Music for Two

There was a time, not so long ago, when “children’s music” meant nursery rhymes and Barney – songs that might well have been catchy and perhaps soothing for the kids, but were insufferable for adults. We listened to it for their sake, and we did it with a smile on our faces but, inside, we couldn’t wait to turn the damned stuff off. Times have changed.

On TV, shows like Yo Gabba Gabba and The Fresh Beat Band have proven that kids music can be well-performed and not entirely painful. Indeed, rapper Biz Markie is a regular on the former, while the latter’s “Just Like a Rock Star” is a perfectly harmless slice of chirpy soft rock. The days of hating what our children listen to may almost be over, at least partially so. The trend for musicians making music that crosses the generation gap is exploding, and the artists just keep coming.

Django Jones, for example, is a band that spun out of popular indie group Girlyman, and it is named after their pet chihuahua. On the surface, the riffs and melodies are regular indie fare, but the lyrics betray the fact that this is a kiddie thing. “P-O-P,” from the recent D is for Django album, is about popcorn, and the fact that it jumps in the pan. “Potato Leek Soup” is about exactly that. “Germs” is about feeling sick and staying in bed. “Bigfoot” is a silly little number about dating Bigfoot. It’s all very cutesy and fun, but not at all annoying.

Waldmania! is a publicity group that has quickly cottoned onto the trend, with a full roster of musicians specializing in children’s music that is good. One such artist is Dani, a kind of real life fairy princess. You can really imagine bluebirds landing on this girl’s shoulder and chipmunks doing her washing up. Fair play though, she really is enchanting and her music is perfectly listenable, with a touch of Kate Bush about it.

And then there’s Recess Monkey, who recently released the Wired album. These guys are the punks of the kiddie music world, with songs about feeling hyper-active (as that album title suggests), and “Take Your Kid to Work Day.” Think They Might Be Giants and a touch of Weezer.

Secret Agent 23 Skidoo is, unusually, a hip-hop group for children that pumps out positive messages with songs like “Gotta Be You” (“Everybody wants to have a best friend, but your best friend’s gotta be you, first you’ve gotta be your own friend then you can have a whole lot of other friends too.”). No talk of pimps and drive-bys here – this group is using rap music to make children feel good about themselves, and that can only be a good thing.

And then there’s Morgan Taylor, a man who might be known to fans of Wilco thanks to the fact that he plays bass in side project the Autumn Defense. For the past ten years, he’s brought life to a former doodle and now fully-fledged cartoon character called Gustafer Yellowgold, through music. Yellowgold is a pointy-headed guy from the sun who now lives among us, with friends including an eel and a pterodactyl.

“I started making little picture books with some of my more whimsical story-songs,” Taylor says. “I didn’t write them with children in mind, I just wrote them to have fun and give my friends a giggle – songs about pterodactyls and things like that.

It exploded from there, and we made little picture books, printed them up and started showing them to people. We started showing them to people who were in creative positions in different places, and one guy suggested that we have it animated. We were thinking that would be a fantasy down the road, but he showed us that it was actually quite easy to animate what we had done. All of a sudden we had a DVD, and the music videos got an even better reaction. I had to figure out how to get the word out, so I went back to what I know, which is performing live. I had to perform the live concert with the animated drawings projected somehow, and figure out how to play in sync with them. After years of developing, I came up with a pretty seamless show. I just put out my sixth DVD. We went full time with it in 2008, and ideas keep coming – it still feels fresh.”

We put it to Taylor that children’s music has been getting later of late, no longer causing parents to want to rip out their eardrums. “I think it’s because there’s a greater number of people doing it,” he says. “There’s more to choose from, and there are some very talented people doing it. One of the strangest compliments I ever got was after I played a show in Chicago years ago, and this guy was amazed after seeing it. He said, ‘It’s so much better than it needs to be.” It showed me that the bar is so low. There’s a lot of great traditional kid music, like Peter Seeger and the classic folk kid’s music, but then there’s all this default whacky kid’s music. You see bands wearing silly hats and singing about boogers. Obviously, base humor has its place and we all laugh at poop jokes, but I feel like it’s selling it a little short. There’s a much broader spectrum of emotions that kids experience and they can relate to so many different things beyond the silly.”

Laurie Berkner, the woman People Magazine called the “queen of children’s music,” has her own theories. “There are a lot of things that were happening at the same time around 2000,” she says. “You had the internet exploding, so there’s access to music that isn’t just being sold at a local store or that you happen to go and see a performer in a park or something nearby you. Plus, there were suddenly these cable channels for kids, particularly around 2009, when people were putting a lot of independent children’s musicians on television, on Nick Jr. which is where a lot of people found me. Plus, the change in the music industry where suddenly everything is downloadable. People are shifting away from CDs, though in families not so much. Musicians who were doing really well targeting adult audiences found that they can still sell CDs to people who have kids because they’re still buying them. So it’s a place where you can still good about yourself as a musician and maintain a career. All of those things are happening at the same time, resulting in some really great kids music.”

Like Taylor, Berkner started out as a regular musician, playing music for adults in bars. A spell as a pre-school music teacher opened her eyes to a whole new world. “The things that I think about are, what is going to catch a kids interests in the song?” Berkner says. “Is there some sort of musical kind of hook or are there playful words? What images would be relevant to them? What words bring up those strong feelings but also are maybe too grown up for them to connect them? I don’t only write words for the children, because the parents are listening too. Its trying to find some balance of those kind of musical and lyrical ideas – hit both young kids and adults.”

And that’s the key – parents listen to this music too, even when they don’t want to. Crossover appeal is huge, and it’s what’s resulting in the volume of great music that’s now out there. This isn’t children’s music, it’s family-friendly music. We can all enjoy it together.

Sorry Barney, but your time is up.

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