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.

57th Annual Grammy Nominations for Best Children's Album


December rolls around every year -- except for those cultures without 12-month calendars, of course -- and for roughly 57 of those years, Grammy nominations have been announced, highlighting musicians' votes for their favorite and best music of the past year.

Earlier this month, the nominations for the 57th Annual Grammy Awards were announced, including the nominations for Best Children's Album.

This year's list, representing the best in 2014 music (or, technically speaking, the best in children's recordings released between October 1, 2013 and September 30, 2014) is a good -- and interesting -- batch of albums:

Appetite For ConstructionThe Pop Ups

I Am Malala: How One Girl Stood Up For Education And Changed The World (Malala Yousafzai): Neela Vaswani

Just Say Hi!Brady Rymer And The Little Band That Could

The Perfect QuirkSecret Agent 23 Skidoo

Through The WoodsThe Okee Dokee Brothers

For those of you keeping count, that's one former Grammy winner (the Okee Dokee Brothers), two former Grammy nominees (the Pop Ups and Brady Rymer), one album of kid hip-hop (Secret Agent 23 Skidoo), and one Nobel Prize winner (Malala Yousafzai, natch).

It's that last nominee that makes this category such a wild card.  The four musical nominees were each part of the top 10 family music albums of the year according to Fids and Kamily, including the top two, so, yes, it's a solid list.  But how do judges compare those albums with an audiobook?  Indeed, it's exactly the potential problem I raised 3 years ago when the Grammys switched from 2 separate categories for music and spoken word to one unified category.  Oddly enough, I proved totally wrong about what would happen as the nominations the past two years have been spoken word-free.

We shall see who voters choose to reward this year, but I think that the award is very much up for grabs.

Weekly Summary (11/24/14 - 12/7/14)

I'd intended to post more here over the past couple weeks, but Thanksgiving + flu = not much posting.

And while I don't have something on the site (yet), congratulations to Secret Agent 23 Skidoo, Brady Rymer and the Little Band That Could, The Pop Ups, and The Okee Dokee Brothers for their Grammy nominations for Best Children's Album.  They, along with the audiobook recording of "I Am Malala," will be competing for the Grammy on February 8.

Blog: Video: "Hair" - fleaBITE

Videos:  "The Number Song" - Play Date

Listen to Music:  None this week

Free Music:  "Favorite Cousin" - The Pop Ups

Kids Music ReviewsNone this week

iOS Apps:  None this week

Upcoming Releases: Constantly updating...


Kindie Week in Review:   None this week

My Other Other Gig:  None this week

Bake Sale:  None this week

Review: Through the Woods - The Okee Dokee Brothers


There aren't many blockbuster albums in the world of kindie.  There are lots of albums that sell well, and lots of albums that achieve a level of critical popularity inside and outside the kindie world -- but something that combines parts, that's rare.

The Okee Dokee Brothers' Can You Canoe? was one of those rare albums.  It was critically acclaimed as the best album of 2012, winning the Grammy for best children's album of that year as well as taking the top spot in the Fids and Kamily Awards.  It also continued to be one of the few kindie albums (Non-Laurie Berkner/Elizabeth Mitchell/TMBG Division) to make Top 50 charts at iTunes and Amazon.

All of which is to say, Justin Lansing and Joe Mailander, those boys from Minnesota, had a mighty big task in following up that album. Did they succeed with Through the Woods: An Appalchian Adventure Album?

It's hard to say, precisely because of its predecessor's tremendous success. Are all the elements there? Yes -- a big-hearted spirit, a fancy for metaphor, tenderness leavened with humor, it's all there.  But I would be lying if I said I had the same instantaneous reaction to this new album as I did 2 years ago, and maybe the reason it's taken me 3 months to write this review is that I've been trying to figure out why.

The best answer I can come up with -- and it's not a great one, though it is an honest one -- is that it's mellower, its philosophy perhaps more inwardly focused.  Compared to Canoe, whose can-do attitude and celebration of exploration was front-and-center from the first note (my NPR review of the album is one my favorite pieces there and draws heavily on those themes), this new album, inspired by walks along the Appalchian Trail, generally sings in a more relaxed key.  The title track, featuring a lovely descending bass line, is the spiritual successor to the last album's title track, but most of the songs are more content to celebrate tiny moments -- dancing with neighbors in "Jamboree," the gentle love song "Evergreen," the ode to keeping things loose "Out of Tune."

The Brothers do a good job of reworking some well-known folk tunes like "Big Rock Candy Mountain" (featuring Hubby Jenkins from the Carolina Chocolate Drops) and "Hillbilly Willy," their version of "Old Dan Tucker."  Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer each make a separate appearance, with Marxer's banjo playing on "Fiddlestick Joe" of particular note. Dean Jones co-produces with Lansing and Mailander, and Jed Anderson with his usual light (and spot-on) touch.

The album will be most appropriate for kids ages 4 through 9.  The album packaging, featuring art from Brandon Reese, is lovely -- it's the sort of thing that warms this physical product fan's heart.  (There is also a DVD with music videos and footage from the trip.)

So, in sum, Through the Woods is an excellent album, one that should provide your family with hours of very pleasurable listening.  If you came to love the band because of Can You Canoe? then you will continue to love them no less after this new album.  And if you, like me, love this album a little bit less, it's OK, too -- it's still pretty great.  Highly recommended.

Weekly Summary (12/2/13 - 12/8/13)

56th Grammy Nominations for Best Children's Album

It's a topsy-turvy world, and maybe the problems of two people don't amount to a hill of beans. But this is our hill. And these are our beans.

- Lt. Frank Drebin, The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad

Well, here they are, the kids music nominees for the 56th Grammys:

Blue Clouds - Elizabeth Mitchell & You Are My Flower (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings) (review)

The Mighty Sky - Beth Nielsen Chapman (BNC Records)

Recess - Justin Roberts (Carpet Square Records) (review)

Singing Our Way Through: Songs For The World's Bravest Kids - Alastair Moock & Friends (Moockshake Music) (review)

Throw A Penny In The Wishing Well - Jennifer Gasoi (Sparkling Productions) (review)

Yes, it's (almost) time once again for the Grammys, the annual hill of beans recognizing the music industry's best and favorite albums of the year.  The list of the five kids' music albums is a solid, solid list.  Some quick thoughts:

  • I'd sort of forgotten about Blue Clouds, thinking that Mitchell's collaboration with Dan Zanes (Turn Turn Turn) might have more oomph.  (Edit: Turn Turn Turn was actually placed by NARAS on the folk music slate, from which it didn't get nominated.)  But the Folkways connection of the album could not have hurt, promotionally, either.  (That, and it's a great album.)

  • I can't say I'm as big a fan of The Mighty Sky as of the other nominees, but it's decent and certainly not a "where in the world did that come from?" choice.

  • I should probably actually publish my year-end "best of" lists (it's coming, I promise!) before saying this, but Recess was one of my two favorite albums of the past (Grammy) year.

  • In addition to having a great story, Singing Our Way Through is also a reeeeeallly good album.

  • While probably the least familiar name to American audiences, Jennifer Gasoi has been nominated for this award before.  Or, at least, the Canadian equivalent.  Most recently for this very album.  (And, yes, Throw A Penny in the Wishing Well is really good, too.)

Picking a winner -- and who you want to win -- will be especially tough this year.  But any of those nominees would make a fine winner.