When I was a kid, kids' music came in several flavors: smarmy, cutesy, annoying, cloying, bad, and painfully bad. I remember with special horror an album called Scouting Breaks the Song Barrier, its back graced with a photo of the Goodtimers, three mop-haired maniacs with poet shirts, acoustic guitars and bandannas. The album may have broken the song barrier, but it left the suck barrier intact, especially when the Goodtimers vigorously harmonized the "Three Jolly Fishermen" refrain "Amster Amster dam dam dam."
That's enough to make anybody gun-shy when it comes to kids' music. So I found myself a little apprehensive when I received a disc for kids from Secret Agent 23 Skidoo. I mean, "Skidoo?" But it was the only thing in the review pile I hadn't spun. Of course, the disc was fantastic. The Secret Agent himself is a member of the very cool band Granola Funk Express who decided to make music for (and sometimes with) his young daughter. He specializes in what is often called "kid-hop," and it's basically hip-hop with a wicked groove, but lyrics about kid concerns. Doesn't seem like it should be revolutionary, yet it's miles from Amsterdam-dam-dam. I guess the biggest leaps seem obvious after they've happened.
Heaven knows why so many musicians in the past found it necessary to pander or adopt absurd voices in order to sing to kids, who are, after all, not an entirely alien species in need of special translation services. My own favorite band when I was five was Creedence Clearwater Revival, closely followed by the Beatles, neither of whom could be accused of making children's music. That kind of experience hardly seems unique.
Maybe it was because rock 'n' roll was already the music of older kids that nobody saw fit to quit pandering to the young set with syrupy nonsense. Maybe it was because rockers were too cool to look backward for the benefit of the pre-cool preschool short set. Maybe it was the then-respectable view that rock 'n' roll was thinly disguised sonic corruption for tender ears. Whatever the case, it's mighty hard to point to old kids' albums that weren't produced by A Mighty Wind-style folkies who'd never heard of a distortion pedal.
The sounds on 23 Skidoo sent me on a quest to find out what had happened in the years between those doofuses in bandannas and the melodious strains of kid-hop. That search quickly revealed that a major expert in kids' music resides in the Valley. Bill Childs and his kids/co-hosts Ella and Liam bring interesting and innovative sounds to young ears from the Northampton studios of WRSI on their Saturday morning show "Spare the Rock, Spoil the Child," which his blog proclaims to be "indie music for indie kids." Childs also writes about kids' music for Minnesota Parent, Little Rock Family and Valley Kids. I recently chatted with Bill, Ella and Liam as they taped their show.
Perhaps, I thought, this transition to more interesting, rock-fueled kids' music finally happened because rockers are having kids.
"But it's not like there weren't adult rock musicians with kids then. They just didn't do it," Childs told me. "I've thought about the same question—why is it different now? I think part of it—I don't know if it's all of it, or a big part—but I think a part of it is the ease of recording and distribution. One of the big problems for musicians, of course, is the ease of distribution of music without paying for it, but even just with that [handheld recorder], you can do a pretty good live recording and throw it up on the Web and there you go. You've got yourself a kids' record.
"One of the people we played earlier, that 'Spring Has Sprung' song, by Frances England—she recorded her first record as a benefit for her kid's preschool in San Francisco. She played guitar and sang, obviously, but she didn't have a real big career prior to that. But she sounded [good] to me and to this guy who does the Zooglobble blog, which is the biggest kids' music review blog. I loved it and started playing it and starting telling everybody I knew about it, and she released another record, and she's not making a living at it yet, I don't think, but she's playing Austin City Limits and Lollapalooza this year on the kids' stage. And that's still just self-released. It's not like she's got a label or anything."
Which perhaps means that there's more room for musicians to rev up a career in kid territory—provided they have that certain savoir faire when it comes to appealing to kids. "There still are the behemoths, Disney and such," Bill tells me, "but even they are doing some interesting stuff—They Might Be Giants is on Disney, Ralph's World's on Disney, and those are both legitimate, interesting artists.
"But yeah, I think there is a little bit more opportunity to make a splash, because it's still a relatively smaller market. I think it is easier to make some money, because kids still like actual CDs, so you actually do sell physical CDs in kids' music. Digital distribution—to date, anyway—isn't as important as it has become everywhere else. You go to a show, and your kid wants that CD. They don't want a gift card to iTunes."
"And there's only a small fraction of the music in the world that you can download," adds Ella.
Her father says, "Somebody's been listening to Turn It Up CD ads." (A side effect of the radio trade for a young host, it seems.)
"But still. That's true!" says Ella.
Having that certain savoir faire to appeal to kids doesn't mean what adults often think it means, according to her. She often likes music made by adults in the regular music world who turn to kid concerns. "I think it makes for very good music," Ella says. "It's usually really cool music, not cheesy music all about princesses and things like that, but interesting subjects and weird subjects, sort of like what they do in their grown-up band. I think that's one of the things that makes them sometimes better."
Bill Childs understands that, and that's part of the reason he puts plenty of "adult" music into his playlists, from stuff like David Byrne's version of "Don't Fence Me In" to tunes by Devo and perhaps the second most surprising group on the roster, Medeski Martin & Wood (the most surprising: the wonderfully monstrous Tom Waits with "Bend Down the Branches"). "[Whether it's good kids' music] is about themes, not the sophistication of the music—whether it's talking to the kids," he says.
"I think that there's no real fine lines between kids' music and adult music," adds Ella. "It shouldn't have swear words and it's not about inappropriate topics. It shouldn't be about smoking and drinking or things that kids don't need to know."
And when it comes to good and bad, Ella has some clear opinions: "To be good, it needs interesting lyrics and to be about something appealing. It shouldn't be all squeaky and high-voiced, like you're talking to a toddler. & A lot of toddler music is good, but not with that in it. [Good music should] limit the amount of kids singing—people think it makes it sound cute, but I think it makes it obnoxious."
Good thing she lives in the era of more adventurous music for kids. Whatever the reason, it is a genre that's throwing off its old cliches and rapidly filling with artists who don't spend a lot of time worrying about what makes kids' music different from the adult kind. They seem to mostly make music they like. That adds up to kids' music that's easier on adult ears and probably a lot more fun for kids.
Both Bill and Ella say you can sometimes judge kids' music by the CD cover—"Pink, fuzzy bunnies? You don't want that," says Ella.
So I guess that means the era of Scouting breaking the song barrier is officially over. And who'll miss it? I mean, besides the Goodtimers.
Get Ready to Melt
Bill Childs says one of the first proponents of a different brand of kids' music was Dan Zanes. Some of the other early innovators include They Might Be Giants, Ralph's World and Justin Roberts.
Having discovered that kids' music was breaking new ground, he capitalized on his experience as a DJ and record store owner in Minnesota and what he calls an "unnatural obsession with radio" by starting "Spare the Rock, Spoil the Child" on Valley Free Radio in 2005. Now he's brought the show to WRSI, where it airs Saturdays from 8-10 a.m.
This Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., WRSI is throwing a massive kids' music event called Meltdown, a "Family Music and Book Fest," which will include many purveyors of kids' sounds, with a major emphasis on local and regional musicians. Brooklyn's Deedle Deedle Dees will be on hand, as will Uncle Rock, Ratboy, Jr. and Mariani Iranzi.
In the Valley scene, an ever-increasing number of musicians are taking on the challenge of kids' music, including the usually adult-oriented School for the Dead. Others include Aric Bieganek, Dennis Caraher, The Nields, Laura Cayer (formerly of the Pop Rockets) and Marcy Gregoire, all of whom will play the Meltdown.
Illustrators and authors of kids' books will contribute to the Meltdown as well, including Jane Yolen, Anna Alter, Timothy Basil Ering and Jarrett Krosoczka.
For more information on the Meltdown, Saturday, March 28 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at JFK Middle School in Northampton, visit wrsi.com.