Parents, rockers electrify kids' music

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

Parents who can't stand listening to songs about rainbows or dressing their children in clothes with hearts and bears are turning to rock 'n' roll. And serious musicians who used to scorn kids' music are being drawn to it, partly for the freedom they find there.

Joining a host of other current and former rockers, alt-rock bands Devo and They Might Be Giants, which first had hits in the '80s and '90s, are now making music for kids.

And somebody's got to clothe these young hipsters. Online boutiques are popping up to meet parents' demand for the rock aesthetic. The Web offers classic rock T-shirts and onesies, imprinted with everything from the likeness of Jimi Hendrix at Baby Wit to "Future Headbanger" (Metal Babies) and "Jesus Rocks" (Baby Rock Apparel). These online retailers are frequently born when young parents can't find the edgy kids' clothes they want.

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Andrea Frost started Baby Wit almost three years ago in part because she was uninspired by the kids' clothes available for her daughter, Ava.

Parents like the rock T-shirts partly because they miss their rock 'n' roll lives. "When you become a parent," Ms. Frost says, "you have to leave all that behind. You don't go to shows anymore. You're kind of cut off." Rock clothes for kids give parents a means of self-expression.

Musicians and marketers are more aware of both parents and children, says Kenny Curtis, director of children's programming for XM Satellite Radio.

"The beauty of kids' music, kids' radio, is it's a shared experience," Mr. Curtis says. "There's a parent in the driver's seat when the kids are listening."

Although Baby Einstein CDs and other nursery classics still dominate, rock has been climbing the kids' charts. Geoff Mayfield, director of charts at Billboard Magazine, says 2001 was the last time purple dinosaur Barney made the list. Raffi, a widely respected children's musician, has not appeared since 2002. "It's been a while for Raffi," Mr. Mayfield says. "Although he does the best version of 'Take Me Out to the Ballgame' I've ever heard."

The prevalence of rock styles in children's music reflects who's making it as well as who's listening.

"There used to be a stigma attached to kids' music," says radio programmer Curtis. "It used to be that if you were making kids' music, you were doing it because you couldn't cut it. That's erased now."

Little kids "really don't have any preconceived notions about how music should be," says John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants (TMBG). "In terms of writing for an audience, we thought that was an incredibly liberating idea."

In October, TMBG released "Here Come the ABCs" on CD and DVD (Disney Sound). It's the second children's project for the duo of Mr. Flansburgh and John Linnell, who tickled a generation with quirky songs like 1990's "Particle Man" and "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)."

Some rock bands transition more easily to the kids' scene than others.

Bands like TMBG "always had a whimsical quality to them, so their stuff slid right into the genre easily," says Pamela Rooney in an e-mail. Ms. Rooney is a music editor at independent online record store CD Baby. One of the top sellers at the Portland, Ore., company is Dan Zanes, once the lead singer of roots rock band The Del Fuegos and now a veteran kids' rocker. Mr. Zanes's critically acclaimed work has included collaborations with Sheryl Crow and Lou Reed, among others.

Devo started in 1972, and original members Gerald Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh are handing over their red "energy dome" hats for the March 14 release of Devo 2.0 on Disney Sound. Devo 2.0 is a quintet of 10- to 13-year-olds singing Devo's original hits, plus two new songs. Lyrics have been adapted for a kid-friendly appeal, and the band only pretends to use whips in "Whip It."

It may be her parents' music, but lead singer Nicole Stoehr, 13, says kids will like Devo 2.0 because the '80s are back, in music and fashion. "The generations are passing down," she says by phone as her mom drives her home from school.

"The kind of music that's being written and recorded for kids now, it's giving kids a little bit more credit for their music sensibilities," says Steve Roslonek, a New England-based children's musician.

Rockers making tunes for kids have parents in mind, too - parents like Amy and Rob Ford of Denver, Colo., who thought they'd go crazy with the music available for their baby three years ago.

Wishing they could find children's music that they'd like to hear, the Fords decided to make their own. The result was a CD of instrumental versions of rock classics titled "Full Metal Diaper."

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