Look out, Mick Jagger -- your newest competition could be . . . a bunch of turtles and a plastic fashion doll.
That's right -- Barbie is coming out with an album next week. And the newest hot group isn't INXS, it's TMNT. (That's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to the unhip or the grown-up.)
When the Turtles appear live at the Baltimore Arena beginning tonight, complete suspension of disbelief is the name of the game: The producers of the show want audiences to believe that Michaelangelo's playing lead guitar and Raphael is wailin' on the sax.
And that's with only three reptilian fingers on each turtle limb.
"They're not real? They are real! They might not be real to you, but neither is Santa Claus," says Steven Leber, co-producer of the Turtles "Coming Out of Their Shells" tour. "The kids love it."
Indeed Mr. Leber's not the only producer convinced that cartoon characters can sing: Thirty-one year-old Barbie will make her rock debut when her album, "The Look," is released Tuesday. (She'll probably go on tour next year, says her manager.)
And just before Christmas, Geffen Records released a 10-song album called "The Simpsons Sing the Blues," including the hit single "Do the Bartman."
"It's the biggest thing," says Michelle Blum, a Baltimore mother of three. "Even the baby dances when the Simpsons' video is on."
It's all part of a recent boom of slick, sophisticated music, from the New Kids On the Block to Barbie, aimed at the younger set -- kids aged 5 (or even younger) to 13.
Many other groups, while not aimed specifically at kids, are drawing youthful fans as well, says Paul Grein, Billboard columnist. "Vanilla Ice's current success -- it's the fastest selling album since [Prince's] "Purple Rain" -- owes a lot to kids and M. C. Hammer's 'You Can't Touch This' appeals to a lot of kids, too."
All that adds up to record stores sometimes taking on the appearance of day-care centers.
"There are a lot of little kids in here," says Tom Austin, manager of the Record Bar in Glen Burnie. "I guess they're spending their allowances. I've seen a lot of little kids come in here, flop $20 on the counter and buy eight or nine singles."
The timing and price of the rock-for-youth movement is right, according to market analysts. At last, baby boomers who cut their teeth on the Beatles and drove their parents nuts with the Rolling Stones have children who have reached the age of consumption. And according to research done by the J. Walter Thompson marketing firm, children between the ages of 5 and 14 account for $6 billion a year in discretionary spending.
"It's the second Baby Boom, if you will," says Ralph King, president of Rincon Records, producers of Barbie's album. "We saw a potential market and, from the research, it was apparent that those kids were very active in terms of entertainment buying, that there was a strong appeal to them for music and products that they perceived to be more credible and a little more grown up."
And parents who grew up loving rock are also more likely to pay for entertainment in the form of rock music for their kids, Mr. Grein points out.
Ms. Blum confirms that her kids -- ages 1, 3 and 5 -- listen to music "because of their father. . . . They know certain Rolling Stones songs -- and they have the disc from the Turtle movie."
Although there were acts appealing to the young bunch in the 1960s, such as the Archies, and later cartoon-rockers such as Josie and the Pussycats, Mr. Grein thinks the real impetus for the new young rock came when acts that drew preteens began selling big.
"Three years ago, with the success of Tiffany and Debbie Gibson, who had multimillion-selling albums and a long string of hits, I think people began catching on: It's a natural extension of the market."
"I call it 'tot rock,' " says Steven Leber, one of the producers of the Turtle group. "It's becoming quite the thing because they've grown up watching MTV, and music has been part of their lives and their parents' lives. My parents never played rock, they played classical music."
In addition, kids hovering on the preteen brink find all grown-up things appealing, say experts. "These are kids who can't drive, but are yearning early to be teens, to do teen things, to look like teens," says Diana Huss Green, editor-in-chief of Parents' Choice, a consumer guide to children's media products.
The difference between this generation and their parents', however, is that kids today are inundated with advertising tied in to their favorite programs. Turtles products, for example, can be seen on Saturday morning cartoons, at the movies, at home on the VCR, in toy stores, on magazine racks, at Pizza Hut and now at rock concert halls.
"They come to pop music first from TV, which has cartoons, and also from MTV," says Ms. Green. "Even advertising, like the [California] raisins, is rock music."
Susan Mandel says she's reserving judgment on the Turtle invasion, which has infected her 5-year-old twins, until after she takes them to the concert. But, says the Baltimore dental hygienist, "It's getting a little crazy."
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
When: Jan. 9, 10 & 11, 7:30 p.m.; Jan. 12, 11 a.m., 3 p.m. & 7 p.m.; Jan. 13, 1 p.m. & 5:30 p.m.
Where: Baltimore Arena, 201 W. Baltimore St.
Tickets: $13.50, $11.50 & $9.50, available at TicketCenter outlets and the Arena box office.