Yes, There Is Great Music for Kids out There—Well, Better Than Raffi, Anyway

Answers for modern men.
Nov. 20 2013 3:00 PM

What Music Can a Gentleman Play His Gentle Children?

Without the gentleman wanting to plug his ears, that is.

Troy Patterson.
Troy Patterson.

Photo by Christina Paige

Please send your questions for publication to gentlemanscholarslate@gmail.com. (Questions may be edited.)

I've come with a parenting question, which at first I felt was in service of my child, a precocious lass of 15 months: What should I be putting on a playlist for my daughter to ensure that she will grow to be the most well-rounded and awesome human being possible?

I have subsequently realized that the question is actually much more selfish: What can I put on my daughter's playlist that won't drive me mad with its endless repetition?

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I suspect that she will ultimately go for something entirely different than what I push her toward. My mother tried to teach me about Herman's Hermits, and my dad loved the Beach Boys, and I have no enthusiasm for either. Right now she tears around the house with my old iPhone listening to a selection of Free to Be... hits, Sesame Street classics, and tracks off the Schoolhouse Rock! cover album I bought in the “ironic” mid-’90s. Also, since this kid is bilingual, I wonder what might be out there in Spanish. The theme from Barcelona is great, but one track out of 15 is hardly trying on my part.

Gracias por su pregunta. Tengo solamente un poco de conocimiento de las canciones españoles más excelentes por los niños. Y como escribió Alejandro Papa, «un poco de conocimiento es una cosa peligrosa.» Consecuentemente, voy a recomendar solamente una poca de gracia, una poca de gracia para mi, para ti.

And also: Ay, caramba. A fair majority of the music produced expressly for young ears—for ears so young that to clean their wax away requires a splashing struggle—is insipid on its face, and the Billboard kids chart is not a good scene. At this writing, the soundtrack to Teen Beach Movie, a Disney film existing to milk the High School Musical formula, holds down the No. 1 spot. It is dedicated to the late Annette Funicello, who is missed, though not for her “Jamaican Ska,” an insipidity perhaps most notable for the being the sole point of overlap between the repertoires of Bob Hope and Fishbone. (To impart some Jamaican flavor to your kid’s playlist, I instead recommend “Carry Go Bring Come” by Justin Hinds & the Dominoes, featured in The Last Days of Disco.)

At No. 2 on the Billboard chart is Kidz Bop 24, the latest in a series of compilations on which prepubescent choristers cover recent pop hits, diminishing them in the attempt. Even if I could abide its title’s atrocious zed, I still would look askance at these albums: “Call Me Maybe” is fairly stellar youth music as is; why drag the fake cheer of a squad of stage mothers’ children into it? At No. 3 is 51 Songs Kids Really Love to Sing—and if you are homeschooling your brood on a survivalist compound, then you may find it very useful to own “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” and “The Hokey Pokey.” (If not, then I suggest instead introducing your daughter to the good dusty standards on the Smithsonian Folkways Children’s Music Collection.)

Further down on the current Billboard chart, one encounters a few Christmas classics, then some more Kidz Bop discz, some Disney-princess business, and no imagination. Go take a look for yourself. Oh, no—wait, maybe not: You have a daughter, and the links on the page may make you weep for her future.

Who are the other big players on the scene? Well, there’s Raffi, a “global troubadour” notable for his softly simpering tone and troubling nationality. If dumber lyrics than those of Raffi’s “Apples and Bananas” have ever been written, then Bret Michaels has kept them to himself. I instead suggest “Yes We Have No Bananas,” as performed by Spike Jones or a basket of Muppet produce.

Then there’s Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and the persistent notion that a steady diet of his work will help your daughter develop the brainpower necessary to reduce all her peers to pants-wetting blobs of anxiety every time she pulls a Ticonderoga No. 2 from her pencil case. (Though skeptical, I nonetheless recommend The Marriage of Figaro, which will give your daughter a strong start on appreciating the wascally qualities of certain woodland creatures. While I’m at it, I will suggest other classics of musical theater, including the first half of The Sound of Music and especially “It’s a Hard Knock Life” from Annie, which will help your child understand the gravity of any impetuous threats to send her to an orphanage.)

Then there are the old hippies. Every progressive preschool has one on retainer—some graybeard who once did session work with Bread or Cream and now in his semi-retirement plays “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” on acoustic guitar. Kids like that song. But as acid-soaked Beatles tunes go, its psychedelic kitsch is clearly inferior to the mystery and majesty of “Tomorrow Never Knows,” with its theme (“surrender to the void”) of ego death. If anyone could use some ego death, it’s definitely toddlers; they represent the only class of people who think it reasonable to open a negotiation by saying, “I want everything now.”

Sorry about the Beach Boys. Maybe give them another shot? If the child in my house is any indication, the youth of today eat up their early stuff. Each morning features multiple helpings of Rhonda. And also there are endless laps of “Fun, Fun, Fun,” which has inspired an aggrieved question I have not yet answered to the lad’s satisfaction: “Why did Daddy take the T-Bird away?“

Finally, best of all, combining all the virtues referenced above—sunny surrealism, theatrical wordplay, glorious nonsense, food-filled goofiness—is Slim Gaillard, a jazz pianist who spoke nine languages, including one of his own invention, Vout. Serve the kid “Potato Chips,” with its perfect chorus:

Crunch, crunch
I don’t want no lunch
All I want is potato chips

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.