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

"Is that a midget?"

"Yeah," said my channel co-surfer. "Kid Rock's got a midget." 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?"

"Somebut generally, he's just a midget."

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

Something was afoot. At first I was tempted to dismiss the midget craze as the latest in rock star excess. But after seeing Blink 182 on the MTV Video Awards performing on a stage literally dripping with midgets, I knew this was more than a fad. This was destiny.

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

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

But whatever integrity the original '90s alt-rock genre possessed dissipated into the knockoff crud of today's "modern rock." A new brand of "retro" sexism made a comeback, and the hitmakers of the moment--Kid Rock, Limp Bizkit--make 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. But of course we're concerned with perpetuating the sideshow mentality." Egan adds she's just as offended by the exploitation of women as by the 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, little people have transcended the sideshow to their place on the stage as a must-have accessory. Or, more likely, maybe today's rock stars think they have found in The Midget the one thing on earth that makes even the lowest slimeball rocker look big. For the time being, however, as Blink 182 has so ably displayed, the band with the most midgets wins.