NEW YORK — They're a bunch of regular grade school kids, but their fans include Ashton Kutcher, Tori Amos and Perez Hilton _ plus millions of YouTube viewers.
A New York fifth-grade chorus that first appeared on an online video has become world-famous, a cyber-phenomenon touted by top media outlets, celebrities and politicians.
And yet, the young singers from Public School 22 have rarely left Staten Island, a water-ringed New York City borough reached by ferry from Manhattan.
The question is, how does one pull off such a publicity feat?
It was hardly an accident.
Much of the credit goes to a music teacher who apparently is a natural at public relations. "A friend in advertising told me that if I ever want to leave teaching, I should come and work for them," jokes the children's music director, Gregg Breinberg.
About three years ago, he taught his kids to sing the group Coldplay's hit single "Viva la Vida" and posted the performance on YouTube, followed by a Tori Amos song.
"They've reached the world strictly by Internet," says Breinberg.
One day, gossip blogger Perez Hilton came across them on YouTube singing the Amos song in a Manhattan atrium _ with Amos tearing up as she listened. Hilton was bowled over by the innocent-sounding voices that matched faces exuding energy and personality.
He posted the link on his blog, triggering a deluge of interest that made the clip one of the top 10 YouTube videos.
Since then, the P.S. 22 Chorus has been featured on television and in major newspapers, while 7 million viewers have watched them on YouTube, and counting.
The chorus even popped up on Kutcher's Twitter feed.
"Honestly, I never imagined that things would take off for the chorus the way they have in the last few years," says Breinberg. "But these kids have risen above tremendous obstacles and have made their voices heard."
Other fans include Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac, who invited them to sing at Madison Square Garden. Neil Finn, lead singer for Crowded House, was so enthused by the children's online performance of his song "Private Universe" that he asked them to perform with him for the band's sold-out New York show.
On Friday, their last day of elementary school, they sang before New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg at a hospital ribbon-cutting ceremony, an upbeat rendition of the German synthpop group Alphaville's "Forever Young."
But there's much more to the success of P.S. 22 than brilliant promotion.
Many of the 70 kids come from struggling families, with about three-quarters of them eligible for free school lunches. Others have academic difficulties or are learning English as a second language.
Bypassing traditional children's music, Breinberg had taught them grown-up songs that speak to their tough urban lives _ like The Doors' "People Are Strange," and Amos' "Flying Dutchman," which opens with "Hey Kid/Got a ride for you."
And the rest is not exactly kid stuff: "They say/Your brain is a comic book tattoo/And you'll never be anything... What will you do with your life?/ Is that all you hear from noon till night?"
When 10-year-old Gabriel Vasquez first entered the chorus, "I was scared, I didn't want nobody to tease me," he says. "But Mr. B taught me how to let out my feelings and not to hold it back in ... tears, joy, excitement."
With sometimes aching openness or unbridled joy, they sing about love, loss, belief and betrayal in music by Amos, Nicks, or even Billie Holliday, linking their own New York world with the whole world.
The children dote on the man they all call "Mr B" _ a 36-year-old guitar-strumming teacher with the winning smile who cracks jokes and makes faces for them.
"The most important part of my job is to make the kids love music," he says. "Technique comes later."
In fact, vocal prowess is not the key to their popularity. Most of them have voices like other children their age, with a few exceptions.
"Maybe individually they don't have that prodigious talent, but when they come together, they work off each other and become bigger than they are individually," says Breinberg. "They're able to sing very difficult harmonies, already in fifth grade."
Breinberg started the elementary school chorus more then a decade ago, persuading the school to create one despite cuts in arts programs.
Although these P.S.22 kids are moving on, Breinberg will stay for the next group of aspiring singers.
"Once they graduate, that's pretty much it," he says. "And when they leave, I have to start all over again."
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