John F. Kennedy was running for president in 1960 when he jotted off a memo to a songwriter. "I'm glad to know that I have at least one worthy opponent," the note said. Kennedy wasn't referring to Nixon. He was talking about Alvin Seville, the furry, animated chipmunk with a red baseball cap who is the lead singer of the group Alvin and the Chipmunks. That year, Alvin released a song called "Alvin for President," with an ambitious platform. "I promise you two bicycles in every garage, four Christmases every year," Alvin vowed, to a melody as catchy as any Beach Boys ditty, "... And another thing, dear friends. Why shouldn't we have a penny ice cream cone?" Kennedy won the election, and he didn't he even offer Alvin a low-level post.
Alvin turns 50 this year, and he's experiencing a major popularity surge—not bad for a cartoon character who won his first Grammy in 1958. At the 2008 Nickelodeon Kids' Choice Awards, Alvin's latest movie (a CGI adventure called "Alvin and the Chipmunks") was named the year's best film by tweens, who helped it gross $217 million domestically, $34 million more than "The Simpsons Movie." Alvin and his two background singers—the blue-shirted guitarist Simon and the green-shirted drummer Theodore—were recently inducted into Madame Tussauds wax museum, and they just dropped their first new album in a decade. It's fairly common for an animated franchise to run forever on nostalgia fumes, but terminal cuteness is only part of their success. The Chipmunk empire has assiduously updated its chirpy repertoire to appeal to the next generation. Many kids in the '80s heard the Chipmunks wholesome version of "Beat It" long before they heard Michael Jackson's original. Even their storyline—three orphans who become pop stars only to find themselves tested by the temptations of sudden fame—never grows old. They're the animated version of Horatio Alger, mixed with a healthy dose of Zac Efron.
The Chipmunks were invented by Ross Bagdasarian, a songwriter best known as William Saroyan's cousin and the guy who plays the piano in Hitchcock's "Rear Window." In 1958, struggling to pay his mortgage, Bagdasarian wrote a song called "Witch Doctor" and he sped up the vocals with a $190 tape recorder. Although the lyrics sounded like a coughing train engine ("ooo eee ooo ah ah ting tang walla walla bing bang"), it became a hit, and the Chipmunks were born as the squeaky voices of the song. Alvin was such a hot ticket, that by 1961, he landed his own TV show. He got a second series in the '80s, which ran for eight seasons on Saturday mornings. So far, the Chipmunks have pulled in $1 billion in retail sales and pushed 44 million records, along with 12 million copies of their books.
To get the best idea of the Chipmunks' appeal, look at another entertainment juggernaut, "American Idol." Both trade in the allure of rags-to-riches insta-stardom. Alvin opens his new movie without even a shirt on his back and ends it a celebrity. Both acts are squeaky clean, family friendly and, to be honest, not very original. Not unlike Clay Aiken, the Chipmunks have achieved fame through their song covers. Even the rights-shy Beatles gave them permission to record after Bagdasarian met them in London, and the Chipmunks have duplicated songs from rock stars as big as Elvis ("Heartbreak Hotel"), the Beach Boys ("Surfin' USA"), Little Richard ("Tutti Frutti") and Billy Joel ("Uptown Girl"). Ross Bagdasarian Jr., who took over after his father died in 1972, says artists are usually thrilled at the prospect of Chipmunkification. "They see it as a cultural compliment if the Chipmunks cover their tunes," he says. "They know we are going to do a faithful, high-quality production."
Over time, the Chipmunks received a series of makeovers. Alvin has traded his red sweater for a red hoodie, and he sings about wanting an iPod instead of a hula hoop in a Christmas jingle on "Undeniable," his new album. Some of the other tunes are a little more edgy—in their cover of Blink 182's "All the Small Things" they chirp that "work sucks." But Chipmunk pop is still as comfortable as the big, heavy blanket on your grandmother's bed, which in our R-rated world is a major draw for parents. One of the more ballady performance tracks, a cover of Chris Daughtry's song "Home," doesn't entirely work, but it's a wink to "Idol," and the fact that the Chipmunks originated the act of treating karaoke as art. They'll be doing that for some time. A sequel, "Alvin and the Chipmunks: the Squeakuel," is scheduled for Christmas 2009 and will also feature the Chipettes. These girl Chipmunks, who were introduced in the '80s and once covered "Material Girl" on a shopping spree, are named Eleanor, Jeanette—and Brittany. Brittany dresses in pink costumes that bring to mind another, arguably less famous, Britney. But don't blame her for Ms. Spears's success. She's too good to be that bad.