In Defense of the Most Reviled Genre of Them All: Kids’ Music

Snapshots of life at home.
March 4 2013 5:45 AM

Kid Rock Is Cool

In defense of the most reviled genre of them all.

A nurse adjusts earphones playing relaxing music to a newborn baby in Kosice, east Slovakia May 2011.
Mozart or Metallica?

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.

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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?

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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.

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.

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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.

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.

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