Kid Rock Is Cool
In defense of the most reviled genre of them all.
Photo by Petr Josek Snr/Reuters
The very first song my son ever heard was Tom Petty's "Alright for Now," as shakily sung to him by his dumbstruck father roughly five minutes after he was born. It will not surprise you to learn that this musical selection was made on the spot, at random, under terrifying circumstances—i.e., I was holding my newborn son for the first time and he was crying. Like nearly every subsequent major parenting event (up next: circumcision), I was hilariously ill-prepared and spent maybe 45 hapless seconds grasping for an appropriate tune before landing, reasonably, on the ballad from Full Moon Fever—a deep cut that frankly fit the situation pretty well ("Sleep tight, baby/ Sleep tight, my love"). It appeared to actually soothe him, which was nice, and helped to impart a valuable early lesson to me: Any music can be kids’ music in an emergency.
I have been a professional rock critic, more or less, for 15 years, and as such my friends and family naturally assumed I would be "music-training" my son from birth, regaling him with Sonic Youth and Sun Ra and Ghostface Killah from an early age so as to make him The Coolest Baby on the Planet. Not for him, the scourge of Raffi. But I was determined to avoid this, to instead allow him the calm, sane, non-OCD relationship with music I never had, to just play him the Beatles like all parents do and let things progress organically and probably appallingly from there. I looked forward to being surprised (and appalled). Still, I did not plan to introduce children's music—"premeditated children's music," I guess you'd call it—though exceptions would be made for "The Noble Duke of York" and the oeuvre of '80s-dominating Canadian kiddie-folk queen Charlotte Diamond (seminal jam: "I Am a Pizza"). But mostly, I figured, after excising the profanity and the death metal, let him hear the adult stuff and choose for himself.
The songs with which my son, Max, has forged an emotional bond in the last two years thus have no connection to each other, at least not in my mind: "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" (no, he was not named for "Maxwell's Silver Hammer"; yes, I am aware it's a song about homicide); the Cheers theme; "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It) "; "I Can't Make You Love Me"; Tom Waits’ "I'm Your Late Night Evening Prostitute" (an effective lullaby if you sub "pasta dude" for "prostitute"); "That's Not My Name"; and, perhaps inspired by his initial brush with Tom Petty, the song with which I now rock him to sleep nightly, "Free Fallin'." Of most recent interest was Justin Timberlake's "Pusher Love Girl," to which my son reacted by grabbing his mother's hairbrush and frantically brushing his own hair.
Make of that what you will.
"Pusher Love Girl," by the way, was a live performance at the 2013 Grammys, the dying music industry's annual televised love letter to itself, a three-and-a-half-hour fiasco that still somehow managed to completely ignore perhaps the one quadrant of the music industry that isn't dying, that is thriving, that is booming, in fact: premeditated children's music. Someone is buying this stuff. A lot of it. And as usual, I now fear that not falling into line with seemingly every other parent out there is somehow screwing my son up for life. Does my kid need kids' music?
Playing music for your children to aid in their mental and social development is one of the thousands of critical things you might be criminally failing to do for them right this second. Perhaps you did the whole classical-music-in-the-womb thing to give little Emma a head start on that full ride to Cornell, only to learn that it was probably time wasted. Once they're external, though, Mozart apparently can help premature babies gain weight and strength faster. And after you get them home, it behooves you to crank up Yo Gabba Gabba or "Yellow Submarine" or the more docile adventures of Brian Eno so as to boost "speech and auditory discrimination," not to mention "spatial-temporal reasoning." If you don't start piano lessons at 6 months old, little Emma essentially stops smiling. Also, please get crackin' on the National Association for Music Education's 42 songs every American should know how to sing, from "Shenandoah" to "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore" to (?!) "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child." But what about genre, you may be asking: Stick with mainstream pop alongside classical and jazz, or face the scourge of young minds prematurely exposed to "noisy, rebellious, nonmainstream" music (rap, metal, punk, trance) who consequently turn into feral, maladjusted, milk-gallon-smashing hooligans. Does this mean you should play your 1-year-old less Kesha? More Kesha? The exact same amount of Kesha?
You'd better figure this out.
Confused, beleaguered parents have responded to the problem of how to best music-train their children the same way we respond to all the other problems: by throwing money at it. Some statistics, per Keith Caulfield, associate director of charts at music-biz bible Billboard: Nielsen SoundScan recorded 4.7 million children's music tracks sold in 2012, a 10 percent jump from the previous year; the top 50 kiddie albums sold 4.7 million copies combined. The Adele of this particular industry is the Kidz Bop series—Kidz Bop 21 was 2012's best-seller with 370,000 sold—in which current actual chart hits from "Moves Like Jagger" to "Hey Soul Sister" are re-recorded "by kids for kids," which is essentially code for "charmingly but manically." (Though let it be known that the Kidz Bop version of Taylor Swift's "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" is somehow less infantile than the original.)
This concept may strike you as wildly superfluous: "Party Rock Anthem" doesn’t need a remake any more than, say, Psycho or Total Recall or Red Dawn did. But the target audience here is clear: parents who'd much rather be listening to the actual "Party Rock Anthem" and thus have sought out a version of "Party Rock Anthem" deemed by advertising executives to be marginally more appropriate and fulfilling and spatial-temporal reasoning-boosting for their kids. The mere words kids' music conjure up all the old, reliable nightmares; not for nothing do the dulcet tones of Barney allegedly ring through the halls of Guantanamo Bay. Redundant an enterprise as Kidz Bop often seems, the series underscores the underlying philosophy of all children's music: That your children can enjoy and anecdotally be said to possibly developmentally benefit from it is the second most important thing. That Mom and Dad can tolerate it is the first.
Rob Harvilla is the senior managing editor at Rhapsody. He's written for SPIN, the Village Voice, Pitchfork, Deadspin, and several other publications that no longer exist.