Don’t sing down to me. Or my kids.

In so many delightful ways, having kids has brought welcome perspective to my life. I am not here, though, to tell you that. Any number of parents you know or don’t know will go out of their way to tell you that. No, I am here to tell you the ways in which my perspective hasn’t changed at all despite a significant change in the way I experience a medium on a daily basis.

Keeping Maya, my 6-year-old, entertained while in the car means finding just the right music for her mood. Heather and I have collected a variety and tried to hew them in a direction that suits us. Still, through environmental influences I couldn’t quash or through unfortunate download choices, things have seeped in that I’d rather not have to hear. And so it is that I have decided to use my forum to alternately praise and beat up on…children’s music artists. To paraphrase Mr. Sparkle, could I do any less?!?

So who does children’s music right? Let’s start with music from a show often held up as the gold standard: Sesame Street. After 40 years on the air, they were bound to have ups and downs. As with many other shows, the show’s quality arc peaked after a few shaky early seasons; the wildly creative or bizarre, however, was always valued over the simplistic, even in those earlier days. That’s where I live. Perhaps a bad but quite humorous example right here:

We have a perfectly legal (!) copy of the very first Sesame Street episode, and this lengthy video features prominently. I’m not sure of the instructional value for children, but I sure enjoy the off-kilter folk stylings of whoever-this-is. I find myself singing this over and over after family movie night viewings, to the point where Maya makes me stop.

While the tune’s certainly basic enough to appeal to a kid, the simplicity seems so forced, the range of singing so narrow, the ethos so obviously a nod to pastoral folk in all its forms, that it reeks of mockery. I’m just not sure how anyone could view it any other way – how anyone could posit that the singer was playing it 100% straight. And yet there’s a part of me that definitely understands how old this footage is and that parody on this level might not even have been possible at this stage. Still, I can’t help but feel a little affection over how this song stutters its way to an illogical conclusion. It’s flat-out interesting, in its own right as an unpolished gem as well as in the context of more polished, stylized offerings to come later.

Like the Pointer Sisters’ mid-70s funk-and-soul blast:

Yikes. I wouldn’t expect Maya to know that the first two measures of this are in a slowed-down 7/8 time signature or that subsequent time signatures include 11/8 and 3/8. I don’t even expect her to notice how smoothly they move between those time signatures. What I hope she’ll notice is the playfulness of this tune, which is certainly evident in those time signatures but is more evident in the train-like “doot-dooooooo-do-doot” backing vocals as well as the blurted-out numbers that pose as melody in the bridges. I wouldn’t expect Maya to notice the completely appropriate use of a soprano saxophone. What I hope she’ll notice is that the music ramps up through the clever use of scales and ascending runs in every section.

What I guess I don’t get is what the hell happened to this incarnation of the Pointer Sisters. This in 1976, then “Neutron Dance” about 10 years later? Yikes again. Anyway, I like to remember “Pinball Number Count” as a time when complicated rhythms were not considered too much for kids.

Then this crap happened to the Gray Lady of kids’ shows:

The description for this one says “the beginning of the end,” and I couldn’t agree more. While I imagine this was simply aimed at a younger audience, I don’t believe I’ve seen a more disastrous fall from “1-2-3-FOUR-5-6-7-8-NINE-10-11-12” to “la la la la.” Is there value here in building kids’ self-esteem? I guess. But who’s going to stay awake long enough to learn it? This is uninspired and unoriginal hackwork. Why even bother? I never needed Elmo to give Maya a song. Fortunately, her Elmo phase was short.

But her Free to Be…You and Me phase lasted longer:

Not only does this have top-flight vocals from Roberta Flack and Michael Jackson (note: the original was performed by MJ’s buddy Diana Ross), but it also helps to build self-esteem and love of who you are through an actual story. It’s not an overly complicated song, but at least it’s a song, complete with a melodic structure and actual lyrics. Maya loved it from an early age.

She had a briefer infatuation with this artist, dubbed the “queen bee” of the kids’ music scene:

Laurie Berkner gets points on this song for a) naming the days of the week in the correct order and b) finding adequate rhymes for each. Beyond that, this song falls flat for me. The exuberance in both the song and video feels forced. The repetition bores me to death (other, more interesting songs repeated melodies and concepts without seeming boring). There’s no story. There’s no depth here. None.

And I feel badly about saying this, believe me, considering that this is a woman who pulled her career together entirely independently. I want to root for her. But on the basis of this song and others, I can’t give her the props she deserves.

But I can give plenty of props to the only band I’ve seen four times:

And that’s because even from her earliest ages, Maya was into these guys. Maybe not so much into the song above (which I picked because it rocks hard and in a very four-cornered standard way and yet I don’t mind), but into a number of songs on the No! album. As delightful as the story of John Lee Supertaster is, and it is delightful, the random song “Violin” on the same album was Maya’s bedtime song for a very long time and at a very young age. The album remains on heavy rotation in our car because Maya loves it and because we love it. The creativity at work and the craftsmanship involved in all three of their children’s albums make TMBG just about the best there is today.

And the lasting appeal for Maya is what I think I’m getting at. You can say that the bad examples I’ve provided are tailored for a younger audience, that we’re talking about different tiers and different ages etc. I don’t buy it for one second. I’ve never talked down to Maya and I never will. I’ve never talked to her as anything less than an adult. I may have stayed away from words like “counterintuitive” and “hirsute” but I never dumbed it down verbally or musically for her. Neither do TMBG or the Pointers or Marlo Thomas’ gang.

And that’s why I don’t feel too badly trying to direct Maya toward music that I like. I know she’s got a sophisticated enough musical palette to appreciate it – if we present it to her as her music. I don’t have to simplify it by saying the word “buzz” or “la” over and over again. I just have to allow her to make it hers. That’s what the good ones do.

The good ones also know how to use the first person. You got that, Elmo, you little red weasel?

6 comments to Don’t sing down to me. Or my kids.

  • baleen

    Nice post. I’m digging the steel drum solo in the 1,2,3,4… song. I’m glad I got to experience PBS in the seventies.

  • As much as i despise teen disney stuff, i still stand by 1930s-40s disney cartoons, especially the many that include music performances from piano pieces portrayed surprisingly accurately even when played by mice with 4 fingered hands to orchestral mashups of classical and popular pieces to experimental music to, of course the incredible Fantasia stuff. Even the Mickey Mouse Club theme carries some very good basic instrument education in it. My daughter loves all of these and at age 2 and half has an amazing ability to mimic a number of instruments and follow along with fairly complex melodies.

  • Oh snap! I grew up pre-Elmo (in Queens, New York right around the corner from Sesame Street) but Clara who is 18 months responds to Elmo in a way she can’t quite yet to, say, a Kermit NewsFlash. She calls Elmo “LaLa” because of the Elmo song but she’s also way down with his duet with a lullaby Andrea Bocelli and singing the alphabet with India Arie. Give a diva his due.

    We watch some Laurie Berkner but I agree, luke warm on her even with her nods to Jonathan Richman. I do like it though because she did reinforce words and ideas that Clara was just understanding –really simply stuff like “up” and “down” etc.

    Here is Clara doing an experimental dance with a friend to the Edison Museum off that excellent They Might Be Giants album you mention (I love the “official” bed time song on that album btw).

    Sesame Street truly was crazy about milk in the early days.

  • God, kids are the fucking worst. Also, I’d rather go down a pool slide lined with razor blades right into rubbing alcohol than listen to another second of They Might be Giants. Those guys … . I’m with you on Berkner, though.

    Today’s CAPTCHA: Wisconsin Animus

  • Yes, I’ve seen it, but what the who.

    The NAP CAPTCHAs are completely bizarre. Today’s entry: Gulag Nassau. Which, I might add, reminds me of the Gulag that was, and most likely still is, Nassau Bay. Land of Schlong Weasel, The Mike Gunn, Dry Nod, and Linus.