My sojourn into motherhood at 34 was not the easiest transition from urban "indie" rock chick to-well, someone's mother. I wanted to have a baby so badly, but I just couldn't picture it. I guess most of my family couldn't picture their black-clad renegade relative settling into the mommy mode either. To tell the truth, I just wasn't that confident at first, I let my guard down, and let mother and mother-in-law advice machine take over.
My mother-in-law suggested that my son Diego needed his own music. His papa's penchant for Lou Reed and Tom Waits and his mother's love of alt country and punk had to go. A mother-in-law and mother's trip to Costco and ToyRUs later, and my son had all sorts of children's music at his disposal.
The problem was-Diego's budding CD collection sucked. The first time I heard an over-produced, organ-in-the-mall, rap version of "No-More-Monkeys-Jumping-on-the-Bed" I thought I was going to lose my sanity. Ditto for all the other CDs I happily bought with the Parents Awards stickers on them. (I now maintain that if it has a Parent's Award sticker it means it's probably bad-kind of like the Grammy's). Which prompts me to make this declaration: The single greatest nerve wracking aspect of parenting award goes to-the monotony of badly produced "Children's Music." Song after song of mundane lyrics and uninspired beats of typical children's "award-winning" music made me want to start a gang or at least jump in a mosh pit. There was no way I could listen to this saccharine stuff day in and day out.
I watch what we eat. I buy organic. He doesn't get to eat Doritos or Hostess-how is Barney and Disney music any different? I don't even have the TV hooked up. But here I was with the voices of people I KNOW I would never invite over to dinner filling my living room with mediocre sounds. Everytime I heard the Wiggles I wanted to kill myself-or worse.
Thankfully, my son wasn't too interested in any of it either. And then I got to thinking. I didn't listen to mainstream pop, what made me think my child would want to? I did a quick scan of our old CDs for something catchy and upbeat and found the 1985 release of The Pogues' Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash and put it on the CD player. Racy title and occasional cursing aside (thick brogue, hard to make those lyrics out anyway), the first time I played the CD was the first time Diego started dancing. Now it's a regular in our house. Two days later I inquired at one of the two playgroups my son attends about music. One mother informed me that she plays old Pogues songs for her son too and the CD I'd started with was her child's number one choice.
This intrigued me, so I posted the question "What CDs do you play for your babies/toddlers?" to parenting online forums across the country. The answers might be surprising. Hardly anyone plays children's music or classical music for their children (at least in the online Generation X and Y demographic). Top five musical choices from my unscientific survey didn't comprise any actual children's music either.
The Ramones, They Might Be Giants, The Beatles, The Donnas, and Abba. The soundtrack to Shrek also received regular play. Most parents that wrote in noted that all these bands had clear melodies, wrote short songs that were catchy, memorable, and didn't grate on their nerves. But does that mean giving up on children's music as a genre?
Absolutely not. There is intelligent life out there; you just have to look a little harder. Just like in the adult world, there is "Alternative Children's Music" which means anything from traditional blues arrangements to rockabilly. The following is a top ten list I've compiled that gets heavy rotation in our iTunes library. (Hint: Babies love the Visualizer option on iTunes).
Captain Boggs and Salty: Bedtime for Pirates 8 very sing-along-able tunes for your budding pirate. Great, funny lyrics pushing the camaraderie of pirates. Stand out songs include "Scurvy" with lines like "if you get scurvy/on a pirate ship/eat a lime!" and "Cat o' Nine Tales with "I've lived around the world/they call me a rover/I've got more stories than Virgil or Homer." Every kid at my son's "pirate themed" birthday was humming something from this by the end of the day.
The Bottle Let Me Down: Songs for Bumpy Wagon Rides-Various Artists Bloodshot Records compiled this CD of songs those now in their 20s and 30s may have grown up with. Lots of rockabilly and alternative country names on this one. Stand out songs: "Senor El Gato" by Kelly Hogan and "Don't Wipe Your Face on Your Shirt" by Cornell Hurd. My son bounces to the latter while I'm smirking at the line "Daddy's from the do your own thing generation..."
No!-They Might Be Giants I tend to think that pretty much any They Might Be Giants CD is a kid's CD but this one is actually meant to be for kids. Their songs are short, whimsical and amusing on many levels. We sing the song "Fang" (as in I've got a fang) every time Diego cuts a new tooth. The Giants are to music what Dr. Seuss was to the page.
Night Time-Dan Zane and Friends Dan Zane has put out a number of listenable, smart children's CD and is a big hit on the parenting forums. He utilizes lots of guest artists from the "alternative" and artsy music crowd (my husband was as happy to see Lou Reed among the friends on Night Time as I was to see Aimee Mann. Does he have a great voice? No. But you sense that he's that cool Dad that plays guitar and doesn't mind all the kids in the neighborhood eating the food out of his fridge. Stand out songs for us are his renditions of traditional Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie territory, "Pay Me My Money Down" and "So Long It's Been Good to Know Yuh." He has a new CD out this year too which I'm sure is also a good one.
Murder, Misery and then Goodnight-Kirsten Hersh Hard to find but worth finding, indie music goddess Hersh recorded this acoustic CD a few years back with her sons "singing" background vocals on some of the tracks. These are all your typical, sometimes violent, American folksongs that have been sung to children for a few hundred years.
Putumayo's Dreamland: World Lullabies and Soothing Songs Various Artists sing soothing songs from around the world. You may feel like you are stuck in a Nature Company store after hours but at least the whole household will want to nap.
Soothing Sounds for Babies Volumes 1-3 Raymond Scott Think retro-electronica music for babies. They'll be hip before they're 3! Originally produced in 1963 as "aural toys" by the Gesell Institute of Child Development, this reissue is on BASTA Audio/Visuals. These aren't sing-alongs, but the ambient sounds definitely interest babies. Putting this on iTunes with the Visualizer option means I get to take a shower before noon.
Leadbelly Sings for Children-Leadbelly Also a reissue plus extra songs, this live concert CD introduces babies to the blues and a good chunk of traditional American folksongs all at once. There is the wincing factor of Leadbelly singing about picking cotton to an audience of all white children on one of the songs, but we are striving to make our household an honest one that doesn't shelter from the truth of our nation's history.
Hush-Jane Siberry While not specifically meant for children, Siberry takes traditional songs and gives them new, sometimes quirky, always beautiful airy arrangements. The song "False, False Fly" is the big, fun upbeat number on the CD; the rest makes a great transition into naptime. I used this CD in labor.
Gorillaz [Clean Version] & Demon Days My husband offered this one to which I was originally taken aback. The DVD of this animated band, Phase One-Celebrity Take Down, features zombies, skeletons, other gothy-ness. But hey, it features a multi-cultural animated band, Japanese pop-culture references and my one year old son grooved out, head bobbing in earnest, to the song "Clint Eastwood." Nowadays, he's more into the newer Demon Days and my daughter's favorite is "Dare."
As we embark on year three with our first and two with our second, I'm much more confident. My mother and mother-in-law don't pop in every five seconds, my son and daughter are getting great well-rounded musical educations (we listen to classical music too, by the way-just not Vivaldi) and I have retained a tiny musical portion of my former-urban-hipster-self.