Music to influence kids’ tastes
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I’m 34, and have two children: a son, 3 1/2, and a daughter, 2. I am concerned about the development of my kids’ musical taste. It seems like a good idea to try and influence the kids with my own “good” tastes so I’m not subjected to abject crap when they’re tweens, although I know in my heart it’s inevitable. Still, it seems like it’s a valuable thing for young people to learn for themselves that the New Boss is the same as the Old Boss. But I can plant some seeds and hope, right? Here’s the question: if you were looking for an artist, or even a specific album, to try and influence a child’s taste in music for the rest of their life, what would it be? —Jim from Bay View
I really hope you aren’t kidding about your resignation to the inevitable, Jim, because your kids are absolutely going to find and love music you hate. It’s part of growing up and becoming a person, instead of a clone of your parents. In fact, whatever you force-feed them in childhood may be the thing they wind up hating most when they get old enough to want to fight your tastes. That said, I’m pretty sure I’d want to inoculate my theoretical kids against a bunch of different kinds of musical resistance with The Beatles. (I know, it’s a cliché answer, to such a degree that clichés are pretty much measured on a scale from 1 to The Beatles As Answer To Any Question About Music.) Still. There’s so much range in what The Beatles did, and that’s what I’d want to teach my kids more than anything: to embrace as much diversity in music as possible, and not get locked too tightly into one thing. There’s enough of a divergence between “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” “Eleanor Rigby,” and The White Album that I’d like to think it’d teach kids not to be disappointed or frustrated when a favorite band doesn’t just turn out clones of their favorite song or album over and over. Plenty of The Beatles’ songs are either bouncy fun for kids, or the kind of wistful melancholy I didn’t quite get as a child, but was drawn to musically. And with one band, you’ve got enough variations on rock, folk, and pop that it’d be easy to spiral an entire musical education out of any given song they liked. Yup, I’ve got the plan. Now I just need the children. Can I borrow yours?
This is a no-brainer for me. I would love to introduce my kids to music the way I was introduced to music: through the albums of “Weird Al” Yankovic. He’s the perfect artist to introduce children to music both because his humor and sensibility are incredibly kid-friendly, and because his pastiches, homages, and tributes double as an eminently accessible introduction to artists from across the musical spectrum. “Frank’s 2000 TV” would be the perfect way to introduce a child to R.E.M., while “Dog Eat Dog” would be an ideal way to get junior excited about The Talking Heads. (If s/he is anything like mom and dad, s/he will absolutely love The Talking Heads, which also wouldn’t be a bad answer to this question.) Between the artists Yankovic spoofs and the artists he pays tribute to on his loving pastiches, his work has touched on an incredibly broad swath of pop music’s past and present. He isn’t just the young people’s favorite for more than three decades, he’s also secretly a one-man music school whose pop-culture-crazed work points in all sorts of weird, inspired directions. Al contains multitudes. I can think of no greater way to introduce my theoretical progeny to the wonder, diversity, and magic of pop music than through his winking, knowing take on the musical canon.
Let me be clear: I have no interest in raising my little baby boy to be some sort of rebel badass. If he’s a sissy mama’s boy in short-pant overalls with a ribboned hat and a giant lollipop well into his teens, as long as he’s a good boy who doesn’t cause too much trouble, I’ll be very okay with it. But with that said, while I was pregnant, while listening to the radio one day, I realized AC/DC would actually make great kids’ music. “You Shook Me All Night Long” aside, a lot of their songs sound like they’d be great for children. They’re silly, loud, clap-oriented, anthemic, and not very complicated, encouraging the spirit of rabblerousing, but more importantly, good fun. I could definitely see chanting “Dirty Deeds” together in the kitchen on many a Friday night as we bake cookies together.
I was raised on the Grateful Dead and grew into a snarling teen who only listened to punk rock, so I’m proof this plan never works. My boyfriend and I talk a lot about taking the Patton Oswalt approach with our theoretical future kids. Instead of just listening to Phil Collins’ No Jacket Required to force our kids to rebel, though, I think we should take it a step further. I plan on listening to mountains of the same garbage pop-punk I listened to as a teen. They will be bombarded with Mr. T Experience, Cletus, and The Queers. They will go to every mid-’90s one-off reunion show. Their little infantile hearts will be trained to beat in three chords before they even exit the womb. With any luck, they’ll grow up to love nuanced, technically proficient music and have a complicated understanding of romantic relationships that don’t boil down to girls cheating and leaving. So Sleater-Kinney fans, basically.
I think it goes without saying that, when I finally do have a kid, They Might Be Giants will go into heavy rotation on my iPod. I might start the kid off listening to TMBG’s recent-vintage albums that are geared directly to kids, like NO! and Here Come the ABCs, because they’ll teach the kid some lessons while giving me music that won’t make me want to poke out my eardrums. But I might just as easily put on one of their regular CDs, because Flansburgh and Linnell were essentially doing kids’ tunes for 20 years before they ever made one specifically for children. Easy-to-sing lyrics, infectious and weird hooks—how could any kid not hear “Particle Man” or “Don’t Let’s Start” and not pick up on the song immediately? And the adult songs are educational as well; I’m sure the kid will be able to tell his or her teacher that Istanbul was once Constantinople after hearing my copy of Flood about 500 times.
Like Sarah, I have no delusions that my children will grow up to listen to the kind of music I might feed them during their formative years. Then again, I have no delusions that I will ever have children—so for the purposes of this thought experiment, I hereby vow that my progeny will suck from the same fertile teat I was reared on: classic rock. Granted, “classic rock” is a vague and ever-changing term, but to me it means and will always mean Boston, Led Zeppelin, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Queen, Blue Oyster Cult, Neil Young, and other such fortifying fonts of ’70s pomp and circumstance. Not only will it give my kids a firm grounding in the sounds and concerns of the everyman, it will help curb any latent pretentious tendencies that may emerge as they grow older. Like it did for me. Oh, shit, never mind.
There’s no current plans for my wife and I to have children. But looking over my collection, I’m guessing The Beach Boys would be high on the list of music that would be playing while any theoretical child would be in the general vicinity. The early years would provide fun, upbeat music that would lighten any mood. The later years, during which Brian Wilson turned from pop songsmith into someone composing a “teenage symphony to God,” would provide as much mental nourishment as anything Mozart ever produced, with the added benefit of having a theremin in the mix as well. There would be plenty of time to introduce this offspring to the more adult, obscure, or transgressive parts of my record collection. But this feels like a solid start. Who says the Sloop John B can’t be taken for a spin inside a nursery?
This is tricky for me. As the father of a 2.5-year-old and a longtime music enthusiast/snob, I want to be able to sculpt a young mind into one with perfect taste. So what I’ve sort of lazily decided is that, for the most part, he’s just going to listen to whatever my wife and I are listening to, and if he likes it, great. I’ve already massively broken that rule by playing him One Direction—“Let’s just see what happens!”—which of course he immediately fell in love with. I didn’t stop him listening, because watching him have fun listening to music is pure joy, no matter what the music is. (Okay, not Skrewdriver.) That said, I’m happy that he’s now moved on to slightly hipper fare: His current favorite songs are “She’s Lost Control” by Joy Division (“Play the Michigan song!”), “Lights” by Ellie Goulding (“Play the ‘Calling Calling’ song!”), and “Let Go” by Frou Frou (“That’s Frou Frou!”). As he gets older, he will get unfettered access to my CD collection, which he will scoff at before turning on his iArm (an Apple music player built directly into your arm, set to debut in 2018).
I had my first kid at 20, and I’m, uh, older than that now, so I’ve actually gone through this once, and I can say that Josh’s method—just play them whatever the hell awesome tunes you’re listening to—worked fine for me the first time around. Since he already offered that answer, I’ll add that one of the lessons I learned through that first go-round is that kids love silly music, so I’m going to make sure there’s plenty of that in there. Several good options have already been mentioned (Weird Al, They Might Be Giants) but one of my often silly yet tuneful favorites is Jonathan Coulton, and he’ll be getting plenty of play for the new little one and any possible future siblings. It should be fun having sing-alongs to “Code Monkey” and “Skullcrusher Mountain” with a 3-year-old, and with luck, “Re: Your Brains” will help her understand that zombies can be fun, or at least make all the zombie paraphernalia around the house slightly less scary for her.
I don’t have kids and I don’t plan on it any time in the near future, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t talked about this very topic at length with my husband, who’s as big a music nerd as I am, if not bigger. While I’m pretty sure he plans on subjecting our future offspring to a constant loop of early Of Montreal, The Rolling Stones, and The Velvet Underground, I think I’ll have to be the parent who broadens their musical horizons. I want my babies to know the virtues of good early ska, The Carter Family, and tropicalia. More than anything, though, I’d like these glimmers in my eye to get to know songs from a little show called Sesame Street. I’m not talking current Abby Cadabby hits, though I’m sure some of those are good in their own right. Rather, I’d like my kids to know cuts like “Doin’ The Pigeon” and “Dance Myself To Sleep.” For some time now, I’ve been snagging not-too-beat-up Sesame Street records at thrift stores and estate sales, and some of those are total jams, like My Name Is Roosevelt Franklin, which is full of funky jams and funny Muppet hair. Since Sesame Street has been around so long, there’s a wealth of material to work with, and while some of it certainly might be categorized as “kid music,” I’d like to think our whole little family could enjoy some of the headier deep cuts together. If my own life is any testament, a steady diet of Sesame records when you’re young can set you up for a lifetime of good taste and musical-boundary-pushing.
As professional pop-culture enthusiast and the father of two beautiful daughters, 5 and 1 1/2, I was also concerned with finding the path that might lead them from Barney to The Replacements, but now I’m mostly interested in children’s music that doesn’t make me want to jam an icepick in my ears. And while I think early Beatles can be a good, accessible gateway, I don’t think actual children’s records need to be bypassed. Our favorite is Ralph’s World, a pop-rock outfit from Chicago that grew out of an indie band called The Bad Examples, and commits itself to up-tempo, funny, accessible, well-crafted kid rock. We started our first kid with the band’s eponymous 2001 debut, a seamless mix of reworked favorites and catchy originals, but subsequent albums are excellent, too, particularly 2005’s Green Gorilla, Monster & Me, released on Minty Fresh, before they made the inevitable leap to Disney Records. They’re a treat live, too, upbeat enough to inspire a pint-sized mosh pit in front of the stage. For the really little ones, I’m also fond of the Wiggleworms compilations on Bloodshot Records: Songs For Wiggleworms and Wiggleworms Love You. “Wiggleworms” is a music class for preschoolers, where teachers on acoustic guitar lead parents and kids through a selection of songs. Both our girls have attended multiple classes at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago; they’re wonderful, and the Bloodshot anthologies are a gentle, merciful supplement to that experience. Something I’ve learned as a parent: You may want to guide them to cool stuff—and you may succeed—but mostly, you just want to make them happy. And if that means putting on Wiggleworms instead of the least-abrasive Sonic Youth record in your collection, so be it.
My wife and I have a daughter who’s now 7 years old, but we’ve basically been feeding her a steady diet of music since conception. My wife and I attended one of the Pixies reunion shows as well as an Elvis Costello gig while our little one was still taking up space in the womb, I pointedly played some Johnny Cash up against my wife’s belly in the later months of the pregnancy, which inspired some serious kicking in response, and all of the late-night/early-morning feeding had some sort of soundtrack playing in the background, with The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds getting more than a few spins. Given that it inspired our daughter’s first favorite song, however, I’ve got to say that Nick Lowe’s Labour Of Lust is a pretty strong introduction to pure pop for young people while also offering hints of rock, country, and even a little bit of new wave. Most importantly, though, it’s fun and bouncy. Trust me, that goes a long way with little kids.