Sunday, April 09, 2006

Dumbing it down

I know I probably complain more than my share about the vacuity of current mainstream American culture--especially mainstream American music--but I don't think I realized the extent of the problem until I had a kid of my own and saw the sort of pablum that an energetic entrepreneur can unload on unwitting (or sometimes just witless) parents.

Exhibit A: Music Talking (er, excuse me, "Music TALKING") is a company that offers "fun, upbeat, original songs by original artists," which deliver "positive messages through character development topics." These folks get points for presenting "original recordings" (though for some reason Otis Redding's version of "Respect" doesn't count as original), as opposed to versions sung by a chorus of exceedingly treblefied kids. But the whole "fun," "upbeat," "positive" vibe seems to me to be a put-on motivated by an assumption that children can't handle interesting, or, dare I say it, instrumental music (i.e., music as music, sans lyrics). And I suspect the compilers in this case didn't get the irony or humor in Joe Walsh's "Life's Been Good to Me", which is more a sendup of the excesses of the 1970s pop music industry than a paean to good fortune. (If they had, this would probably have been a more worthwhile enterprise.)

Then there is the Jazz Baby series, which essentially takes standard kid fare like "Row Row Row Your Boat" and "Rock a Bye Baby," and filters it through the mad creativity of heavy hitters like Taj Mahal and Dr. John. Nice idea, sure. But after watching my not-yet-two-year-old daughter sit in rapt attention to the first fifteen minutes (or so) of Mingus's "Live at Montreux" concert DVD (longer than most adults, I daresay), I've got to disagree with the basic premise of the Jazz Baby people, that "Adult music was way too sophisticated for the kids [...]" Let's put it this way: if you ensconce your kids in a plastic world o' Disney, or subject them to numnuts like the Wiggles or Dan Zanes, then of course they're not going to "get it" when you introduce them to something more interesting later on (assuming you even bother). But I submit that kids can handle a lot more than we typically give them credit for. When we shield them from complexity, we're really just preparing them to be the sort of adults who get addicted to religion or patriotism.

(At the moment, Thandie's jukebox features the Talking Heads (her favorite by far), Howling Wolf, the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Frank Zappa, Prince, Sarah Vaughn, Mozart, and Wendy Carlos.)

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