Sound Check

Kids music of one form or another has been around pretty much as long as kids have. You've got your nursery tunes (London Bridge may now be in Lake Havasu City, Arizona, but it's still falling down, and that itsy bitsy spider will probably never make it to the top of that damned water spout), you've got your instructional ditties (the alphabet song, of course) and more recently you've got your moral uplift numbers (I love you, you love me, let's lash that purple dino to the nearest tree). But what's different about kids music lately is that it's become a serious moneymaker. So now it's got its own section in the record stores, its own marketing plans, its own sales plateaus and its own ideas about what constitutes quality. Maybe the biggest difference between adult music -- adult here meaning just about anyone who's been touched by puberty -- and kids music is that the latter is aimed at a population perceived as unformed, which opens up a whole different mandate for the genre. Unlike adult music, which is largely held to be its own art-for-art's-sake reward, kids music is actually supposed to be good for you.

Talk to the folks at Kid Rhino -- one of the major players in the field -- and you'll hear of motives that have little to do with the star-driven hype of the larger musical world. You'll hear about how child-aimed tapes and CDs help bring families together into sharing units, how musical formats can indoctrinate kids with messages nudging them toward responsible adulthood and how multimedia products can help teach kids to read (funny, I always thought that's what books were for ... ).

I'm not a kid anymore, nor am I a parent, so I can't testify firsthand how much learning gets done in this do-good atmosphere. But I do have ears, and I do have a soul (sort of), so I feel perfectly justified to wonder about educational material wherein we find scads of cross-pollination with characters already established in the kiddie marketplace. One such is the Kid Rhino/Hanna-Barbera Cave Kids Sing-Along, a combination cassette and sing-along lyric book. The Cave Kids are, of course, Flintstones tykes Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm, who use their cooing voices to inculcate self-esteem ("Little Is Just Right for Me"), sharing ("Sharing"), teamwork ("Hand in Hand") and friendship ("Being a Friend"). There's also a dose of phonics in the chorus of "The Woman in the Moon." "Biddle-EE, Biddle-OH, Biddle-I, Boo, Kiddle-EE, Kiddle-OH, Kiddle-I, Koo Koo, Fiddle-EE, Fiddle-OH, Fiddle-I Foo Foo Foon" is romped through at a pace that even I, who have been speaking for a few years now, couldn't keep up with. It's probably a good exercise for young thespians, but over the long haul, Cave Kids breaks the cardinal rule of children's tapes -- which are, after all, largely purchased by adults. And that cardinal rule is that an adult needs to be able to listen to the thing the 18,000 times a kid is going to play it without going bat-shit. (***)

But at least the Cave Kids' lessons are defensible, unlike the Kid Rhino/Hanna-Barbera effort The Flintstones Present Bedrock Hop, a noxious piece of faux hip-hop featuring "Funky Fred and the Bedrock Rappers." Check out "Rubble Gotta Get Rich," with its chorus of "Oh money, oh money / I gotta get my hands on some / Money, oh money / I'm tired of workin' for these crumbs." Your kid would be better off listening to Snoop Doggy Dogg. (*)

But learning, good or bad, isn't always the point, as exemplified by Space Jam, the best-selling Kid Rhino/Warner Bros. "audio action-adventure book" that, like the movie, teams Bugs Bunny and Michael Jordan, adding in the narrative voice of Jim Belushi. It's a harmless little tape that doesn't strive to suggest anything more than that Michael Jordan is way cool and he's on the Warner Bros. team. Hero worship will no doubt come in handy around teenager-time, but there's still something creepy about the vision of Jordan in a Tune Squad jersey making bets on the outcome of a game against the "Monstars," even if you know he can't lose. (**)

Getting into the more or less straight music CDs, there's a weird pairing of Bugs and Friends Sing the Beatles and Barrelful of Monkees: Monkees Songs for Kids. (Which ones weren't?) The Beatles parody, featuring Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd and the Tasmanian Devil, comes with legitimately funny liner notes recasting the myth of the Furry Four, and Fudd's "The Fool on the Hill" is a small moment of genius. But like with Cave Kids, too many listens by resident adults could lead to premature infantilism. (***)

Barrelful of Monkees, on the other hand, is the real deal, 12 tracks culled from Rhino's Monkees re-releases, and if ever there were a semi-legitimate rock and roll band suitable for young kids without alteration, the Monkees were it. This has the advantage of easy sing-along ability, thorough wholesomeness and, for the adults anyway, utter familiarity. (PPP)

And being original material, more or less, it opens the door into another category of kid-aimed releases, which is original, ungimmicky music that has a shot at pleasing both the little kids and the bigger ones who spawned 'em without hitting anyone over the head with life lessons.

That isn't to say that such CDs are necessarily great CDs. For Our Children Too! is a disc benefiting the Pediatric AIDS Foundation, which is a pretty scary topic of discussion for younger kids. Slightly older, and more musically aware, children will probably be more frightened by Amy Grant singing "My Buddy." Elsewhere on this R&B-flavored disc, though, there's fine work, with Luther Vandross performing "If I Had a Hammer," Natalie Merchant cooing "Come Take a Trip in My Airship" and Carly Simon and James Taylor doing their cuddle classic "Mockingbird." Heck, I might have bought this disc just to hear Seal purr through "Puff (The Magic Dragon)." The sound is professional, there's no condescension to either adult or child and the CD serves just as well as grownup background music as it does as kiddie lullaby. It has the added bonus of helping identify up-and-coming vocal talent: If your young one can sing along with Toni Braxton's "Brown Baby" or Babyface's "If," get the kid into a recording studio fast. (****)

But to my mind, the best of all the music-oriented CDs aimed at the kids market comes from the Music for Little People label, which recently released a series of genre samplers that includes A Child's Celebration of Rock and Roll, Big Blues: Blues Music for Kids and A Child's Celebration of Folk Music.

The rock and roll sampler concentrates on the feel-good years of "Rock Around the Clock," "Yakety Yak" and "Willie and the Hand Jive," and if it won't prepare your toddlers for the Beck CDs they'll be begging for when they hit junior high, it's at least honest, good-time music that'll put a wiggle in butts young and old alike. (****)

The Big Blues collection is even better, if slightly sanitized (no jellyrolls here), because it introduces tykes to artists from Michelle Shocked to Buckwheat Zydeco to B.B. King to Taj Mahal, and as any blues fan will tell you, this is music you never grow out of. (****)

But the top of the toddler pops has to be the folk sampler, which shares Taj Mahal, Shocked, Maria Muldaur and Buckwheat Zydeco with the Blues disc, then tosses Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Cedella Marley Booker and Jerry Garcia into the mix. Folk requires little watering down for the sake of young sensibilities, and the broad historical perspective inherent in A Child's Celebration of Folk Music's embrace of reggae, blues, zydeco and bluegrass is likely to have far worthier results down the line than any trademarked cartoons burbling about the virtues of sharing could ever hope to achieve. (*****) In the end, in kids music just as in the other kinds, music for music's sake has a built-in moral sense and rewards. So it shouldn't surprise anyone that the best kids music products are the ones that dispense with the gimmicks and get straight to the heart of the matter -- or the heart of the kid.

-- Brad Tyer

***** Rocking
**** Crawling
*** Cooing
** Crying
* Puking

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Brad Tyer