Willow Smith performs at Nickelodeon’s Kids’ Choice Awards April 2. She made a splash at the age of 10 with last year’s hit ‘Whip My Hair.’
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MINNEAPOLIS — It was the youngest bill in the nightclub First Avenue’s vaunted history one recent Wednesday night: a trio of cute wannabes who aren’t old enough to get a driver’s permit.
What in the name of Little Stevie Wonder (a star at 13) is happening? These kids are aiming for the top of the charts, trying to become pop stars before they even get pimples.
Cody Simpson, 14, the Justin Bieber of Australia; Greyson Chance, 13, an Ellen DeGeneres protege discovered on YouTube, and Camryn, 11, who just posted a splashy video co-starring Jaleel “Urkel” White, are too young for American Idol, but totally driven.
“When I was 8, I decided that this is what I wanted to do,” said Camryn, who has signed with a heavyweight Hollywood PR firm that represents Steve Martin and Motley Crue.
This tween pop explosion is raising questions: How young is too young to be a recording star? How can they avoid the pitfalls?
“I don’t think it’s ever too young to go into a recording studio,” said former Idol judge Kara DioGuardi, now a talent executive at Warner Bros.
P. Diddy, the hip-hop mogul who helped Usher make his smash debut at age 13, agrees: “It’s in your heart, it’s in your soul. If I could have started at 10, I would have loved to.”
In fact, Willow Smith — daughter of actor/singers Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith — did make a splash at 10, with last year’s hit “Whip My Hair.”
But, Diddy cautioned, the “survival rate is not high” for these kids’ careers.
It’s a slippery slope, balancing a full-time career with simply being a kid, said Los Angeles talent manager Ned Specktor, who spent three years with the management group for the Jonas Brothers. “For me, it starts with the family, and not letting the kids run the show.”
Minneapolis entertainment lawyer Ken Abdo started working with future rock stars Jonny Lang at 14 and Michelle Branch at 17. He’s had music clients as young as 10. After hearing a youngster perform, he can usually tell within a half-hour of talking to the wannabe and the parents if this is an advisable pursuit.
“The fundamental question is: Is there a real vocation?” Abdo said. “One way of evaluating is if the child has a clear vision and desire to go there and they’re leading the charge, and they’re not being pushed or disciplined to do it.”
This new crop of kids is so young, you might wonder whether the Jonas Brothers should join Miley Cyrus in a Disney retirement home. But they face serious challenges: the temptations of drugs, alcohol, and sex as well as the stress and responsibility of employing a band, crew, and staff.
The biggest challenges, though, are “the development of a child into adulthood, and living and working in an adult world,” said Abdo. He should know: Three of his children dropped out of college to try to make a go of it with their pop band Lynhurst.
Singer-pianist Chance understands what Abdo is talking about. “It can get very, very lonely. But you have to push through it and keep on working hard,” said the YouTube sensation, who is finishing his debut disc in Los Angeles. “A lot of the drive is coming from me. I love making music. Sometimes I ask for one or two weeks in Oklahoma to see my friends and my family. I’m not the normal school boy, but I’m still a normal kid.” And, yes, he does have school — three or four hours daily online, with the help of a tutor.
Unlike Chance, Camryn comes from a show-biz family. Her parents are movie producers Gary Magness and Sarah Siegel-Magness (Precious) and — guess what — she’ll have songs in their mid-June kiddie comedy Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer.
The self-motivated, home-schooled 11-year-old says she’ll “definitely, 100 percent” go to college, but she’ll balance schoolwork with her career.
However, she might find that it doesn’t always go as planned. Witness some of Abdo’s clients. Twin Cities blues-rock singer Shannon Curfman (who was 13 when Abdo met her) has put her solo career on hold and, at 25, is now Kid Rock’s guitarist. Justin Case, a North Carolina rock band of three young siblings, dropped out of music and graduated from college. Isanti, Minn., native Amanda Harris (10 when she met Abdo) moved to Los Angeles to sing and, at 24, ended up in the fashion industry.