Ah, right, that's the other problem: People hate children's music. Viscerally. "A vast amount of it is rampantly shit." "An endless sea of monotony that crushes one's humanity with unrelenting waves of banal tedium." "That high-pitched woman/child/cartoon puppy voice! Singing and ruining great songs, ruining my son's taste in music, ruining my life." "These are songs designed to split your head open and spit inside your skull. I hate them. I hope they die." There's an actual album called Kids Music for Parents That Hate Children's Music, which features both Lisa Loeb and a song called "Pants on Your Head." (Separately, alas.) And so forth.
I guess I should hate it too, what with my allegedly professional critical acumen. But the more I listen to guys like Dan Zanes—who traded in (and up) his grown-up music career with the Del Fuegos to become the tall, lanky, infectiously affable, cartoonishly coifed bard of original children's music—the more I appreciate kids’ music as its own thing, not just a more cheerful and less morally vacant version of my thing.
And as with noisy, delinquent genres like rap, metal, punk, and trance, there's good, there's bad, and there's hilariously bad. Just ask Mindy Thomas, a program director for Sirius XM's 24/7 Kids Place Radio whose job entails listening to hours upon hours of children's music, often in the absence of actual children. Thomas is aware of the fact that for most people, this is a nightmare scenario—her desk is piled high with promo CDs from neophytes looking to crack her rotation and proving, inadvertently, how steep the learning curve can be.
"A lot of times artists come into this, and they reach for the low-hanging fruit when it comes to what their songs are about," she says. "Things like vegetables and brushing your teeth and the stuff you immediately think of as an adult when you look back at childhood. But it's so much more complex than that. And I think some of the artists who don't make the cut, they view childhood with a sense of preciousness that is not always real. I don't know about you, but I remember being a kid and having insecurities, and worrying, and thinking, 'Wow, I'm way smarter than these people think I am.' ”
Thomas loves Caspar Babypants, the jovially surreal kiddie alias of one Chris Ballew, frontman for Clinton-era weirdos Presidents of the United States of America, purveyors of Alternative Nation's least mature hits ("Lump," "Kitty," and "Peaches," as it may please you to recall). As Caspar Babypants he's quickly pounded out six albums of vibrant, deranged-toy-factory surrealism—"Butterfly Driving a Truck," "My Flea Has Dogs," "I Wanna Be a Snowman"—distinguishable from his vintage Buzz Bin hits only by the fact that it is no longer 1995. Another fine option is Ozomatli, the two-decades-old, multilingual Los Angeles Latin-rock institution that took the all-ages plunge with last year's OzoKidz (forgive them that second Z) and is at least trying to change one particularly troubling aspect of kids’ music: It is generally very, very, very, very white. (Frontman Asdru Sierra, upon becoming a father himself, was grateful to Dora the Explorer, though he couldn't help but notice that "her accent, as someone who speaks Spanish fluently—it really needed a lot of work.") His band's own foray into the biz is a bit stiff (songs about exercising, songs about spelling, songs about not being afraid that quote John F. Kennedy), but on the other hand, thank God we've finally got a rocksteady song called "Germs."
And then there are the band's revamped live shows, complete with a dance floor, a special section for the kids so adults aren't blocking their view of the stage, and daylight. "Children! That's the purest kind of fan you can have,” Sierra told me, raving that the shows are “always a really happy thing. There's no fights in the crowd. There's no girls in the front trying to be too sexy. It's a totally different vibe. It's family. It's like hanging out with my wife and kids."
Which brings us, finally, to musicians who barely dabbled in adult music before crossing over into the kiddie stuff—some of whom don’t even have kids of their own. This includes this year’s Best Children’s Music Grammy winner, the Okee Dokee Brothers, two twentysomething, Minneapolis-based gents who are neither brothers nor, notably, fathers. "Instead of parents singing to their kids, we take the approach that we're kids ourselves, and we're the older brother showing them cool things," singer/guitarist Joe Mailander explains. He does not sound even remotely creepy saying this, which is an achievement.
The Okees' Can You Canoe?, inspired by a month-long boat trip down the Mississippi River, is a gentle, relaxed wisp of a record that stacks up just fine next to current mass-Americana faves from the Lumineers to the Avett Brothers, just without the cussing and ex-girlfriend-inspired shouting. Go outside is the main idea, shown rather than told. "I'm sleepin' in a thousand-star hotel," goes one campfire tune, which is lovely. It’s not watered-down grown-up music or condescending "kindie rock." It doesn’t feel manufactured to hit some industry sweet spot or calculated to swindle me at the toy-store checkout counter—it’s just music that, at least in my family, appeals to both me and my son, just like Cookie Monster or Go, Dog. Go!
As with any other parental decision, I reserve the right to panic and change course at any time. But for now, here’s how it’s going in my house: I refuse to stop playing strange, borderline inappropriate adult music for Max, particularly in the twilight of these days when I can be safely assured (I think) that the lyrical content can't affect him one way or the other (probably). YG's "Toot It and Boot It"—that was another popular Max jam for a while, despite being an uncouth pop-rap anthem with an approximate lyrical sentiment of "women regret having sex with me." But lately I find it mingles nicely with the Caspar Babypantses and Ozomatlis of the world, who'll prove ever more valuable once Max starts, y'know, repeating things.