Our A.V. Club Field Guide To Parenting is designed to guide you toward the best kids’ books, shows, movies, and music, just like we do with The A.V. Club for adults. Every month or so, we will feature a new subject with a few essential pop-culture takes parents should know, saving you from the mountains of kids’ dreck out there.
M is for Music
The A.V. Club, as you might have guessed, is staffed with no shortage of music nerds, casually tossing off comments about our vinyl collections and that obscure indie show we caught last week. Before we were parents, we naturally assumed that our excellent musical taste was something hereditary that we would pass on the next generation, like flat feet or curly hair. Then our children arrived, and we were at a frickin’ loss as to how to sculpt their musical tastes to resemble our own. Some of us wisely left it up to the offspring to decide. Some tried stealth tactics. Some caved to the dreaded genre of “children’s music.” But the kids, as it turns out, have actual minds and opinions of their own, which apparently means we’ll be humming along with a strange man named Blippi for a few years before we can get to the good stuff, like taking the kids to yet another Jesus And Mary Chain reunion concert. (We can only hope.) Read on for our trials and errors, which include lots of They Might Be Giants and Beatles, an unfortunate Beasties incident, and a young accidental VU fan.
Lead your kids to pop music via OK Go videos
From the moment my twins were born, my husband and I have been in a standoff over what actually constituted kids’ music. His stance is that kids’ music is whatever we make them listen to, which is how The Jesus Lizard wound up on the mix CD for their fifth birthday party. As the person who spent the majority of her time driving around two small beings in car seats to museum playdates and pediatric appointments, “kids’ music” for me consisted of anything they liked that would make them shut up. From day one, we were constantly searching for that middle ground.
The husband made fun of me, but I found some gems in that dreaded “kids’ music” aisle. I knew Ralph Covert from the local Chicago band Bad Examples, but he’s made an entire new cottage industry for himself with his Ralph’s World kids’ albums. There was no song more beloved to me as a young mom than his “The Coffee Song,” which was my anthem. I liked a few Laurie Berkner hits as well, and of course drove around with a Wiggleworms CD from the Old Town School Of Folk Music on constant rotation. But it didn’t really take: It wasn’t like I was hauling the kids out to Dan Zanes or Justin Roberts concerts.
My husband, on the other hand, was schooling the kids on Led Zeppelin every time he had them trapped in the car, tossing out enough stories about hot tubs in private planes that to this day, my kids equate LZ only with tremendous wealth: “Will we ever be rich like Led Zeppelin?” (“No.”) We’ve also steered the kids straight into all things Queen, because classics are classics; “Don’t Stop Me Now” is our official family song, if you can ignore the disturbing sexual connotations like we do. For a while, soundtracks seemed to serve our family sing-along car gene: I highly recommend Aladdin, Annie, Oliver!, and some select selections from Hair. Working on Hamilton right now.
Some bands worked better than others as gateway drugs to real pop and rock music. I thought the TMBG kids’ albums were genius. Veruca Salt’s American Thighs was always a hit in the car. But OK Go has the advantage of offering not only fun pop songs but amazing visuals. I can’t even tell you how many times we’ve seen that Rube Goldberg video for “This Too Shall Pass,” but it delights every time. A close second is the dog video for “White Knuckles” (kids love dogs), followed by the recent no gravity hijinks in “Upside Down & Inside Out.” Even the seminal video, for “Here It Goes Again,” is impressive both for its treadmills and simplistic brilliance (and a Grammy winner to boot). My kids haven’t been to a real concert yet—as my husband and I are only too aware what an important milestone that is, a fact you’ll be trotting out for the rest of your life—but I think OK Go would be a fine option. Unfortunately, my son is pushing for Ariana Grande instead, which only proves that you can lead a kid to cool music, but you can’t make them fan up. [Gwen Ihnat]
Falling in love with Bowie’s “Kooks”
I did not force my son to listen to David Bowie, or anything else “cool.” I’ve tried a few things, including They Might Be Giants and Ramones, but they haven’t really taken. But he made it to Bowie in a roundabout way, via a children’s artist who was in an indie-rock band in the ’90s. Elizabeth Mitchell was in a band called Ida, which put out a bunch of sweet, melancholy records in that decade. Around that time, she also put out her first children’s album, called You Are My Flower. That somehow ended up on my CD shelf; I imagine she must have given it to me at some point in the ’90s, when I promoted a bunch of Ida shows in Milwaukee. When Jasper was old enough to care, I grabbed that one, and he loved it. He ended up wanting more of Mitchell’s discs—she’s got a bunch, and they’re really nice—one of which had a cover of David Bowie’s “Kooks” on it.
“Kooks” is such a great, sweet song, written for Bowie’s son Duncan, a.k.a. the director of the Warcraft movie. It’s pure love, perfect both for new parents and kids who can kinda get it: Jasper wanted to know what “kooks” were, exactly, and he identified himself as one pretty quickly. At some point, I asked him if he wanted to hear the “real” version of “Kooks,” and after explaining what “real version” meant, he was in. And he fell in love immediately, as if the proverbial light switch had been turned on. He wanted to listen to other Bowie songs right away, and for a while a greatest-hits set was all we listened to in the car. He broadened his horizons to other Bowie eras, but always came back to “Kooks.” This was fall of 2015.
When last January rolled around and news of Bowie’s death hit, I couldn’t bring myself to tell Jasper about it. He had just lost his grandpa and we were having a lot of those “Where does he go?” chats. So I just figured we’d let the Bowie news pass without comment. Hell, Jasper had never even asked if he was alive, so why should we tell him that Bowie died? At some point in the last month or two, either my wife or I alluded to the fact that Bowie had passed recently. Jasper was momentarily shocked and asked us when it happened. He wasn’t mad, thankfully, and we just popped in yet another greatest-hits set and listened to “Space Oddity.” [Josh Modell]
Blippi takes over
When I first learned I was going to be a father, one image that continually came into my mind was of me playing all the great music I owned to my little one. Them sitting in my lap, eyes wide, feet tapping to a range of music. As my son, Henry, got older, I attempted to make my dream a reality.
To the vinyl! I went through multiple decades and genre. Motown. The Beatles. Arcade Fire. Tune-Yards. The reaction? Nothing. He was more interested in watching the vinyl spin and trying to grab it then he was the music coming out of the player.
One day in an attempt to keep Henry from destroying more items in the house, I opened YouTube up on the TV and did a search for garbage trucks. For some reason, Henry has an obsession with garbage trucks. Neither I nor his mother come from a family of garbage trucksmen, but any time he sees one he reacts like Dug from Pixar’s Up, yelling “Truck! Truck! Truck!” and pointing his finger at it.
So in my search for garbage trucks, a video came up for Blippi. Blippi looks like an early Robin Williams stand-up character. He wears a flat cap, bright orange frames (no lenses), a blue shirt with bright orange suspenders, and an orange bow tie. He has songs about garbage trucks, excavators, and police cars. Henry loves them. I hate them. Henry bobs his head up and down. He smiles. He’ll even glance over at me with a “This is great, right?!” look. And Henry isn’t alone. Blippi has over 346 million views.
And then it dawned on me. After continually attempting to push my music on my son, Blippi (that bright orange bastard), taught me that music should be my son’s journey. If it makes Henry happy, then I’ll let him have it. I’m sure my parents found it just as odd that I liked rock music from a group of mutant turtles. So sing your song and do your silly dance, Blippi. In the meantime, I’m cutting a video of garbage trucks together with a backdrop of classic Prince songs. Maybe that’ll win my son over. [Eric Munn]
The great iPod music hunt
When my daughter was old enough to read on her own, I would wait until she was at school and would sneak some my favorite age-appropriate comic books onto her bookshelves: Archie, Little Lulu, Peanuts, and the like. I had a theory that she might grow to love comics more if she found them on her own rather that having me hand them to her. And I was right. Over the years I would update her collection, filling her shelves with Bone, Calvin & Hobbes, and more—until eventually she was picking out her own favorites at the library. (She mostly reads manga now, which she really did find on her own since I don’t have much.)
Around the time she turned 9, I thought I’d try something similar with music, by giving her my old iPod Touch pre-loaded with playlists I figured she might like. I didn’t include anything too arty or punky, but instead gave her a lot of catchy or folky pop, like The Beach Boys, Simon & Garfunkel, Regina Spektor, and Phoenix. The gambit didn’t go quite as I’d planned—at least not at first. She gravitated straight to my Beatles playlist, I think because one of her elementary school teachers mentioned being a fan; that was literally all she listened to on my iPod for about two years. She’d occasionally pull up the YouTube app and listen to meditative music or epic video game themes. (What can I say? She’s kind of a budding hippie/geek.) But for the most part it was the same three hours of The Beatles, night after night and month after month, as she drifted off to sleep.
The thing is, I still think my idea was a good one. Growing up, I got into quite a bit of music because I was in the room when my dad was listening to his Eric Clapton and Yes albums or in the car when my mom was playing Steely Dan. But I also dug through my dad’s LPs on my own, and listened to radio stations that they didn’t: Top 40 when I was a pre-teen, and later the ones run by our local universities. The bands and albums that I felt like I “discovered” were the ones that meant the most to me. So my ultimate goal was to get my daughter interested in pop, rock, and R&B in a general way, in hopes that she’d then go exploring.
The “here are some playlists” tricks may not have worked. But she did eventually find her way to the Pandora app on my iPod, and started doing searches based on artists she’s heard her friends mention. Her favorite thing now at age 12 has become empowering female-fronted modern rock acts like Tegan And Sara, Feist, and Florence & The Machine. Earlier this year, I went into her room and saw her sketchbook on her desk, open to a page where she’d drawn a picture of Regina Spektor. Maybe she didn’t get there the way I’d planned. But I knew she’d love those songs—and now she does. [Noel Murray]
The minefield of swear words in Beastie Boys’ “Professor Booty”
There is nothing funnier than butts. This is a fact. The mere mention of a derrière or its contents is enough to throw my sons into hysterics.
My younger son used to have a special dance dedicated to the heinie. He would swing his arms in a running pantomime, thrust out his rear and shout, “Booty! Booty!”
A few years ago during a drive through the suburbs, I decided to give them a real treat: The Beastie Boys classic “Professor Booty” from Check Your Head. I wanted them to delight in the lines, “Professor, what’s another word for pirate treasure? Well, I think it’s booty.”
As I pressed play on my iPhone, I fully expected my sons to lose their minds. A song about booties! I was about to be their hero. I looked forward to grade school essays celebrating my greatness and I mentally dusted off my dresser for the coming “World’s Best Dad” swag.
However, I had forgotten “Professor Booty” does not begin with the professor bit. It opens with a sample from the 1983 hip-hop movie Wild Style.
“Yo, I don’t hang out with those guys, man, I ain’t got nothing to do with those dudes.”
“Wait a minute, I saw your female with ‘em too. What’s up with her? I’ve been hearin’ she been givin’ that stuff out to all them graffiti guys.”
“Yo, shut the fuck up, Chico, man!”
“I could paint three of those murals for some of that ass.”
I had also forgotten the Beastie Boys follow this with a cavalcade of “fucking” and “motherfucking” and “smurfing.” Plus a sample toward the climax of the song of a woman, well, climaxing.
I immediately regretted the previous 4:13. In the weeks that followed, I could not walk through our house without hearing one of them rapping, “Ucking Chucking! Ucking ucking chuck, motherucker.” Yeah, they didn’t really know proper swears, but “ucking” still counted in my wife’s mind.
A few weeks later I gave them a lecture about swearing. It’s lazy and inelegant and gets me in trouble with Mommy.
My younger son said, “Dad. I think the swears in ‘Professor Booty’ make the song better.” I agreed and asked him if he had a favorite swear.
He sat thoughtfully for a second and replied, “Shut the fuck up, Dad.” [Rick Hamann]
An accidental Velvet Underground fan
A few months ago, our daughter asked if we could get a CD player for her bedroom so she could listen to music. I dug up the decommissioned stereo that had previously been in the kitchen, cleaned off the spider eggs, and put it on her bedside table. I didn’t check before I gave it to her and it still contained our copy of Velvet Underground and Nico. I mention this detail not because I’m implying it was irresponsible of us to introduce our kid to Lou Reed (only if she gets into Metal Machine Music). After all, most of the music she listens to is the music we listen to. It’s just that Andy Warhol’s personal stable of disaffected, musical heroin sylphs probably wouldn’t be our first, intuitive choice of music to introduce to the kid. But it immediately caught her attention thanks to Warhol’s iconic screen-printed banana gracing the CD cover, and go figure, she loves it.
Her favorite track is “Sunday Morning,” Reed’s subdued ode to paranoia and squandered opportunity. When I asked her why, she said it’s because it reminds her of “doll music” due to the distinct chiming quality of the celesta used in the song. She enjoys “All Tomorrow’s Parties” because (for her) it’s about dresses and beautiful costumes and balls. And when the frantic, dissonant violin of “Black Angel Death Song” kicks in, she’ll hop up and immediately break out her signature dance; a wobbly combination of Saturday Night Fever’s finger-pointing disco strut and Elaine Benes’ infamous Seinfeld dance of thrust-out thumbs and ill-timed kicks.
She’s beginning to lose interest in Velvet Underground, though. Lately she’s been favoring New Pornographers’ Mass Romantic. She constantly asks us about lyrics she either can’t make out or understand, and perhaps foolishly, because I’m not above the cheap thrill of hearing kids say mildly transgressive things, I tell her. So more than once I’ve walked by her room to hear her squeaky, atonal voice accompanying “Letter To An Occupant” chirping, “Where the hell have the ’70s brought me?” Kid, I think that’s what we’re all asking right now. [Nick Wanserski]
Singing a toddler to sleep with indie-rock hits
They Might Be Giants is one of my all-time favorite bands, so I had all of their children’s albums well before I had our daughter, who is currently 1-year-old and change. But in general, my wife and I have tried to avoid kid-specific music, not because we’re trying to raise some kind of erudite indie-rock snob in our image, but because we, as erudite indie-rock snobs, do not want to listen to very much kid-specific music. (I wonder if this means my daughter will blast Raffi as part of her punk-rock teenage rebellion. Godspeed, if so.) My feeling is, we don’t need to subject ourselves to most of that stuff when there’s so much “regular” pop music that is simple enough for a kid to enjoy.
The most obvious example is The Beatles. The progression of their career is incredible, and while I don’t mean to denigrate the quality of their early hits, their more humble beginnings make them pretty baby-friendly. For that matter, that quality is still there in some of their more emotionally complex tunes, and even some of their later, weirder songs have a nursery-rhyme quality that glosses over, say, the more disturbing aspects of “The Continuing Story Of Bungalow Bill” (I think we’ll wait a while on “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” though).
So along with TMBG, Belle And Sebastian, and “Boom Clap” by Charli XCX (she understands clapping and enjoys any perceived prompting to do so), The Beatles have been an easy go-to. One of the first things she ever heard in this world was “With A Little Help From My Friends,” and I still sing it to her when I need to rock her to sleep, in part because it’s one of about a dozen total songs that I can sing extemporaneously in their entirety, along with “Eight Days A Week.” Singing her to sleep is also how They Might Be Giants returned to the fold: Other entries on the limited playlist of stuff I can sing straight through include “Ana Ng,” “She’s An Angel,” “The End Of The Tour,” and, for some reason, “Shady Lane” by Pavement. Maybe she’ll wake up an erudite indie-rock snob yet. [Jesse Hassenger]
We’ve pulled together a Spotify playlist taken from our writers’ suggestions above (but to avoid an incident in your home like Rick’s, we swapped out the Beasties’ “Professor Booty” for the less explicit “Intergalactic”):