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“So much to learn about, it will make you want to shout Blippi!”
If you are regularly around children under the age of five, you may have shuddered a bit just reading that. For those who are unaware, Blippi is a YouTube character who has carved out a niche serving preschool viewers. Played by Stevin John, Blippi wears orange glasses, an orange tie, and orange suspenders. His personality is as loud as his clothing—calculatedly manic, using dance breaks and sped-up voices whenever attention starts to dip.
If you aren’t around kids, you’ve most likely heard of Blippi from a couple minor scandals that have come up around the character. The first was the reveal that Blippi wasn’t Stevin John’s first attempt at YouTube fame. John had previously posted gross out videos as a character named Steezy Grossman. Instead of wearing orange suspenders, Grossman pooped on another human being and uploaded the video for the world to see.
The second Blippi scandal involves the Blippi Live tour, which includes a stop at the Orpheum Theatre on Thursday, March 5. Thankfully, this scandal is not defecation-related. Blippi is coming to Madison, and you can even pay extra for meet-and-greet tickets so your kids get to get their picture taken with Blippi! However, it’s not Stevin John playing Blippi in the live show. He farmed out this touring production to another actor. Parents are paying an extra $40 per kid for a meet-and-greet with a guy who kinda looks like the guy that their kids like.
The thing is, I’m not really shaken by Stevin John’s taking of a number two or his sending of a Blippi Two. It’s right there in Blippi’s videos: The primary focus for John is building a brand to make money. He was determined to get famous and, when Jackass-style gross out humor failed, he decided to try a different angle. And he certainly succeeded with the creation of Blippi. Blippi, as played by John, has talent. He’s engaging, dynamic, charismatic. There’s a video where he washes a truck for 11 minutes and it’s reasonably entertaining, particularly if you are a young child. Seriously, the truck washing video has 30 million views.
But there’s no educational value beyond keeping kids occupied for a few minutes. You can tell that John knows these things are supposed to be educational. For example, a song about boats aptly named “The Boat Song” jarringly transitions to a non-sequitur ending about never talking with strangers. “Especially if they have candy and try to make you go somewhere,” Blippi adds. He quickly follows this PSA with a reminder for parents to use the #blippi hashtag.
It is a shame. Children’s media, when done well, can inspire. How many adults today can trace their love of reading back to LeVar Burton and Reading Rainbow? The show Wild Kratts has opened my child’s mind to a love of zoology and conservation. Madison’s own Dean Robbins has written books like Margaret And The Moon, which covers themes of science, history and feminism all while telling a gripping tale for kids. The videos are branded as educational but, beyond a few half-assed attempts at learning, a kid is going to learn very little from watching Blippi. Occasionally, he makes a field trip to an aquarium or a zoo but, even then, more time is devoted to goofy dancing than to learning.
I don’t think every single piece of media that kids are exposed to has to be educational, but Blippi’s lack of artistic ambition bugs me too. Children’s media is often undervalued: There are great works of art in songs, books, television and movies aimed at kids. Mr. Hooper’s death on Sesame Street taught millions of kids how to deal with loss. I’m a grown adult and the book Corduroy by Don Freeman can still make me cry tears of joy and love to this day. Blippi, in his effort to supply a steady stream of YouTube content, doesn’t try to educate or inspire. He just wants to make sure you hit that Subscribe button.
The closest Blippi gets to content with real ambition are the songs featured in some of his older videos. “The Garbage Truck Song” is my second favorite song about trucks. My kid went through a big truck phase when he was two so, trust me, I heard a lot of songs about trucks. (By the way, the best truck song is “Dump Truck” by twentytrucks. It cranks.)
But the Blippi songs—including other hits such as: “The Fire Truck Song,” “The Train Song,” “The Excavator Song,” and “The Horse Song”—aren’t even written by Blippi. He isn’t even the main vocalist. The songs are written by Kyle Bain, who went by the name Nikki Notes during his time working on the Blippi videos. You have to do some Googling to find out who Bain, who no longer works with Stevin John, even is. He doesn’t get any credit on the Blippi YouTube videos, or the Blippi albums you can buy online. Blippi is the credited artist. The animators who work on the videos are similarly anonymous. Because it’s not about the talent. It’s all about building the Blippi brand.
The Blippi brand. Blippi is a perfect reflection of the YouTube era. Quickly cranked out content with pleas to subscribe and buy. He tells kids to follow him on Instagram. What three-year-old has an Instagram? He has his viewers memorize the spelling of his name, B-L-I-P-P-I, so that kids can help their parents get back to watching more Blippi. It’s what every YouTuber does but that oppressive and constant branding feels even more uncomfortable when it is aimed at small kids.
Famously, Fred Rogers took a look at the quality of early children’s television and decided to make Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood because he was disgusted by the low quality of the programming. Stevin John took a look at YouTube’s children content and thought there was an underserved audience niche waiting to be monetized.
But I can’t say that Blippi hasn’t been successful. The brand has built up billions of views by providing kids (and parents desperate for 10 damn minutes to fold some laundry) with content that’s good enough. The revenues from the ads and merchandising have made Stevin John a lot of money.
Instead of putting that money into better videos or paying some educational consultants, he’s chosen to do what he’s always done: grow the brand. This time, it’s with a live show. Who cares that it’s not the “real” Blippi at the live shows? There is no real Blippi. There’s just the brand.
New this week:
In a short video documentary, meet two of the Madison music community’s steadfast fix-it folks.
Go inside Madison electronic musician Tarek Sabbar’s home studio on our latest podcast episode.
Wisconsin Supreme Court elections are political as hell and we should stop pretending otherwise.
The micro-budget sci-fi classic Primer screens Friday and Saturday at Union South.
Dorian Electra plays this Saturday at The Sett.
More events of note in this week’s Madison calendar.
Elsewhere on the Madison internet: The annual Print & Resist zine fair will be back on April 18. Four Star Video Heaven will have a grand re-opening party on March 7. Neil Gaiman has announced an October 17 visit to the Orpheum. Over on the UW Cinematheque blog, a preview of this Friday’s screening of Michael Apted’s 63 Up.
Upcoming Tone Madison Events!
February 28: Tone Madison Office Hours. Social Justice Center, 1 to 4 p.m.
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