Children's Artists Smile Way Too Fucking Much
|Moey's Music Party|
It's quite bewitching. In fact, at some point over the next week, while partaking in a particularly satisfying tinkle, I guarantee you will catch yourself humming this tune. So in that way, Moey knocked one out of the park. At the same time, the song is just a ploy to effortlessly appeal to a wide audience -- because honestly, doesn't everyone find a song about the bladder-burning, lip-biting desire to piss so off-color it's charming?
This unique commitment to being cross-generational, of aiming to please both parents and kids, often leads to some rather formulaic endpoints. Children's music groups are often filled with characters with achingly clever names and depthless personalities to match (Moey's Music Party, for example, features Chicken Stu, a skittish, banjo-playing wuss), which means these groups are not unlike comic books, or the bar you hang out at after work, or even GWAR.
I once saw a guitar-wielding children's artist perform a number that challenged concertgoers to touch particular parts of their bodies, and pondered if this gentleman wanted adults to accept that his theatrics were just the next step in the evolution of guitar showmanship. Charley Patton played the guitar behind his head, Jimi Hendrix picked the strings with his teeth, and now behold Steve Racer, who adroitly taps the soles of his feet while strumming chords.
During children's music shows, between-song banter--steeped in what's known as "motherese" -- makes Paul Stanley's onstage chatter sound like Demosthenes. Children's artists tend to embrace a select few genres, their song titles clever nods to where they derived their inspiration: "No Baby, No Cry" (reggae), "Don't Be a Rude Boy" (ska), the Silly Rockabilly live concert series. I recently discovered the Boogers, a trio billed as a punk rock band "just for kids," and probably wasn't the first to think, "Malcolm McLaren already did that."
I know I'm being uncompromisingly cynical. If a song by Peas & Carrots, the Teddy Bear Band, Abby & the Pipsqueaks, or Debi Derryberry (quite possibly the first children's artist stage name that could be mistaken for that of a porn star) is the worst thing parents encounter during the course of their day, things are pretty good. Still, the free-thinking asshole in me can't help but believe that everyone is merely chasing Jonathan Richman, the singer-songwriter linked with the concept of protopunk as regularly as the Velvet Underground and Iggy Pop.
From the late '70s through the mid '80s, Richman covered traditional kiddie songs ("Wheels on the Bus") and did original material that would be snug at home on a PBS program ("Ice Cream Man"). But ultimately his best songs during this period were those that felt written by children and not for children. His authenticity didn't necessitate a well-crafted image or appeals to a child's puerile sensibilities (i.e., singing about poo-poo and wee-wee).
Richman was more about the making the mundane fun -- you know, the fundane. In songs brimming with the primal energy of 1950s rock, he viewed the world through a child's wide eyes. For example, adults look at a chain-link fence and see metal posts, galvanized steel wire, and a function (keeping others out). Kids look at a chain-link fence and see ways to scale it deftly. They think of the noises that could make if they ran a stick along its diamond patterns or what kind of goofy messages they could create by stuffing plastic cups in the holes. "See how that popcorn popper looks sad," Richman observed in "The Lonely Little Thrift Store." "Because of the short little life it's had/Once it was a happy wedding gift/But when they split it too got left." From "My Jeans": "And don't talk Levi's because I've tried/My hips they had no room to play in/And my little bum felt all trapped inside."
It wasn't an occurrence of arrested development, as Richman could be very grown-up in substance. It was about striving to be pure and honest and without pretense, and oftentimes in order to fully realize that goal he had to cop the naiveté of a child. In terms of '70s contemporaries with similar aesthetics, the innocence he conveyed was refreshingly uncorrupted. In tracks like "Here Come the Martian Martians," "Abominable Snowman in the Market," and "Chewing Gum Wrapper," there was none of the suggested madness of Syd Barrett or the symptoms of dysfunction inherent in Dan Treacy's best work.
Richman was affable and engaging, but never stretched it thin. Ever notice how children's artists are a source of endless glee? They smile way too fucking much. You know kids see through that, because they live with adults and know they are typically pictures of frustration and exhaustion. Richman's kid-friendly compositions also acknowledged a belief that perhaps children's songs are too moralizing, that they're simply an extension of the parental nagging so incessant at home. Maybe kids don't want to listen to ditties about doing their homework and keeping their fingernails clean and eating their vegetables.
Richman's commitment to being genuine means he will never write a song about trying broccoli because, you know, broccoli tastes like shit. It also means he would never write a song about having to take a leak. Thankfully, we will always have Moey for that.
Dad Rock is a column in which Ryan Foley attempts to look at pop music and pop culture from the precipice of middle age. If he ultimately leaps, it's because tiny hands ruined his Galaxie 500 vinyl. Accusations that he's raising five insufferable hipster children can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.