Why Listen to Kids Music (An Open Letter to Tom Moon)

Zooglobble: What are your musical memories growing up?
Stefan Shepherd: I remember being in the back seat of the car on weekend drives through northern California hillsides, listening to whatever easy listening station my parents could find. I still have a soft spot in my heart for Herb Alpert and ABBA...

I remember my dad building an electronic organ with multiple keyboards and pedals, the works, when I was in elementary school, maybe first or second grade? I took lessons for maybe 8 or 9 years. I even took piano lessons for a year or two to strengthen my fingers for organ, that's how hardcore we were...

We went through Babies R Us when my wife was pregnant with Miss Mary Mack. I was excited to look through their CD section. I recall it being pretty small. We found a CD -- I can't even remember the title and I doubt we have it anymore -- and I remember being very disappointed when I actually listened to the thing -- the nameless (literally, there were no credits on the thing) people responsible for the music couldn't have been bad musicians, but they produced something so schlocky that we had to find something else to listen to.


IMG_6387.jpgLast week Jeff Bogle from the fine kids music website Out with the Kids participated in a "debate" with the music critic and musician Tom Moon. Heard on WHYY's Radio Times, the hour-long program featured a discussion of whether kids should listen to kids' music or adult music. You can probably guess which side Jeff took, and therefore can also deduce Mr. Moon's position on the question at hand.

I say "debate" in quotation marks, because, as someone quipped on Facebook near the end of the hour, it was like hearing a fundamentalist debate a Unitarian Universalist. Jeff would cede some eminently reasonable point made by Tom ("You're not going to catch me arguing against the Beatles"), while Moon would entirely refuse to grant even a single point Mr. Bogle made worth considering.

Let's put it this way -- it started out by Tom criticizing Lunch Money's gently amusing fable "It Only Takes One Night To Make a Balloon Your Friend" (listen here). As the 20- or 30-second excerpt ended, Moon railed against it as a song teaching kids to make friends with balloons (it's, um, not) and by the end of the show seemed to imply that Mozart would never have composed his many masterpieces had he listened to music like that.

For someone so interested in musical discovery he wrote an entire book about it (1,000 Records To Hear Before You Die -- download the list here) to be so utterly dismissive of an entire subset of music (in response to hearing the Dan Zanes/Sharon Jones cover of "In the Basement," he said that it was nice, but he was pretty sure he'd enjoy anything on her records with the Dap-Kings than on that album -- sound unheard) was a little dispiriting.

At first I chalked it up to the way that debates end up polarizing the argument so that people are more concerned with making points rather than finding some common understanding. But maybe I misunderstood Tom Moon -- maybe he completely believes that, that there is no point to kids' music.


This past year I've thought some about how to spread the word about great kids' music to the world at large. So I presented at the EMP Pop Conference on adult artists creating second careers in kids music, for example. And I've tossed around some other ideas.

But what if there are lots of people who ask:

"So what? Who. Cares."

It's not an unreasonable question.

We in the kids music world spend so much time talking about what we think to be good kids' music -- mostly to others in the kids' music world -- that we don't take a step back and say why it's important in the first place.

My goal here, then, is to lay out my theory of why kids' music is not only valid but important. I've borrowed a few pieces of information here and there (and I'll note those borrowings accordingly), but the theory (and its faults) are entirely my own.

Let's begin by defining "kids' music" for the purposes of this discussion. Let's call it music recorded or performed, typically but not exclusively by adults, for an audience that includes (but is not necessarily limited to) children. What does this exclude? Well, that would exclude making music with your kids, an experience that I feel fairly certain Mr. Moon would endorse wholeheartedly. (I do, too.)

Would it exclude the Kidz Bop series? Probably not -- while it's not what I really cover here at the website, it's hard to see how the series -- designed for an audience that includes children -- isn't "kids music" as broadly defined here. The definition also excludes music that was not designed with kids in mind -- I think you can probably think of a handful off the top of your head fairly easily. I would also count as part of this rubric music composed or written for another genre or purpose but for which children are at least part of the audience -- I'm thinking of, for example, music written for TV (Schoolhouse Rock) or movies (The Muppet Movie).

Kids' music, I have come to realize, is not so much a genre as we typically think of musical genres such as hip-hop, jazz, punk, or polka. Because there is, in fact, Secret Agent 23 Skidookids hip-hop, kids jazz, kids punk, and kids' polka. There are more obviously, and your opinions as to relative merits of each performer may differ.

But I tend to think of kids' music more like a category such Christmas music, which draws from many musical genres in its particular focus -- celebrating or singing about the Christmas season (both secular and religious). And, heck, if you're going to talk about Christmas music, you might as well pull back even further and talk about religious music generally -- that's a type of music that's been around for centuries and adapts itself to just about every musical genre there is. Sometimes you even albums like the soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas Special, which in addition to being a jazz genre album, also represents music for TV, Christmas music, and, yes, kids music.


Before I proceed to outline what I see as the benefits of kids' music -- why families should listen to kids music -- let me dispose of some arguments that are non-starters with me.

1) "There is no such thing as good kids' music."

Those of us who've been listening to and/or reviewing kids music for any length of time have long since tired of the phrase "finally, kids music the whole family can enjoy." More often than not, it's thrown out there (the key word being that finally) in support of music that nobody in the whole family will enjoy. But this is an entirely different level of dismissiveness, one that I thought Tom came close to stating. It says, basically, all kids music stinks.

I would certainly say that there's a lot of bad kids' music being made today. I hear quite a bit of it. It can be bad for many different reasons (poor performance, poor production, uninspired lyrics). There's also a fair amount of perfectly competent and unexciting kids' music. And some pretty good recordings to go with a handful of awesome albums every year. There are two points related to this:

1) Those are my opinions based on taste, nothing more, and
2) The same can be said for all music recorded or performed every year.

I've always been upfront in saying that my opinions here regarding the relative merits of different songs and albums are just that, opinions. They are well-informed opinions based on the fact that I doubt there are a dozen people in the world who listen to more (different) kids music every year than I do, but they are opinions just the same and no better than Mr. Moon's.

Whose opinions, by the same token, are no better than mine.

OK, I will grant you that if I'm pulling out the "I've listened to more albums than you" card, then I can't complain when he (or anyone who's been listening critically to music as he has) pulls out that same card on me. But it seems like the marginal value of listening to more albums declines precipitously once you've hit some point in the thousands. Sure, he's probably listened to 10,000 albums or more, and I've only listened to maybe 3,000 or 4,000 -- but how valuable are those extra thousands of albums in determining critical judgment?

And there is no reason to believe that the bell curve of quality associated with kids' music is any different than for music generally, be it recorded or performed live. You want to argue that kids' music is filled with failed adult musicians, I'll argue back that adult music is filled with musicians just starting out whose talent is equivalent to "failed."

Which brings us to point #2.

"This isn't as good as Bach or the Beatles."

Because the history of music made for kids is pretty short (at best, less than a century, arguably only 60 to 70 years, with the renaissance of the kindie or Kids New Wave movement being only 10 to 15 years old), it is not surprising that there aren't tons of canonical recordings. On the Radio Times show, Moon brought out songs, all of which were recorded or written at least 40 years ago (before going back more than 300 years to argue for J.S. Bach), then argued that the tracks Jeff brought to spin weren't as good as what he brought.

Point #1 above regarding the fallibility of individual critical judgments aside, I will stipulate that there is no kids music as good as the best work of the Beatles (the most successful and arguably critically acclaimed pop/rock band in the Western world, if not the world generally) or Johann Sebastian Bach (on the short list of most influential classical composers of the past 500 years)...

If you stipulate that virtually every artist in every genre fails to meet those incredibly high standards as well. Do I think that there have been great kids music albums released in the past decade that I could easily see being loved by my grandchildren and that could be enjoyed by folks without kids? Sure. Is that number pretty darn small? Definitely. But I'm pretty sure most of the other (non-kids-music) albums on my shelf will be mostly forgotten to the world as well.

To put the argument another way, if we say that Michael Jordan (from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, a member of the ACC) was the greatest professional basketball player of all time, does that mean that we should automatically assume any pro basketball player who once played in the Big East Conference stinks?

And if we decide to exclude from musical consideration artists who don't compose or perform for the widest possible audience, how do we treat folks such as J.S. Bach, who wrote many of his works specifically to be performed in church? You can argue that his music transcends that audience limitation -- and I would agree -- but that's an argument in praise of his genius, not for the unacceptability of writing for a specific audience.

"Music is different experience that other art forms and therefore... it's different."

I don't think I'm doing justice to this argument which Tom brought out. I think maybe he's trying to argue that kids can process music on their own and so there's no need for kids music because they have all the tools they need to process any piece of music, recorded or live. But I'm not sure. If that's the argument, then I'd argue that they don't have all the tools (see below).

But many other artistic forms of expression are intermediated for kids -- a toddler can sit down and "read" Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus by looking at the pictures and maybe recite portions of the book... but only after they've read it a number of times with an adult or older sibling.


Having disposed of what I believe to be false arguments supposedly outlining why kids' music isn't necessary, what we're left with is making a positive argument for the value of kids' music.

It's always tricky citing Wikipedia, but this discussion on the purpose of art cites French philosopher Claude Levi-Strauss as defining the purposes of art as being either "non-motivated" (without a specific external purpose) or "motivated" (based on intentional, conscious actions on the part of the artists or creator).

It's that second set of purposes, the "motivated" ones, that are particularly relevant to the discussion here. On Facebook, Secret Agent 23 Skidoo got straight to the heart of the issue when he said:

"Great music is about encapsulating the emotions and experiences we have into art. Being a kid or having a kid causes unique emotions such as unspoiled innocence, the purity of the love between a parent and child, crippling fear of the dark, how cool kites really are, or the poignant blend of watching your little girl grow up. No matter how brilliant any music is, if it isn't about those things directly, it doesn't strike the same chord it would if it was about exactly that."
Kids have a particular set of experiences that deserve to be responded to. It doesn't matter that it's trivial to you, the adult, because it's very much not trivial to the kid listening.

On my very first NPR chat, I talked about how I think the Beatles are great, but that I didn't necessarily want my daughter to hear nothing but the Beatles' (awesome) love songs. Sure, at the age of 18 months, she's not going to focus on the words, but by the age of 7, she might be able to. And while I can certainly handle that discussion, if I'm listening to a lot of Top 40 radio these days, I'm going to have nothing but those discussions. Really, exactly what is Rihanna singing about that really speaks to my tweenage daughter?

I'm not saying that songs should be a) nothing but happy, and b) totally educational. A number of kids' musicians have tackled songs about important but less cheery topics (Justin Roberts is particularly adept at these), though there probably could be more. And educational kids' music is a subset of music unto itself. Whether or not the majority of the songs are any good is not the point -- the point is that it is perfectly OK if artists dedicate themselves to working those particular songwriting paths. (A side note: it's not easy, and most of it isn't all that good. But that's personal opinion.)

But they have to do it in recognition of a child's differing experiences and language. Peter Himmelman addressed this very specifically in an interview here a couple years ago:

But I think kids are part of the human species. They're not some obsequieous animal. The child is as intelligent as his adult self, but some things are beyond his experience.
It's like, why expect them to enjoy Tom Clancy?
Exactly. It's like writing a record in Peruvian for Americans. It's just not understood. I was doing a songwriting workshop in Boulder this weekend. I assigned them to a kids song, and it was so moving for some folks. A well-written kids song will resonate with adults because they've had that experience. If it's not overly glib it can be very touching.

"Children's" music is primarily music without the innocence stripped out and without it being over-sexualized. Children are getting into s-called pop music too early. Can't we prolong the innocence instead of getting into the p***o culture, be it regarding food or sex? Do we have to start at age 9?Rhythmically, sonically -- perhaps a toddler or a preschooler can respond to the full range of music. But lyrically? No.

Hey, I think the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction" or Radiohead's "Karma Police" or Cee Lo Green's "F[orget] You" are great songs, and I'm sure kids the world over dance along. But I would worry about any four-year-old who fully appreciates those songs.

Besides giving an artistic experience that is more relatable to younger kids, another reason in support of kids music that I hadn't fully appreciated until Jeff forcefully articulated it in his radio debate is that of the opportunity of seeing live music. Now, if you're an adult it is not that difficult to find live music specifically performed for an audience just about anywhere in the Western world (and, I would suspect, in much of the non-Western world). It is, however, harder to find that music performed at times and in places that are more appropriate for kids. By setting up performances specifically targeted at kids, you're recognizing that they, too, have value as an audience.

And that's not even getting into the debate about being able to see the artists that they're listening to. Kids can listen to a Justin Roberts disk and, in most places in the country, have a pretty good chance of being able to see him play live for a fairly reasonable ticket price (i.e., little more than the cost of a movie ticket these days). If they love Rihanna, well, it's not clear it's at the right time or price. And when the Beatles reunite for their tour, you just let me know.


The sad part is that the "kids music vs. adult music" debate is a false one, of course, which I've said from pretty much the very beginning. Of course you should play a wide variety of music, particularly music that you, the parent, enjoy, for your kid(s). I tend to think of it as being like reading -- one of the best ways to encourage your child to read is to let them see you reading for pleasure, being that Samuel Beckett or Tom Clancy. So, yeah, they should see you bopping your head to some classic Motown tunes or cumbia or Jay-Z -- if any of those float your boat. (And, hey, if they don't, maybe you try some out. Mr. Moon has a book that seems like an excellent jumping off point. Seriously.)

But trying to impose your tastes on your kids all the time in hopes that they'll have your "good" taste in music is about as useful as making sure your kids' favorite color is the same as yours -- I'm dubious of the success you'll have and why bother anyway? The purpose of music is to provide pleasure and give people another artistic experience to understand the physical world around them and the emotional world inside them. (If it happens to be the Wiggles that offer them that, so be it. I'll be here to offer some alternatives.)

Really, the only question is why artistic expressions for kids are accepted in almost every other artistic mode besides music. Nobody ever says upon becoming a parent, "They write books for kids?" Art museums have specific interpretive devices to introduce visual arts concepts to kids. TV shows and movies are created just for kids -- some have great artistic value, some have dubious artistic value, but nobody is suggesting for a minute those should cease production immediately just so that all us families can watch Breaking Bad or The Sopranos on DVD with our preschoolers. Nobody questions the idea of making art just for kids except when it comes to music. It seems like the time has come to accept it -- but I think the burden of proof to prove otherwise is on Tom Moon.

I listen to kids music with my family. I think my family's life has been enriched by it and I think my kids are better for it, just as they are enriched by great (and even mediocre) kids' literature and movies. And I think your family will be, too.


Zooglobble (aka Dad): What are your earliest musical memories?
Miss Mary Mack: I think the first grade musical, and playing on the piano before I took lessons.

How about music or CDs?
Yeah, like that from the bands you brought to the children's museum.

How about you?
Little Boy Blue: My Flood CD and the other CDs you made for me [goes back to play his Birthday Party mix].