Once considered too sweet for adults, children's music isn't limited to one flavor anymore. It's become sophisticated and multigenerational, yet remains just as fun-loving.
Those at the heart of this musical genre are noticing its wider appeal. During a membership drive at Boston student-run radio station WERS last November, T-shirts were offered by "The Playground," a program that plays songs such as "Bahamas Pajamas" by Joe Scruggs and "Rainbow Connection" by Kermit the Frog. Roughly 80 percent of the callers asked for an adult-size shirt.
John McCutcheon, a folk artist, plays mostly to adults, yet gets requests to perform his children's numbers. "I can be doing the late show at The Bottom Line in New York City, and there's not a child awake in Manhattan, and somebody slips a note on stage wanting to hear 'Rubber Blubber Whale.' "
What's going on here? Artists and deejays have discovered that good musicality, coupled with the right lyrical content, works for older children and their parents too.
As a result, more musicians and recordings are emerging that bridge the divide.
Music for Little People, a Garberville, Calif.-based company, has done especially well selling what it calls "family music," in a variety of genres.
Sheron Sherman, president of Music for Little People, says the company strives to record music that neither insults grownups nor condescends to children and, she hopes, appeals even to adults without kids. One strategy used to hook baby-boomer parents is to employ established artists, such as Taj Mahal, The Persuasions, and Buckwheat Zydeco.
Many top talents in family music come from folk music - versatile, seasoned performers who play schools and recreation centers, as well as concert stages.
Kathy O'Connell, host of the "Kid's Corner" on Philadelphia's WXPN, says a great example of an act with feet in both worlds is Trout Fishing In America, a two-man group based in northwest Arkansas (see story at left). She says Trout Fishing's regular concerts are pretty much the same as those strictly for kids, except "the yucky love songs" are left out of the latter.
Because most family-type, children's music is hard to categorize and is produced by independent labels, it's largely invisible - no threat to crash any major Top 10 list. Even finding it in music stores can be a challenge, Ms. O'Connell says. Children's and novelty sections are the best starting points. Music for Little People sometimes pays to get sample tracks on store "listening posts," but that's expensive.
Many children's musicians dispense with the middlemen, selling directly via Web sites or at their concerts.
Most children today quickly grow out of rainbow-and-unicorn lyrics. This is the result of a revolution in the accessibility of music, says folk artist Mr. McCutcheon.
"When I was growing up," he observes, "my parents didn't go to concerts. We had a hi-fi and maybe 10 albums.... " Now there are CD players, cassettes, Muzak.
Children are also more involved in decisions about what to play in the car, which is one reason for parents to find a middle musical ground, insiders say. It helps that kids enjoy a wide variety of musical styles, from reggae to salsa. P.J. Swift, former producer of Pickleberry Pie, a children's music program that once aired on 80 public radio stations, says Sesame Street has played a key role in expanding early musical tastes.
In particular, O'Connell notes, Sesame Street has exposed children to Latin rhythms. She also calls the show a pioneer in building expectations for a high-level performance quality in the oft-belittled genre of children's music.
McCutcheon says this has been liberating for artists like him, who enjoy the opportunity to explore different musical forms. "In one number I might pull out the fiddles and banjos and play some old-time music, and the next one's going to be rock 'n' roll with a big horn section," he says.
No one seems to have a ready definition of children's music. To some degree, it's grouped by age bracket. Once children are 8 or over, their tastes can be almost indistinguishable from their parents'. "The sign of a really good effort for kids is that the adults can stand to listen to it," O'Connell says. "But that would be the sign of a really good release for adults as well."
"World music" and a cappella singing are two categories gaining popularity. Many youths were introduced to a cappella by the PBS kids' game show, "Where in the World is Carmen San Diego?" Rockapella, a men's ensemble, sang the theme song.
One of the hottest groups with young teens at the moment is 'N Sync, who produce a tight harmonic sound. These male heartthrobs benefit from what children's music advocates consider a premature crossover to sugary pop music.
Teen music is converting youngsters to rock earlier and earlier, says Bonnie Lockhart, president of Children's Music Network, an association of artists and parents. "When I was a kid, it was around sixth grade or junior high that people started worrying about being cool," she says. "Now I see pressure for seven-, eight-, nine-year-olds to listen to the Spice Girls, to identify with this kind of corporate creation of what music and culture is."
Former producer Ms. Swift, who owns perhaps the largest collection of children's music in the United States, doesn't believe this encourages kids musically. "So much of what is on MTV is so overproduced that children say, 'I can't ever sound like that, so why try,' " she says. She's disappointed that Radio Disney, a 24-hour radio network for kids, has a playlist heavily weighted to teen pop.
To bridge the children's-pop divide, some musicians are producing rock music for both young listeners and parents.
John Boydston, a stay-at-home father, selected this path after the rock- and surfin'-style music he recorded at home became popular with his two young sons. He launched a cottage career as Daddy A Go Go (see story, bottom of page 16).
Deejay O'Connell says it's important to recognize that children have eclectic tastes and like to be stretched. "Aim a little over their heads, and they're going to reach," she says. They respond well to Gilbert and Sullivan's catchy tunes and lyrics, she adds, as well as to the rap of the Sugar Hill Gang, whose album "Jump On It" has been a hit on her radio show. "I notice that kids like music with maybe a harder edge than adults are willing to give them credit for."
Getting exposure for good family music is half the battle. Swift says that selling program directors even at public radio stations can be tough "because kids don't write the checks."
Nonetheless, there are stations committed to children's radio programming. A list can be found on the Children's Music Web (www.childrensmusic.org), which Webcasts Pickleberry Pie reruns.
WERS's "The Playground," a commercial-free show produced by Emerson College in Boston, is a good example of a children's show that works. It elicited parental protests when its hours were cut back.
Interestingly, a large percentage of its playlist is devoted to Disney numbers, most from movie soundtracks featuring celebrity headliners. Disney is very generous in providing movie tickets and other merchandise for promotional purposes. It can be tough going up against the Disney machine, which provides WERS and other stations with items for listener giveaways.
This is evident during the Grammy awards, when pop stars like Phil Collins go home winners, and lesser-known pros like John McCutcheon must settle for being nominated. Even so, Children's Music Network's Lockhart says children's musicians see themselves creating "a participatory ... life-affirming culture that values each person. In this way, music plays a profound role in creating community."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society