Bidding a Greasy Adieu to Greasy Kid Stuff

Greasy Kid Stuff logo by Rodney Alan Greenblat

Greasy Kid Stuff logo by Rodney Alan Greenblat

I saw on Twitter yesterday that the radio show Greasy Kid Stuff was coming to an end this weekend, and I thought it was important to publicly celebrate the show before it permanently went off the air.

Longtime readers are probably familiar with GKS, but if you’re not, the show was started 22 (!) years ago by Belinda Miller and Hova Najarian, airing on legendary New York station WFMU long before the couple became parents.  From the beginning, Belinda and Hova -- it was always Belinda and Hova, their last names have mostly been an afterthought -- were less interested in “kids music” as much as they wanted to play weird music they thought kids would enjoy as adults.  They weren’t the only kids music show (and they probably would issue with the idea that it was mostly for kids, but they were definitely the oddest, a mix of Dr. Demento, Sesame Street, and 120 Minutes.  And as kids music moved into a more kindie direction, they certainly shined a spotlight on artists that fit their somewhat off-center sensibility, but never fully embraced the full-on conventional kids music world.

That was, in my view, to their credit and benefit.  As I noted in my review of their third and final compilation of music (yep, they released three albums in total, all worth tracking down), I think kids music embraced Belinda and Hova’s approach as much as Belinda and Hova embraced kids music.  They weren’t the only radio outlet that took that view, but on the whole I think they did it longer than anyone else.

After moving across the country to Portland, Oregon in 2004 (and also becoming parents), Belinda and Hova eventually moved their show to 94.7 FM in Portland and more recently XRAY.FM.  (Why am I noting those links?  Because you can still find playlists, at least for WFMU and XRAY.FM, online if you want to see how unique those playlists are.)  But after 22 years, they’ve decided to hang up their headphones and microphones.  As they put it in a Facebook announcement earlier this month, they have “decided we’d like to see what it’s like to have regular weekends.”

I can’t say I blame them.  Twenty-two years is a long time to work on anything, and they have earned the right to break out the bedazzler and make some art (Belinda’s goal).  But the kids music community owes Belinda and Hova a big round of thanks for the many years of playing their music and for supporting the idea that kids can embrace music outside of the mainstream.

Greasy Kid Stuff logo by Musho Rodney Alan Greenblat

59th Grammy Award Nominations for Best Children's Album

... or, as I call it, the final victory of kindie.

Last month, the nominations for the 59th Annual Grammy Awards were announced, and while I continue to be less than completely convinced of the value of Grammy awards for kids music, there's no doubt that the awards are still considered a Big Deal throughout the recorded music industry, kids' musicians included.

First, let's list the five nominees in the category of Best Children's Album:

Explorer of the World cover

Explorer of the World cover

Explorer of the World

Frances England

Frances England Music

Infinity Plus One cover

Infinity Plus One cover

Infinity Plus One

Secret Agent 23 Skidoo

Underground Records

Novelties album cover

Novelties album cover


Recess Monkey

Recess Monkey

Press Play cover

Press Play cover

Press Play

Brady Rymer and the Little Band That Could

Bumblin' Bee Records

Saddle Up cover

Saddle Up cover

Saddle Up

The Okee Dokee Brothers

Okee Dokee Music


The Grammy Awards will be announced on Sunday, February 12 -- the biggest awards in the evening, the rest of the awards (including this category) that afternoon.  And unlike most of the nominees, the kids' nominees take the opportunity to play a benefit concert the Saturday the day before the concert.  This year, the concert is on Saturday the 11th, and if you've got kids and live in Los Angeles, it's worth checking out getting tickets.  (You can read more about the history here.)  I went to last year's concert, and, yeah, it's a good time -- the public is unlikely to get to hear these five artists play together.

The annual Grammy weekend has also become the closest West Coast analogue to KindieFest/Kindiecomm, thanks to an annual industry-only luncheon also held on Saturday the day before the awards ceremonies.  This year is no exception (details here), and for those musicians who haven't had a chance to attend either the Grammy-related luncheon or the East Coast gatherings, it's definitely worth considering whether a day or two in the L.A. area might be within your budget.

I've been writing this site for more than 12 years, and when I started, the word "kindie" hadn't even been coined.  Yes, artists like Dan Zanes, Laurie Berkner, and Justin Roberts had released multiple albums, and of course artists like Trout Fishing in America, Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer and Raffi were walking along the paths Pete Seeger, Ella Jenkins, and others had created.

When I researched the Grammy nominations for the kids music awards (non-spoken word) handed out in February 2004 and February 2005, bookending the start of this site, I was a little surprised to see that it wasn't a collection of Disney retreads -- both years are pretty solid collections of albums from artists familiar to this site.

But I think it's fair to say that those lists come more from a folk-music tradition with some gentle pop thrown in.  I think that the Dan Zanes nod in 2005 is the only album that could safely plant both feet in the "kindie" tradition as it's been most popularly understood -- pulling in rock and other musical traditions beyond folk and pop, and not dependent upon music labels for funding and distribution.

This list, on the other hand, while pulling in elements of folk music and pop, feels like its heart comes from indie rock and some hip-hop.  At this point Brady Rymer (nominated for multiple Grammys) and the Okee Dokee Brothers (winners and nominated multiple times) seem like Grammy royalty, and only Rymer had released an album before 2005.

And unlike lists of recent years, on which Rymer, the Okee Dokee Brothers, and Secret Agent 23 Skidoo had previously appeared, there was no "exception" this year.  No non-kids artist making an album for kids, no spoken-word recitation of a book, no... nothing.  Just five artists all easily described as kindie stars, with roughly 35 albums for kids between them.  I don't want to say it's the perfect "kindie" list, because that implies a qualitative hierarchical distinction that I'm not trying to make.  But I'm not sure I could come up with a list that is... more kindie (as it's currently defined in terminology and example) than this one.

I don't want to say "my work here is done," but I think it's fair to say that one of my goals when I started this site more than a dozen years ago -- raising the visibility of great kids music that drew upon a broad range of musical styles -- has been accomplished.  I'm not taking credit for any of it -- that belongs to the artists themselves -- but I think it's time for me to think (again) about how to further expand the visibility of kids audio to an even wider audience, and to think (much more) about how to further expand who creates kids audio to an even wider creator base.  Because the two are related, and the two are how when we talk about kids music a dozen years from now, somebody will talk about a Grammy list that builds upon the paths the Okee Dokee Brothers and Secret Agent 23 Skidoo further blazed, but doesn't include them, either.

Best Kids Music of 2015: A Summary

I can now relax heading into the Christmas holidays because I wrapped up my reviews of the best -- or at least my favorites -- of the year in kids music.  Here, before I forget, are my three lists:

Before I sign off for the year -- and this site is going to be pretty quiet until the new year -- a couple brief thoughts to ponder in 2016.

I think there was a lot of great music this year -- really, just go back and check out those lists of top albums and songs -- but I felt like the number of new musicians I was introduced to this year was diminished a bit from previous years.  I noted last year that the number of artists represented in my lists was maybe 20% of all the artists I was exposed to.  So I recognize that this dimming of new music tickling my eardrums could be my own narrowing of tastes.  But I'm also a little worried that I couldn't find ten debuts I wanted to highlight this year -- it wasn't even like I had 8 or 9 and could've tweaked my guidelines to get to 10 -- at best there was maybe one more that was anywhere near being in the running.  So, again, I don't know if that's me or the genre generally, but that's not something I recall thinking in previous years.

The other "big thought" I have from the year is that I think the economics of the genre is at a tipping point... but I'm not sure which way it's going to tip.  Artists keep reporting that album sales (both digital and physical) continue to decline.  Not for all artists, and to vary degrees to be sure, but it seems like the model of having album sales be the primary income stream is nearing an end for the kids music world much sooner than I thought it would.  At the same time, artists are diversifying their artistic efforts (books, puppet shows, videos).  And with the explosion of streaming services trying to provide "walled gardens" for kids-related media, there could be an explosion of opportunities for talented kids musicians to be snapped up for exclusive albums, videos, and more for those services.  (Exhibit A: The Pop Ups.)

If I had to guess, I'd think that this is a great opportunity for focused kids' artists with a wealth of songs, creative ideas, and creative people in their address books... and not so good news for "hobbyist" musicians who can't devote a significant amount of resources (mostly time, but even money) in producing high-quality music, videos, and concert experiences.

Will the explosion in places to have music heard result in an ever-increasing flowering of types of kids music... or its homogenization?  I'm not sure, but I'm thinking 2016 might be a really important year.

Mixtapes For My Father

I did not fall into reviewing music for kids because of any deep childhood immersion into the genre.  When I was young, my own musical memories are that of Mantovani, Herb Alpert, and other bandleaders you could hear on "Easy Listening" radio stations.

Not only did my parents predate the Baby Boom generation, neither of them came to the United States until adulthood, and so American (and British) rock and roll, rhythm and blues, jazz weren't part of their musical DNA.  "Light music" wasn't performed and recorded with kids in mind, but as many of the songs lacked vocals and certainly were not harsh in any way, they were perfectly safe for listening with kids, and so I remember tooling around Northern California on weekend drives with my parents, listening to one perfectly orchestrated, slightly swinging tune after another.  All those classic kids' albums from the '60s and '70s -- your Peter, Paul, and Mommy, your The Point!, anything from Pete Seeger or Ella Jenkins -- I never heard them until years after I became a parent, or thirty, forty, or even fifty years after they were released.

And so while music was never hidden our house -- and, indeed, I took all sorts of lessons, from piano to violin to organ -- it was never anything that my parents looked to specifically share with me.  And although I have fond memories of listening to that "light music," I don't revisit it today and doubt I would listen to it for any reason other than nostalgia.

Here seems an appropriate time to mention two new attempts -- from completely different parts of the musical spectrum -- to craft a listening experience to be shared by parent and child.  Neither of these attempts includes anything from Mantovani, though one is slightly Mantovani-adjacent, despite its relative newness.

This Record Belongs To... record and record player

This Record Belongs To... record and record player

Let's start, then, with that slightly retro attempt from Light In The Attic Records.  It's called This Record Belongs To ________, and it's received press attention well beyond any release the kids music world typically receives.  I suspect that much of the attention has to do with the format of the release -- Light In The Attic issued the record on vinyl and partnered with Jack White's Third Man Records to package the album with a miniature record player.  As high-concept ideas go, This Record Belongs To, is a pretty good one -- deliberately push back against the digital tide that's swept the musical world, even the kids' bay I thought would be sheltered for longer than it has been.

I can't comment on the record player or the vinyl record -- hey, what can I say, while I love CDs, I've never had much interest in collecting vinyl.  But the album itself (also available on mp3 if necessary) is essentially a mixtape of classic kid-friendly tracks from the 1960s and 1970s -- Carole King's "One Was Johnny," a couple Harry Nilsson tracks including "Me and My Arrow," the Pointer Sisters' "Pinball Number Count" permanently imprinted upon the brain of countless American youth who've seen more than a handful of Sesame Street episodes.  And there are a number of tracks that weren't created with kids in mind -- Vashti Bunyan's "Diamond Day" and Donovan's "The Mandolin Man and His Secret."  As mixtapes go, this one is excellent.

Now, to the credit of the person who created it, DJ Zach Cowie, hasn't tried to suggest anything like that he's trying to bring "real" music to kids.  (Would that some of the coverage of the album had been as modest in suggesting how much better this selection is.)  Which is a good thing, because leaving aside the issue of the general quality of kids music these days (memo: it's good, better than it's ever been), the idea of mixing "kids music" with kid-friendly music for all has been used for years by DJs like those at Greasy Kid Stuff and Spare the Rock, Spoil the Child, to name a couple.  All I'm suggesting is that, as good as this particular set of tracks is -- it's good, really it is -- it's by no means unique, and it's very much possible to create a similar album with tracks that were recorded in the past quarter-century.

Smiles Ahead record cover

Smiles Ahead record cover

Approaching kids music from the other end of the spectrum is Smiles Ahead, the first release from Kansas City-based Mighty Mo Productions, a label whose specific goal is to raise the visibility of the current crop of musicians making music for kids and families.  This album is a collection of "happy" songs (their next collection, scheduled for release on Valentine's Day, will have more of a love theme), a theme that is pretty flexible and, in a genre that is as generally positive as kids' music, open to a wide variety of tracks.  Particular standouts include Brady Rymer and the Little Band That Could's "Jump Up," The Pop Ups' soaring "Box of Crayons," and one of the new tracks, the Verve Pipe's "Get Happy!."

It is not necessarily a mixtape, and unlike the This Record Belongs To _______ and the radio shows I mention above, there's no attempt to mix current "non-kids" music (or older music of any sort).  In a genre that, despite recent attempts, by artists to stitch together a concept of "kids music" as a national thing, is still fairly atomized, Mighty Mo is staking its business model in part on the idea that if a family on the West Coast likes Caspar Babypants (aka Chris Ballew), then they might also like Minnesota's Okee Dokee Brothers.  They're hoping that listening to music in the minivan will lead to jamming to music together in concert.  They're also wanting to make their business dependent on "kids music that parents will like too."  That is definitely not their tagline, but it's a tagline I've heard literally hundreds of times in my 15 or so years of covering this genre.  The fact that the tagline (or its variants) still gets thrown around is an indication that the genre's got a long ways to go.

I don't know whether Mighty Mo's business model will work any better than Light In The Attic's will (though I'm guessing Light In The Attic won't necessarily be looking to develop another vinyl mixtape at quite the same pace that Mighty Mo will be releasing albums).  I obviously have some built-in affinity for Mighty Mo because they're working with artists of today while Light In The Attic's collection features, for the most part, artists it's literally impossible to see perform because they passed away many years ago.

And if there's a more fundamental difference between the two albums it really hinges on the progress of time and the impermanent nature of life.  This Record Belongs To _______ is based on the view of listening at home (preferably with a physical object) as the primary source to developing a musical background, while Smiles Ahead views the album merely as the gateway to the concert experience, where lasting musical memories will be made.  Neither is necessarily correct, nor are they mutually exclusive -- but which one you gravitate to says quite a bit about how you want your kids to approach music.

There is a third way as well.

If there was any musical legacy my parents left me, it probably had its origins in 1984, the year we moved to Texas.  That was the summer I taped a penny to an ad ripped out of who knows where, and I joined the Columbia House Record Club for the first time.  Their legacy was letting their middle schooler agree to a contractual obligation and letting me choose 12 cassettes of my very own.  I can't remember the whole dozen -- there was a Bruce Springsteen album (Born in the USA), something from Slade which featured their hit "Run Runaway," and beyond that, I have no specific memory.

But I'm pretty sure that I spent much of that summer in an apartment, listening to those tapes every day, reading those mailings and scanning the hundreds of album names available to me.  That was probably the summer I became an honest-to-goodness music fan, all because my parents let me do my own thing.

I know that parents want to provide a broad set of experiences for their kids, and giving them musical experiences both recorded and live are important as part of that, particularly if you can give them experiences viewed as high quality.  But eventually you have to let go, and regardless of whether you played Harry Nilsson, Caspar Babypants, or even Mantovani for your kids, they'll find their own set of musical heroes.  It's not so much the stops along the way as it is the journey itself.

Note: I received copies of both albums for possible review.

Who Needs the Children's Music Grammy Anyway?

Before I start, let me get a few things out of the way:

1) Congratulations to Neela Vaswani for her Best Children's Music Grammy at the 57th Annual Grammys for her recording of the young adult version of I Am Malala, the memoir from Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousafzai.  Yousafzai has already changed thousands (tens of thousands? hundreds of thousands?) of lives, and her story deserves to be heard by as many people as possible.

2) Congratulations as well to Vaswani's fellow nominees The Okee Dokee Brothers (Through the Woods), The Pop Ups (Appetite for Construction), Brady Rymer and the Little Band That Could (Just Say Hi!), and Secret Agent 23 Skidoo (The Perfect Quirk).  From their social media posts, it sounds like that they did the Grammy thing right, partying, socializing, and being gracious when Vaswani won.  (And it sounds like Vaswani was just as gracious to her fellow nominees.)

3a) I am not now a member of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS), the membership group that runs (and votes for) the Grammy Awards, and I'm not sure I ever will be as even were I to get enough credits for voting membership (and I'm probably pretty close), its benefits aren't worth the cost to me. So you can take the rest of these comments with several grains of salt associated with being an outside.

3b) Also, I help run a kids music award site.

4a) The Grammys are mostly meaningless, but...

4b) Lots of people take the Grammys very seriously.

Those last 2 points are up for debate, obviously, but I'm not going too far out on a limb with those comments.  And with the small kerfuffle amongst some members of the kids music community (and I heard it from both musicians and fans) about the Grammy for Yousafzai's audiobook, it seems harder to deny that latter point.

5) I've not heard the Grammy-winning audiobook.

That's another big grain of salt to take with my argument, but on the other hand, I'm not going to be arguing about the relative qualitative merits of the nominees and winner.

How did we get here?  Well, in spring 2011, NARAS announced it was combining the Children's Musical Recording and Children's Spoken Word fields into a single category.  There was no specific reason cited for the return to a single category (the default from 1958 through 1993), but clearly the low participation in the Children's Spoken Word category played a role.  And although I feared that it would lead to even more big names and crowding out of independent musicians, exactly the opposite happened -- independent musicians ruled the day.

In fall 2012, the Grammys moved to a special nominating committee for children's music, and that certainly gave independent musicians a shot they might not have had under the old system.  Having said that, the list of nominees in winter 2011-2012 were pretty independent as well, so I don't know how much of an impact the special nominating committee has necessarily had on the independent status of the nominees.  (The makeup of the nominees, well, that's not a conversation I'm going to get into.)

But the nominating committees have done yeoman's (and yeowoman's) work in the category, so the comments that follow should in no way be considered an impugnment of their effort.  They listen to well over a hundred entries -- believe me, I know what that's like -- and their interests are certainly in the elevation and promotion of children's music and the production of cultural entertainment for children as a whole.

The inclusion of the audiobook version of I Am Malala didn't seem to (publicly) annoy some musicians and fans until it won the Grammy. While I was much more prosaic about the matter (see 4a above), I was not unsympathetic to the argument.  For me, the best analogy would be if, alongside all the other nominees for Best Picture at the Oscars, the list included a filmed version of, say, Love Letters, or some other play with simple staging.  Not a musical or a play like Into the Woods, which was reimagined for the big screen, but a simple 3- or 4-camera recording of the play on stage.

I have a suspicion that if that happened, movie fans (and those in the industry) would go apoplectic.  A movie, not just based on source material from another medium, but faithfully recorded from that medium, no matter how good and faithfully recorded, would not feel right amidst other movies which were, well, more movie-like.

All of which wouldn't matter except for 4b above -- (some) people care.  They care deeply about the Grammys.  Beyond the possible benefits of increased album sales and easier bookings (I gather those benefits are tangible but modest), I would guess that the thrill of recognition from your peers motivates many musicians who enter and the thrill of seeing your friends win.  And when four popular artists with critically-acclaimed albums inside kindie's tight-knit community have a chance to win a blast of recognition on a broader stage and don't get it, it can feel like a blow.

And here's where I make my radical, not entirely serious, but not entirely joking either, proposal:

Let's get rid of the Children's Music Grammy.

First, I'm not sure how useful a Grammy nomination or victory is in terms of album sales or album bookings.  I suspect it varies by album, and I'm not sure that the Grammy recognition is necessarily the defining point.  I'd love to see some actual data on that, but it's not going to be available the way that people can track the impact of an Oscar nomination on box office ticket sales.  It would surprise me if the collective amount of work (if not actual money) artists spend on submitting recordings for entry doesn't exceed the value of increased album sales and directly attributable bookings for the nominees and winner.

[Side note: I would be very happy if I never saw another artist ever again announcing that their album has been successfully admitted for Grammy entry.  I understand if people are excited, and I don't mind if people talk about it as the first, hopeful step towards a nomination, but bragging about it as if it's a major step towards a Grammy is akin to me bragging that my successful filing of my taxes on TurboTax means I'm thisclose to getting a $10,000 refund.  Stop it.  It's not pretty.  Rant over.] 

Certainly the Grammy Award itself can't have a meaningful impact on the visibility of children's music upon the world generally -- it's telecast on an afternoon webstream.  The concert held the Saturday before the past few years has certainly had a larger impact comparatively than the award, but there's no reason why it has to be done Grammy weekend, and there are other concerts that raise the visibility of children's music just as much.

The bigger issue is that of peers, and who exactly the peers are who are voting for the awards. It's not just the peers of people who play music primarily for kids and families.  It's (if they choose to vote in the category) the metal heads, the polka stars, the major label publicists, and the question for me as an outsider is, how valuable is that feedback.

If I had a dollar for every time I heard or read a kids musician say something along the lines of "I don't really think about kids when I'm writing, I just try to write a good song," I'd have a brand-new iPhone 6 rather than this much older version with a cracked screen.  But I believe artists when they say that, and I'd like to see those artists be able to move much more in that world.

Instead of being considered for a Children's Music Grammy, perhaps the Okee Dokee Brothers should be considered in the Best Americana or Best Folk Album categories.  Secret Agent 23 Skidoo, Best Rap Album, maybe?  The Pop Ups might fit in Best Pop Vocal Album, and Brady Rymer might also join in the Best Americana field.  And I Am Malala could compete in the Best Spoken Word Album category.

That's the thing, the Children's Music field is there because of the audience, but all those other fields have diverse audiences, theoretically.  The Pop Ups' Appetite for Construction has stellar production values, witty lyrics, and catchy choruses, and a big, beating alterna-poppy heart -- why shouldn't it compete against other albums that feature the same things?  Trying to choose from the 5 nominees just because an 8-year-old might listen to all of them is a little outmoded in an age where an 8-year-old might also listen to Katy Perry or Beyonce or Imagine Dragons.

I guess I'm just getting tired of the angst -- or what I perceive to be angst -- and I'm wondering if the genre is expending more energy than necessary on the Grammys.  (I'm writing this way past my own bedtime, so I'm clearly engaging in a little bit of pot calling the kettle black here.)  Maybe it's time that we started to focus a little more inward -- celebrating with and by the musicians who most know what it's like to make music for this segment of the world -- and a little more outward, being louder about the quality recordings that hold their own against others regardless of audience age.

Getting rid of the Children's Music Grammy wouldn't solve those issues, but I also think we wouldn't miss it nearly as much as we think it would.