OVER THE PAST 15 years, pop music has undergone more radical explosions and reconstructions than Michael Jackson's face. The hair metal bands of the '80s wilted like Aqua Net daisies in the nuclear blast of '91 Nirvana, followed by the post-apocalyptic scavenging of the grunge buzzards (Silverchair, Creed, et al.) and the birth of paint-by-numbers "modern rock." Whitney and Mariah became Britney and Christina, country music split in two (No Depression versus Vegas twang), and a whole bunch of Very Sensitive Women took their diaries (and ovaries) into the studio. Meanwhile, hiphop made a mind-blowing trip from It Takes a Nation of Millions to The Chronic; from the Wu-Tang world and Lauryn Hill to--God help us all--the rapping debut of the cartoon man on the Pringles can in a commercial I saw last week. So here we are, safely over the hump of the first year of the 21st century, and what I want to know is--what's up with all the midgets?

It started last month, with a glimpse I caught of a Kid Rock video. I'd been out of the radio-and-MTV loop for years, contenting myself with records and occasional live shows, and I couldn't believe my eyes.

"Is that a midget?"

"Yeah," said my co-channel-surfer. "Kid Rock's got a midget." He said it like it was no big deal, like "Kid Rock's got a schnauzer."

"What do you mean he's 'got a midget'?"

"He's in the band," he said. "Joe C."

"Does he rap?"

"He raps some. But generally, he's just a midget."

I was intrigued, and apparently so were other people. The following week I stumbled upon an MTV special chronicling the backstage shenanigans of frat boy rap-rockers Limp Bizkit. The highlight: frontman Fred Durst offering several thousand dollars to a midget to strip and stay completely naked for half an hour--an offer the little guy happily accepted. "Whoa!!!!" squealed Durst. "We got a NAKED MIDGET in here!!"

Obviously something was afoot. At first I was tempted to dismiss the midget craze as merely the latest in rock star excess, the freaky rock 'n' roll lifestyle taken to a stupidly literal extreme. But after seeing the recent MTV Video Music Awards appearance by Blink 182, who performed on a stage literally dripping with midgets--midgets on trampolines, midgets dangling from bungee cords, midgets forming a kick line at the edge of the stage--I knew this was more than just a quirky fad. This was destiny.

The road to the midget phenomenon began, I believe, at the crossroads of the '80s and '90s--specifically, at the collision of the aforementioned hair metal bands of the '80s with the alt-rock groups of the early '90s. Metal was a giddily hedonistic world of spandex glamour, power ballad posturing, and shameless sexism; its totemic image was the Hot Rock Slut, ubiquitous in the genre's videos and record sleeves, from Tawny Kitaen writhing on the hoods of sports cars for Whitesnake to Warrant's spread-legged waitress with the slice of pie falling in her crotch.

Then came Nirvana and the alt-rock boom, which exposed metal's excess as the inflated idiocy it was. Metal's sexist hedonism was rejected for "honesty and integrity," and the Hot Rock Slut was replaced with alt-rock's totemic image of its own: the Kid. Nevermind, Siamese Dream, Everclear's Sparkle & Fade, Sebadoh's Bakesale: It seemed every alt-rock record worth its salt used the power of the Kid (or kids) to communicate the purity, honesty, and bruised innocence of the genre.

But soon enough, whatever integrity the original '90s alt-rock genre possessed dissipated into the impure, knockoff crud that stuffs "modern rock" radio today. A new brand of retro sexism has made a comeback (on the wings of irony, which has since flown the coop), and the hit-makers of the moment--Kid Rock, Limp Bizkit--make their millions blending the sonic trappings of alt-rock (and rap) with the solipsistic excesses of metal (and rap). Needing a totemic image, they bred the Hot Rock Slut with the Kid and out popped the Midget--small enough to boss around, sexy in a point-and-laugh kind of way.

For an inside perspective on the midget craze, I call Cara Egan of Little People of America, who characterizes the new trend as "controversial" but says "as long as it's voluntary and legal, we can't complain. There are people who are trying to get into acting, and these jobs offer pay and exposure. But of course we're concerned with perpetuating the sideshow mentality." Egan adds that she's just as offended by the rock world's evergreen exploitation of women as she is by its nouveau exploitation of little people ("midgets," I learn, is an offensively passé term).

But perhaps Egan's worries are immaterial. Maybe in the new rock regime, as in the old royal courts, little people have transcended the sideshow to their place on the stage as a must-have accessory, the ultimate status symbol. Or, more likely, maybe today's rock stars think they've found in the Midget the one thing on Earth that makes even the lowest slimeball rocker look big. For the time being, as Blink 182 has so ably displayed, the band with the most midgets wins.