I’m going to start this off by saying I’m sure Raffi is a very nice person and it’s very likely the Wiggles aren’t actually evil. But frankly – at times – mainstream commercial children’s music can seem like a conspiracy to torture parents into regretting they had children. Fortunately the light at the end of the children’s music tunnel arrived over a decade ago with musicians like Dan Zanes making music that was palatable for everyone in the family. As the New York Times Magazine commented in a review of one of his early albums, “Zanes’ kids music works because it is not kids music; it’s just music – music that’s unsanitized, unpasteurized…”
Considering the average child’s listening habits (i.e. “Play it again!”) we, the parents, need music that’s not kids music. Over the years there are several songs that have taken a storied place in our family history and can serve as proof that a classic rock education is a good starting place for entertaining your kids and helping to preserve your sanity.
#5 "All Star" by Smash Mouth
Clearly an example of an alternative rock hit being co-opted as children’s music, it’s known in our house (and probably many others) as "The Shrek Song" because many children encountered it under the opening credits of the first Shrek movie. Hopefully they didn’t hear it watching its original cinematic outing in the Ben Stiller cult film Mystery Men – an enjoyable diversion for geek dads but not really appropriate for the munchkins. However, the song itself has a driving ska beat and is acoustically playful even at one point featuring a toy piano. A Toy Piano! Kids Music!
Whatever, it’s a catchy song produced by a legitimate grown-up band producing fun music for adults. If some of those adults happen to think the band’s songs would work well in their kid movie I can’t stop them.
In our house, "All Star" took on a special role when it was time for bed and the junior energy was reaching critical levels. Our house has a layout whereby the kitchen, dining room, and living room make a large circle. The wife would announce, “Right! Everyone get naked!” We would put on "All Star," turn up the volume, and for the next ten minutes (usually good for two or three repeats) the kids would scream and run around the house singing and dancing to the song. Naked. It was a step toward getting the jammies on and it worked like a charm.
#4 "ABC" by The Jackson 5
This is actually a relatively new song in our family’s oeuvre. With Michael Jackson’s death in 2009 the kids were suddenly being exposed to Jackson’s legacy through their school friends and I wanted to step in and help them understand where Michael Jackson came from before he became, well, whatever it is he turned into. Despite the fact that the “Thriller” Michael Jackson was everywhere during my high school years I find myself drawn more to the Jackson 5 and their Motown sound. Add to that the fact that we’re examining grown-up kid music here and "ABC" would seem like a natural choice.
However, despite the fact that Michael was 11 when he recorded "ABC" and the reading, writing, ‘rithmatic lyrics might lull you into a sense of innocent schoolyard hijinks – as we should all know by now, there is nothing at all normal or innocent about any stage in Michael Jackson’s life.
So, even though "ABC" might seem like the most childlike of all the songs on this list, a careful reading of the lyrics will demonstrate that it is, in fact, the most sexually charged and socially inappropriate of the lot.
But without the roots of love every day, girl
Your education ain’t complete
T-T-T-Teacher’s gonna show you
Show you, show you
How to get an A!
Holy Lolita, Batman! I was worried that I might be reading too much into it. Love, sweet love, innocent love, pure love. Surely, this is what he was singing about:
Sit down, girl!
I think I love you!
Get up, girl!
Show me what you can do!
Shake it, shake it, baby, come on now!
Shake it, shake it, baby, ooo oooh!
Shake it, shake it, baby, huh!
OK, fine. Feel free to include "Baby Beluga" on that mix tape instead of this one.
#3 "Hound Dog" by Elvis Presley
This one is another rock history lesson. I checked the lyrics to make sure there was nothing questionable here because after the "ABC" fiasco I was worried about potentially inappropriate associations. Fortunately, on the face of it Elvis is just singing to a hound dog and any metaphors you might try to layer over it have to stretch pretty far to become objectionable.
So, now we’ve got that out of the way – as they used to say on American Bandstand, "Hound Dog" has a good beat and you can dance to it. There’s no better audience than kids to prove this. I defy you to put on "Hound Dog" and turn up the volume – children everywhere will start dancing – no exceptions.
Plus, through their young lives the kids are going to be exposed to all manner of rock stars from Lady Gaga to Kelly Clarkson, and you might as well start them off at the beginning. This is also my rule of thumb for a rock and roll musical education in general. Work your way up from Chuck Berry, Elvis, Aretha Franklin, The Supremes, and introduce music to them chronologically. The early stuff is reasonably innocent and if you time it right, you can reach the "Immigrant Song" by the time you’re reading The Hobbit to them as a bedtime story.
#2 "Three Little Birds" by Bob Marley
World music is widely seen as an alternative to commercial children’s music by NPR listeners everywhere. While Reggae is technically world music it shares enough roots with good old-fashioned American rock and roll to transcend such a politically correct label and embrace a giant spliff.
But I, um, digress.
The legendary Uncle Roy brought us the tradition of “Marley in the Morning” and there’s just something wonderfully laid back and sweet about "Three Little Birds." If you’re looking for empowerment and positive messages it’s hard to beat Marley: "One Love," "Get Up Stand Up," it’s as if the Wailers were emitting a large cloud of good feelings. Any of these songs would be good for a children’s play list but I have to give top marks to "Three Little Birds" for pure, innocent, happiness. After all, every little thing gonna be all right.
#1 "Yellow Submarine" by The Beatles
There is a big stack of Beatles songs you could put at the top of this list. I’m a Beatles partisan but I would also make a case that they manage to fulfill any number of my criteria for this list: famous rock stars, historic significance, fun, good beat you can dance to. Heck, if you’re willing to consider "Love You To" from Revolver you can even make a case for world music. My current favorite Beatles listening is the two-disc CD Live at the BBC, which contains a lot of material that reflects their time in Hamburg and the Cavern Club. Bottom line, kids dig the Beatles and you should too.
I chose "Yellow Submarine" because of its part in our family lore. When our son was four or five he used to listen to the stereo a lot. He was fascinated by music and the sound coming out of the speakers. Thing is, he also liked the tactile experience of listening to music.
What’s that, you say? Music is an auditory experience, how could he touch it? Well, quite simply by pressing his ear against the speaker. He would play "Yellow Submarine" over and over and over again and we would find his little feet sticking out from under the end table by the couch, his little blonde head resting against the woofer, the cones tickling his ear.
I, of course, was convinced he was going deaf and had to go back time and again to turn down the volume every time he turned it up. As it happens he’s not deaf – yet – but as he enters adolescence and increasingly ignores us we find ourselves returning to the question of his hearing loss. Perhaps some day we’ll be able to blame "Yellow Submarine" – but not yet.
John Kubalak is a writer, teacher, volunteer coordinator, raconteur, and scalawag. He does not publish science fiction under the pseudonym Jonathan Black but he does publish a monograph on fatherhood, The Eclectic Dad. He has a son, a daughter, a beautiful wife (and a little dog too!) who are adorable, maddening, zany, and brilliant all at the same time.