I am not a person to whom the word "manifesto" comes easily. Given my own personality -- a predilection for strong opinions loosely held and the ability if not compulsion to see multiple sides of an issue -- I tend not to shout my opinions from the rooftops or present them as the opinion.
Having said that, I've written probably two million words on the subject of kids music on this site (not an exaggeration). It is safe to say I have an opinion or two on the matter.
The wonderful Liz Gumbinner, co-proprietor of literally the biggest platform for kindie music on the internet, Cool Mom Picks (her audience >>> my audience), drew attention to this video on the subject of toddler music from Wired on her personal blog, Mom-101 a couple days. As Liz notes, the video hits mostly all the right notes regarding parenting and music, but strikes such cluelessness regarding what music's being made for toddlers these days that it's hard to believe it's the same magazine whose website once published kids music reviews from GeekDad and GeekMom, and, yes, even published a review from me in the actual magazine. (Not to mention picking targets -- if they'd published the same piece but substituted, say Yo Gabba Gabba! for the Wiggles and Barney, people would wonder about the piece's logic. And more kids watch YGG today than the other two shows.)
This ignorance (feigned or real) of a large swath of music made for families has inspired me to consolidate my views on what kindie music is into a coherent list (because stuff on the internet should always be in list format). I've been spreading the word about the incredible amount of quality music available for families for years now, but clearly some people have missed or are ignoring the message. Maybe I need to dumb it down a bit.
What follows is a distillation of a decade and two million words into ten points regarding what good kindie music is and how it should be integrated into families. (Why ten? It's a round number, time-honored for lists, and a lot easier than ninety-five.)
Some caveats (because I'm all about the caveats):
- Most of these points aren't absolute -- I could grade music I hear on a spectrum for a lot of these, but I've found that a lot of good kids music meets or fails a lot of these criteria as a group.
- This should not be read as saying this stuff has only occurred in the past decade or so. There are of course artists who've been living by these rules for twenty or thirty years, and I'm glad that they helped pave the way (and are still an important part of the kindie community), but the technological and societal changes of the past fifteen to twenty years have made following this philosophy easier if not essential.
- It's only a manifesto, not the manifesto, but it's born of more than a decade of listening to, considering, and writing about music made for kids and families. If you're at least a semi-regular reader, I'm guessing that your own manifesto will have more points in common than not.
1. Kids deserve their own music: In just about every other cultural arts endeavor -- literature, theatre, television, playthings, apps -- the concept that there are separate creations specifically for kids is expected and celebrated. Nobody's saying, "I read Gabriel Garcia Marquez and watch Mad Men with my kids and it's good enough for them." Nobody becomes a parent and is surprised to find that people write and draw books for kids. But that's still a common attitude when it comes to music. Why is it so hard for people to accept that kids might want music that speaks to them?
2. Kids music should reflect the full range of kids' experiences in language they understand: In an interview with me a few years ago, Peter Himmelman -- who knows a thing or two about making music for kids and adults -- said that the "child is as intelligent as his adult self, but some things are beyond his experience." Not a small amount of music made for adults is written about experiences beyond that of a child (e.g., romantic love). The emotion of loss and elation is universal, but how kids experience those emotions is different from how adults do. Ironically, although kids' range of experiences may be limited, the range of experiences in kids music is much broader than music generally.
3. Music for kids should be made with every bit as much care as music made for the rest of the population: Do illustrators for kids books limit themselves to the crappier brushes from the art store? Do producers TV cartoons for kids recruit anyone from off the street to voice the characters? Do bloggers hate strawman arguments? Of course not. If you're an artist willing to use cheap electronic keyboards and drum tracks in making music for kids, then you better be willing to use those same keyboards and drum tracks if you make music for adults. You don't need a dozen band members if that's not your style -- folks like Ella Jenkins or Randy Kaplan can captivate an audience with nothing but a harmonica or a guitar -- but you do need to treat your audience, whatever its age, with respect. And don't get me started on album art, suffice it to say that after receiving way more than a thousand kids' CDs, probably two thousand, the quality of album art and packaging is close to being a statistically significant indicator of the music inside.
4. Stories not messages: I think kindie music is at its best when it tells stories -- character studies, funny jokes -- or shares experiences (dancing, singing along). It should start with that as the premise. It is difficult for music to be engaging when it starts off with an idea that it should be about something. Artists like Justin Roberts, Dan Zanes, Elizabeth Mitchell, Laurie Berkner, They Might Be Giants -- artists, I would add, who are tremendously successful not only artistically but also commercially -- have never appeared to say, "I want to record an album about [important subject X]. I know, I know -- I could list a number of albums who violate this point, but those are the exceptions who point to the rule. Note I said "messages," not "lessons," because there's a lesson to be learned from almost any song, but it's often just a byproduct and not the reason for existence. Albums that teach a subject (be it a school subject or a life skill) well are valuable, but they're valuable for their educational purposes and the value musically is often mixed at best.
5. Musicians not characters: This is a bit simplified, because there a number of kindie "characters" who are totally kindie. Gustafer Yellowgold, for example, and his whole world of animated friends, or the videos of Readeez. What I'm getting at is that in a world where self-expression is prized, anonymity of creation is a big ol' warning sign. Morgan Taylor and Michael Rachap are very visible creators of Gustafer and Readeez. I would rather hear an individual and unique creation than a pre-fabricated set of interchangeable anonymized parts in a musical widget.
6. Kindie music as community: Musicians have always banded together, of course, even kids musicians. But the level of interaction is at a much higher level now. That interaction can occur on record, of course, and it does for many musicians, but even many of the musicians who are less "sharing" on record are often sharing of their time and support in other areas and at events like Kindiefest. That idea that we're bound for better weather together, that one's success does not mean another's failure, is key. As a result, there is no excuse -- NONE -- for uttering, writing, or even thinking the phrase, "Finally, kids music the whole family can enjoy." It wasn't true thirty years ago (though such albums were fewer in number and harder to access) and certainly isn't true today (would I really spend 10+ years and two million words on crappy music?). As time goes on, if you are a musician (or writer) and continue to peddle that line, I am increasingly willing to believe you are ignorant or deliberately misleading. It is also more common than you might think that music advertised as "finally, kids music the whole family can enjoy" will, in fact, be music that nobody will enjoy. And, more to the point of kindie music as community, it also diminishes the genre you're trying to succeed in. Stop it. Now. Seriously.
6. Sing and dance along: This is not a new concept -- music was originally a participative art and it's only been in the last century or so that performing and passive listening has become a common if not default mode of interacting with music. But kindie families should not fall into the trap of popping the CD into the CD player (or scrolling to the correct mp3 on their smartphones) and pressing "play." Dance along. Sing along -- sing even if there's no music playing. Your kids will -- you should, too, and the best kids music will make it easy to do.
7. Music is better heard live: And what better place to sing and dance along than by seeing music performed live? I mean, sure, maybe you sing better in the shower or your kids wail along in the bathtub, but I highly advise against dancing in either locale. It can sometimes be difficult to hear kids music live with your kids -- you live in a town or city with few if any kids musicians, and the difficulty of stringing together tours for kindie musicians (since gigs can often only be managed on weekends) makes it even more difficult. But it's worth the effort.
8. Enjoy this with your kids: You should be able to share these experiences with your kids. We see theatre with them, take them to movies, watch TV, play sports, walk out in nature -- so, yes, there's room to listen to music with your kids. There is a sizable body of work in kids music that I can say without any qualification is enjoyable to parents just as much as kids. Sometimes that's because it's incredibly danceable, sometimes it's because it's a perfect pop song or an absurdly funny aside, and sometimes it's because the songwriter has tapped into an emotion that's universal and written it in a way that's accessible to listeners of many different ages and experiences.
9. It's OK if kids listen to stuff you hate: Or, alternately, it's OK to hate your kids' music. One cannot make their kids cool by forcing them to listen to a certain band, adult or not. Cool comes from self-confidence, and self-confidence comes from exploring all your options and knowing that the music you're listening to (or, not to put too fine a point on it, making) most reflects your personal tastes. I think one job of a parent is to give their kids a wide range of experiences, not so they can become cool, but because they'll understand the world a tiny bit better. The kindie parent probably doesn't have to give their kids a "Barney" experience, they'll probably get that on their own without you having to help. Hence, your desire to bring a little Lunch Money or Secret Agent 23 Skidoo or [insert-your-own-favorite artist] into the mix. But, you know, if they want to listen to or watch Barney, that's OK. Because music is a personal thing, and kids should be able to own their tastes. And as a side note, remember that you shouldn't follow this rule slavishly - it's OK to listen to your own stuff, too (with your own parental standards, whatever they may be, applying).
10. It's OK to like what you like, just give kids their own opportunity : OK, I'll fess up -- I had a variety of points I wanted to mention and as I consolidated and refined them, I came to #10 without anything left to write. So this is me, emphasizing that music helps us, regardless of age, relate to the world. Whatever music you like, listen to or perform that -- your kid seeing you enjoy music will drive home the idea that music is a good thing. Kids will eventually find their music without your help, but with the best of today's kindie music you can provide them with many more maps to choose from.