"We're not going to listen to kids' music," Jim had asserted when I was pregnant.
"We'll listen to a little of everything," I agreed.
"Kids' music is okay if it's cool," he affirmed.
"Cool like 'Free to Be You and Me'?"
"Yeah, like that. Except, you know, cooler."
"Right. Yeah. We're definitely going to do that."
"We're going to listen to our music."
When I was a child in the 1970s -- a time of ever-so-many benevolent lies -- it was all just music, suitable for everyone. Everybody soft-pedaled everything. We had songs about drugs and sex and urban riots. Yet they were so cheerful and goofy about it. I mean, there are a hundred dead police officers in Paper Lace's "The Night Chicago Died." I watched Diana Ross perform "Love Hangover" on The Muppet Show, flanked by giant squiggly Muppets who looked like marabou boas. It was no big deal somehow. I can remember riding to my grandmother's house listening to "Afternoon Delight" by the Starland Vocal Band, thinking it was some horrible song about a picnic with fireworks. Everything was on a need-to-know basis.
But let's just say that the music in my adult collection is not particularly coy.
"The lyric thing is getting to be a problem," a friend of mine confessed. "I was zoning out driving a while back and then realized my kid was singing along to Ween, 'Don't shit where you eat.' "
"This happened to us, too!" another person piped up, "But it was 'Wavin' my dick in the wind'!"
I'm not trying to be censorious. It's great to sing about your nads. But when your toddler runs around in public parroting remarks about having his dick out in the wind, you imagine the Child Protective Services caseworker sneaking up behind you, scribbling furiously.
On the other hand, even when it was lyrically appropriate, our child didn't necessarily appreciate our music -- a common enough pitfall for parents. Why, I remember rolling around the Houston suburbs as a child, belted into our brown-on-brown custom van with Don Williams crooning "I Believe in Love" in the eight-track player. I despised my father's groaning old balladeers. How could I have known that 25 years later, I'd be nostalgic for my own father's vintage torch-and-twang?
Bring on Iron Man
One of my first victories as a parent was Black Sabbath. I was exhausted and medicated for postpartum depression, so I began lifting the baby, whom we called Baldo, over my head and intoning, "I am Iron Man!" I'd plop him on the couch and stagger across the room, Ozzy-like, trailing my arms behind me for our mutual amusement.
It stuck. When Baldo was old enough to speak, he'd pipe, "Iron man!" in his little toddler falsetto. He'd sing the riff. I wept tears of joy and blogged furiously. We even convinced him that if he ate enough lima beans, he would transform into Iron Man, replete with heavy boots of lead. Then I explained that Iron Man doesn't really need vengeance from the grave. He can use his words!
"Are you doing any kind of music classes?" asked our friend Mark, who's kind of a corporate fast-tracker, whereas I am from the Planet of Slack.
"We're learning 'Iron Man!' " I beamed. He gave me a funny look.
"I'm going to teach you how to rock," I told the boy one morning over cereal. If children were taught from birth how to rock, they could rock twice as hard by the time they became rebellious adolescents, having mastered the fundamentals of rocking!
I'd pegged Baldo as a drummer by the way he bashed household items rhythmically, but I reconsidered when I realized how sensitive and rashy he was, how he shrank away from other children and clung to my legs at the park, yet how he was shyly charismatic. "You can be the reclusive singer-songwriter with semi-confessional lyrics," I told him.
We began with the three essential rock vocal flourishes. "Ow ow, doo doo, whoa whoa," I said. "That's our first lesson."
"Whoa whoa" was easy enough. I'd already taught him to identify adult women who were not "Mama" with the help of "She's a Lady."
"Whoa, whoa, whoa, lady!" he'd sing when a jogger passed by. Whoa, whoa, whoa, lady indeed. The essence of rock, distilled into four words, three of which were the same word. Perfect.
Then it was on to the White Stripes.
"The hardest button to button!" I sang. I pointed. "Now you!"
"Ow ow," he whispered, smiling shyly.
"It's pain! Belt it!"
"Ow ow," he giggled.
Next was the rock-and-roll count-off. First we had to learn to count to four.
"One and two!" he'd yell.
"How about 'One, two, three, four!' "
"One and two and two!"
"What comes after two?"
"Okay, we'll work on it. Then you can experiment with funny rhythms and stuff." I was imagining Thom Yorke at the beginning of "Polyethylene."
A coffeehouse in town began hosting free kids' music on Sunday mornings. Avid supporters of local musicians, we'd drag ourselves out of bed, get dressed, and schlep across town for the occasion.
One morning we walked in the door of our coffeehouse to find two grown men in orange utility jumpsuits and hardhats operating crude puppets and singing about teeth. I stopped in my tracks.
Our friend Moz the Wonder Baby and his parents were there. Moz's dad, Bruce, went apeshit for these guys. "It's the coolest thing ever! It's Tenacious D for kids!" he cried. (I'm not entirely sure that regular Tenacious D isn't for kids, aside from the f-bombs.) "I think these guys have to do this as part of their community service," he concluded.
The troubadours onstage called themselves The Telephone Company. They were flanked onstage by life-sized cardboard cutouts of themselves. They were performing a sort of apoplectic dance.
But it was the lyrics that really had me freaked. The Telephone Company doesn't bother with didactic songs about why it's important to put your books and toys away, from which I gathered that they were not themselves parents. Uncles, maybe. Given to strange flights of fancy about mustaches who run away and teeth who get married. Musically it's very Dada, with repetitive, jangly guitar chords and call-and-response character vocals with weird mike effects.
It's the kind of thing your ironic hipster friends give your kid for his birthday (along with maybe a vintage Japanese wind-up robot toy with small swallowable parts and lead paint) that you put on the very back of a tall shelf and forget about until after bedtime months from now, when you're intoxicated in the living room and you put it on because it's funny, except that after you listen to a couple of tracks you get completely paranoid because teeth aren't supposed to get married. So then you call your friend because you need someone to talk you down, and the friend says, "So was that not a good gift?" and you can't answer because your teeth will run away and elope if you open your mouth.
Several of the toddlers were inspired to spin furiously to the music, like Sufis, while Baldo sat riveted to my lap in a state of sensory-overload catatonia. He neither moved nor spoke for the entirety of their twenty-minute set. He didn't even touch his horchata.
Turn It Up to 11
Another show, by an artist called Nommi, promised "radical music for kids." That was cool, I guess, but I needed more information. Radical like The Clash? Radical like Billy Bragg? Radical like a hippie singing a never-ending, dirge-like protest song at the Capitol rotunda? What were we dealing with here? Rhymes and toy piano protesting the WTO? Would there be tooth puppets? I wasn't sure I could deal with puppets.
Nommi, it turned out, was Spinal Tap for children. His band's amps went up to eleven. They had a full drum set and electric bass. They even had a sweaty guy in a Hawaiian shirt bashing a tambourine. Their singer ran around the stage like Wayne Famous, singing platitudinously about the importance of physical fitness. I waited for maternity bras to be unhooked and flung onstage. My son curled up in my lap and nursed constantly for reassurance while the toddler audience surged around us like a tsunami.
"It's Baby Altamont!" I cried to Jim.
"What?" he yelled.
"I want the Telephone Company to come back," Bruce said.
"I'm going to ask them to turn it down," his wife added.
At last I understood why kids' music didn't usually rock. Because any bar-band yahoo can sing "The Wheels on the Bus" and work a room full of toddlers into a lather, especially if cookies and horchata are for sale nearby. They freak out and crash in the car afterward, still dizzy from spinning. That's not necessarily a bad thing. It's fun to be goofy and run on fructose sometimes.
What I really wanted to share with my son was sincerity. Music with a feeling behind it, something authentic and palpable. You know Ice-T means it when he says we shouldn't sell out, we should just yell out. You know Grover means it when he says that he is big and tall and very smart and kind of cute and wonderful.
I don't want a chokeload of whimsy shoved in my face; I could do without the slide whistles and toddlers in singsong unison. There has to be a balance. We need to have fun together; we can have handclaps and pop hooks, and we can sing about hot dogs and holes in the sea because these things are fun. It doesn't have to rock. It doesn't have to be cool. But it's got to be real.
Marrit Ingman is a freelance writer living in Austin, Texas. She is an arts critic and a regular contributor to the Austin Chronicle and other publications. She is also completing her first book, a memoir of postpartum depression.