant appeal and lighthearted fun of bubblegum pop!

The origin of the genre can be reasonably traced to the 1966-68 TV show The Monkees, NBC’s attempt to create a Beatles-like group for American television that could be marketed across all entertainment formats. The music supervisor for the series’ first season was super-producer Don Kirshner. Super-songwriters Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart wrote the ultra-catchy theme song, which was among thirty songs the prolific duo penned for the show. Like the early work of The Beatles, which charmed music fans across all age demographics, the music of The Monkees was intended to have similar appeal. That’s why the four members of the group had so little input into the music they originally performed. The show’s producers and Kirshner had a very particular – and very calculated – musical formula in mind.

The formula created for The Monkees would serve as the blueprint for bubblegum pop in general. Although bubblegum is still used as a descriptor for a certain style of pop music, it most specifically defines a particular era, roughly 1967-74. The components of that sound were essentially the following:

  1. The standard verse-chorus-verse pop song structure became more reliant on the chorus, as in verse-chorus-chorus-verse, or even starting some songs with the chorus;
  2. Subject matter was almost entirely “happy!” and simple, with love songs and novelty songs supplying the bulk of the lyrical load;
  3. Production was state-of-the-art and intentionally glossy, with no room for flubbed notes, impromptu flourishes, or cracking voices;
  4. Instrumentation went beyond the usual lead guitar/bass guitar/drum kit setup, as horns, woodwinds, and strings were commonly added to the musical mix.

The series, a madcap comedy about a struggling rock band (there’s some irony for you), became a hit, as did many of The Monkees’ singles, which were plugged weekly in each episode’s musical segment. Those segments utilized a quick editing style that was later emulated by scores of music videos when MTV exploded in the early eighties. In case you think that the series was a silly sixties experiment that no one took seriously, please note that The Monkees won the primetime Emmys for “Outstanding Comedy Series” and “Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Comedy” following its first season.

The members of The Monkees, however, quickly grew frustrated with the lack of control they had over their career path. Their objections reached enormous proportions and the series quickly became an unworkable situation, ending after just two seasons. The connection between TV and what soon became known as bubblegum music, however, remained a much-shared history. The Monkees television series quickly became a Saturday morning staple, but the TV/bubblegum pop story was just beginning.

In September 1968, CBS debuted The Archie Show in its Saturday morning lineup. That cartoon version of the venerable comic book The CD for Absolutely the Best of the Archies.series was an instant sensation as the animated band known as The Archies soon started having actual top forty hits. The man behind that success was none other than Don Kirshner, who must've decided that it would be easier to control production and create hits if a large portion of the human element was removed. The Archies cracked the pop charts several times in the next few years, their greatest success being “Sugar, Sugar,” an international hit that spent four weeks at number one in the United States and was the biggest selling single of 1969! Ron Dante, who also had a top ten hit in 1969 with “Tracy” as the voice of the studio group The Cuff Links, performed the lead vocals attributed to Archie and also later fronted the touring version of the group.

Also in September 1968, NBC launched The Banana Splits Adventure Hour, a combination of live-action and animated sequences, on their Saturday morning schedule. The Banana Splits, four actors dressed in animal costumes, had a minor hit with their theme song, "The Tra La La Song (One Banana, Two Banana)" during the course of their two seasons.  Several other cartoon and live-action Saturday morning TV series jumped on the bubblegum bandwagon. These included Josie and the Pussycats (one of whom was future Charlie’s Angels star Cheryl Ladd), Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp (whose in-house band was known as Evolution Revolution), and The Osmonds. The Osmond Brothers had been variety show regulars as a barbershop quartet throughout the sixties, but later added younger sibling Donny, were rechristened The Osmonds, and began a transition to mainstream rock in the seventies. Concurrently, they supported Donny’s equally successful bubblegum pop career, which produced five top ten hits, including the number one song "Go Away Little Girl" in 1971.

In the meantime, ABC was creating a show based on the success of the musical family The Cowsills, who had a string of pop hits in the mid- to late-sixties. The producers originally toyed with the idea of having The Cowsills play themselves, but due to their acting inexperience and the fact that they were a little too old to play the roles as scripted, they scrapped that idea and hired actor/singers. The resulting show was The Partridge Family, starring Shirley Jones and David Cassidy, both of whom were the only cast members to appear on the resulting recordings. The Partridge Family had seven top forty hits, one of which (“l Think I Love You") topped the charts. One episode of the series served as a pilot for a spin-off called Getting Together, with Bobby Sherman and West Stern portraying a songwriting duo said to be loosely based on the aforementioned team of Boyce and Hart. Sherman was one of the reigning teen idols of the day, a frequent TV series regular (Shindig! and Here Come the Brides), and TV guest star who had a healthy streak of bubblegum pop hits in the late-sixties and early seventies, including “Little Woman” and “Julie, Do Ya Love Me.”

Not all of the bubblegum pop stars parlayed singing into acting, or vice versa. Tommy Roe, whose career got off to a bang with the rockabilly chart topper “Sheila” in 1962, went softer as the decade progressed. He became one of the biggest bubblegum practitioners in the latter half of the sixties with such hits as “Sweet Pea,” “Hooray for Hazel,” and “Dizzy.” All of those single made the top ten, with the latter reaching the dizzying heights of number one.

Producers Jerry Kasenetz and Jeff Katz, whose Super K Productions were a major force in popularizing the pop subgenre, claim to have originated the term bubblegum pop. Kasenetz and Katz ran an assembly-line for producing ultra-poppy singles. Although they did hire bands (often changing their names) to actively tour their songs, most of the creative work was done by staff writers, session musicians, and unknown singers. One of the latter was Joey Levine, a young singer-songwriter-producer who ended up as the lead singer for several of Super K’s major hits, including four by The Ohio Express (including “Yummy, Yummy, Yummy”), as well as one by the Kasenetz-Katz Singing Orchestral Circus (“Quick Joey Small”). Super K also had hits with 1910 Fruitgum Company (including "Simon Says") and Crazy Elephant ("Gimme Gimme Good Lovin'"), among others.

In England, singer Tony Burrows figured out the bubblegum pop formula, too. Burrows, usually in collaboration with songwriters-producers Roger Greenaway, Roger Cook and/or John Carter, hit the charts several times in the early seventies, but with different bands. Burrows was the lead singer for The Brotherhood of Man’s “United We Stand,” Edison Lighthouse's “Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes),” White Plains' “My Baby Loves Lovin',” The Pipkins' “Gimme Dat Ding,” and The First Class' “Beach Baby.” Some of those groups were actual working bands, while others were studio only.

By mid-1974, the original bubblegum pop era had gone stale. That’s not to say, however, that bubblegum pop doesn’t continue to The CD cover for 25 All-Time Greatest Bubblegum Hits.this day. A spate of artists have periodically revived the sweet subgenre through the years. The Bay City Rollers, Shaun Cassidy, Leif Garrett, New Kids on the Block, Tiffany, Debbie Gibson, The Backstreet Boys, Spice Girls, Britney Spears, 98 Degrees, *NSYNC, Hilary Duff, The Jonas Brothers, and One Direction, among others, are all basically bubblegum pop acts served up in new flavors. The (sugary) beat goes on! For a handy dandy overview of the bubblegum pop era, try the disc 25 All-Time Greatest Bubblegum Hits, or Yummy Yummy Yummy: The Best of Bubble Gum Music, which – like the many linked items above – are available at the Des Moines Public Library, so check one out and chew on that for a while!