‘Puh-puh-puh-puh-puh poker face!/Puh-puh-puh-puh-puh poker face!”
It’s a humid Friday in early June, and the 60 students of the P.S. 22 Chorus in Graniteville, Staten Island, are finishing one of the final rehearsals of the school year, practicing classics like Bobby Darin’s “Simple Song of Freedom” and Tori Amos’s treacly ballad “Flavor.” Now, itching to rumble out the door, these 10- and 11-year-old fifth-graders spontaneously erupt into what they want to sing: Lady Gaga’s R-rated disco anthem “Poker Face.”
“Can’t read my, can’t read my / No he can’t read my poker face.”
“Hey!” snaps the chorus’s 36-year-old director, Gregg Breinberg, better known as Mr. B. “Leave. The. Gaga. At. Home.”
The kids dissolve into giddy laughter. “Poker Face” has become a predicament for Mr. B, now that high-profile fans like celebrity blogger Perez Hilton, Ashton Kutcher, and Mikey Way of My Chemical Romance have helped catapult the P.S. 22 chorus from pride of Staten Island to the best-known elementary-school chorus on the planet. Hilton adopted the group after seeing one of its handheld videos of another Tori Amos song (like Breinberg, Hilton is a Tori-aholic); he later requested a version of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide.” That video, released in May, attracted more than 300,000 YouTube hits and an invitation from Stevie Nicks to sing the song for her, in person.
Now Hilton, who also plays Boswell for Lady Gaga, wants to hear P.S. 22 do a Gaga tune. But how do you teach kids lyrics like “I’m bluffin’ with my muffin” without losing your job? “My goal is to teach the kids that there’s more music around than what they hear on Z100,” says Breinberg, who initially vetoed Gaga, then caved, allowing the kids to do a watered-down version of the tamer “Just Dance.” (Gaga sings, “We’re all getting hosed tonight.” The kids sing, “We’re all partying tonight.”) Though the chorus members are clearly talented (“For fifth-graders to harmonize is incredibly difficult,” Breinberg says), a big part of their allure is the unconventional material they cover, like Suzanne Vega’s “Language” and Velvet Underground’s “I’ll Be Your Mirror.” But unlike your average karaoke revelers, the chorus performs the songs without irony or camp—urban kids singing Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida” as earnestly as Chris Martin intended it.
Breinberg, a Staten Island native and onetime music major at SUNY New Paltz, arrived at P.S. 22—the borough’s largest elementary school—in 1999, when he was 25. Racially diverse, with a multilingual student body, the school has a solid reputation for arts education, but many of the students come from struggling families. (Nearly 70 percent qualify for lunch assistance.) “There are kids who come from places where I wish I could just physically move them somewhere else,” Breinberg says. “Horrible backgrounds.”
He started the chorus in his second year at the school, sticking at first to the vocal-teaching rule book. “I hate to say it, but I was a little militant,” he says. “I did things the way I was told they were supposed to be done—a chorus should stand still, hands to the sides. After a few years, I mellowed out.” These days, the chorus gets some flak for its slouchy posture and wild-armed gesticulation—criticism Breinberg shrugs off. “They’re kids—10 years old! You can’t expect them to sit up for an hour like soldiers.”
Breinberg possesses a knack for cultivating media—by the end of the school year, the chorus had been visited by Nightline, MTV, and Paris Match—but the group’s fame was accidental. In the fall of 2006, Breinberg was on a Tori Amos–fan message board when he mentioned that he’d been teaching her songs to his chorus. As proof, he posted a couple of quick clips, which someone forwarded to Amos. “Hearing the choir was incredibly inspiring,” Amos says. “There is no greater feeling in the world as a composer than hearing a group of children sing your songs.” (Typically, the kids were unmoved by her response: As with most of the artists Breinberg chooses, they’d never heard of Amos.)
The attention snowballed, and before long, the chorus was performing on PBS’ The Electric Company. The electro group Passion Pit got the chorus to sing on its album Manners. Jimmy Fallon and David Hasselhoff became fans. Eighties guitar hero Steve Vai is interested in making a P.S. 22 record, and the band Survivor called about collaborating on a new version of their song “Eye of the Tiger,” which the chorus had covered (one of the few songs chosen by a student—Jared Holness, 10; he’d heard it on Family Guy). Breinberg is cautiously considering such requests: “Any time you talk about money and public-school children, it’s tricky.”
The biggest perk for the kids? Meeting Rihanna (a celeb they do recognize) at a benefit concert. As for fame, aside from some local-hero treatment on Staten Island, getting spoiled by stardom isn’t an option, thanks to the bittersweet realities of P.S. 22, which runs only through fifth grade; most of the current group graduated from the school and the chorus last month. “I’m devastated,” says Milagros Vega, whose daughter, Mariah Baez, is an alto. “I want to hold her back.” Mariah typifies the benefits of working with Breinberg: Confidence skyrockets and grades improve. “Mariah has more friends and is so much more expressive,” Vega says.
This year’s chorus had one of its last big moments on June 11, when the group fulfilled their promise to sing for Stevie Nicks, who was in town for a Fleetwood Mac gig at Madison Square Garden. Mr. B and the chorus took the stage before the band’s sound check. When they finished “Landslide,” Nicks told them that she wept the first time she saw them perform the song on YouTube. She talked about how she wrote it, then posed for photos with everyone in the chorus, including Mr. B. “She was amazing,” Breinberg says. “She went up to each and every one and gave them hugs and kisses.” And the kids? Breinberg laughs: “They kept saying, ‘Oooh, she smells so good.’ They were fascinated by her smell.”