I would make for a lousy missionary.
Talking to people one at a time, trying to convince them right then and there in the correctness of my position is not my strength -- proselytizing makes me blanch. I would rather spend time day after day, week after week, year after year, offering facts and sharing opinions, not to mention listening to others. If others come to my point of view, great. If not, it's not worth ramming my head into a wall repeatedly. And maybe I'll have my own mind changed.
My approach to kids music has been pretty much the same. I'm happy writing my opinions on my website and argue them with some vigor, but get me one-on-one with somebody about kids music, and I'm, like, "Uh, I kinda like Elizabeth Mitchell."
I should be a little more forceful (and, OK, that quote above's an exaggeration) but it's not an exaggeration to say that the person who talks most about Zooglobble locally isn't me -- it's one of my friends who's constantly asking for my business cards and giving them to people she meets.
Rani Arbo is one of Middletown's biggest exports — hell, it wouldn't be a stretch to call her one of Connecticut's, considering her band's rigorous touring across the nation. She and Daisy Mayhem have the rare luxury of fitting into two niche markets, whereas most bands are lucky to fit into one. Since they use acoustic instruments (including drummer Scott Kessel's all-recycled kit — he uses cat food tins and a suitcase for a kick drum), they fit in handsomely with the folk, bluegrass and roots music circuit. And their versatility with both adult and children's songbooks allows them to tap into the kids' music fanbase, who Arbo (vocals/violin) describes as “messianic about things they like.”Uh-oh - she's got us.
One of the continued challenges we as fans of high-quality family music face is convincing others that it exists. As I've often said, nobody ever becomes a parent and finds themselves saying, "You mean, they write books just for kids?" Yet that's exactly what I hear over and over, and I have plenty of e-mails from people thanking me to opening their family's ears to new sounds. I'm not the only one -- I know that others get those same types of comments, be it in person or by e-mail. So that's why we write so much about this stuff -- we are trying to change your life. I plead guilty to it in the case of Arbo and many, many others.
Music blogs and websites targeted at adults aren't trying to change your life. Well, maybe they are, but only by shifting tastes from one set of artists to another set of artists. With family music, kindie rock, the Kids New Wave, whatever you want to call it, we're trying to open horizons, trying to help you envision new possibilities. It's proselytizing via mp3s and YouTube.
I get asked not infrequently, "What makes good kids music?" It seems a perfectly reasonable question, but it's one I've never been able to find a good, 15-second answer for. (Perhaps that's why I've not yet appeared on the Today Show to talk about the genre.) Sometimes I take more of a technical approach ("the vocals are mixed louder"), sometimes a more philosophical approach ("the subjects are relatable to an [X]-year-old"), but I've never quite found the right answer. (See? If I were a good missionary, I would.)
I've come to think, however, that it's not a reasonable question, that I can no more tell you what makes good kids music than I can tell you what makes good music, period. Can you answer that question? It's totally subjective. Why shouldn't the old American Bandstand criterion apply?
"It's got a good beat, and you can dance to it."
Or maybe this (mangled) judicial quotation:
"I don't know how to define it except that I know it when I see it."
Those seem as reasonable a response as any to the question, because the only difference, really, is the audience in question. Someone listens to polka (or reggae or electronica) and may have an entirely different reason for doing so than the person who listens to metal (or rap or country), and only after you answer the question of why someone is listening can you offer an opinion as to which is better or worse.
But trying to get someone to realize that the music may be different but the goal (and therefore the standards) is the same, that's hard. If you think the standards are different, you might think the music itself is different. And even if the standards are the same, trying to convince someone that there are more options available is a hard row to hoe.
This all brings us back to yesterday's announcement of changes to the Grammy categories, including the merging of the two current award categories into one. There was much chatter yesterday about the changes, whether they were good or bad, what the impact might be, etc. etc. I think the reason it did engender so much chatter is the result of the two issues I've discussed above, that of the genre's low visibility and perceptions of quality. For all its many faults (some of which the Academy probably feels like it's trying to address with these changes), the Grammys are still the single biggest set of musical awards in the United States. Winning an Grammy, even being nominated for one, is a big deal and results in a lot of attention. So when the number of eligible nominees gets cut in half, many artists will perceive, not unreasonably, that their potential Grammy-nominated visibility has just declined. And why shouldn't they be worried that the range of music available to reach Grammy ears will also decline?
It seems to me that the choice that the entire family music community -- musicians, writers, listeners -- has is this: we either are willing to accept being a marginalized musical outpost or we make noise to celebrate this in the broader community. I said it once before, and I'm saying it louder this time: the visibility of family music needs to be raised in more settings. I'm not suggesting that musicians change what music they make -- I think there's room for many more voices and diversity is an ally. I know many people have worked long hours to reach the level of visibility we have today, but we're not there yet.
I have more projects I'm working on to make more people aware that, yeah, they make music for kids. I hope to share news of some of those in the not too distant future.
At which point, it'll be time to polish my shoes and start knocking on doors. I hope some of you will, too.