Children’s music aims for the sophisticated tykes

The stigma that children's music is pure sonic piffle is going the way of Barney the purple dinosaur. The industry that once proffered artists like Raffi Cavoukian, who would shake his sillies out — and make parents tear their hair out — has been updated for modern tykes. Today's kiddie collections are produced with an attention to sonic detail, accomplished with big-name talent, and designed to achieve a musical common ground that enlightens kids and adults.

Take, for example, Baby Loves Jazz, where the barn-musty “Old MacDonald” is revitalized courtesy of soul/funk singer Sharon Jones. In this version, the farmer is now a bandleader, conducting a roll call of his instruments (“And in this band he had a trumpet …”). On The Bingo Kids Sing Motown Hits for Kids, Marvin Gaye's evocative “What's Going On” is lent even more emotional gravitas with children's background vocals. And relatively unknown ballads feel comfortingly familiar when Putumayo Kids Presents: Celtic Dreamland mixes celestial voices with traditional Irish instruments.

The youth-focused music industry has widened its target audience in recent years. “It's not just about appealing to kids,” says Ric Cohen, who founded children's label Bingo with fellow entertainment attorney (and fellow father) Michael Silver. “It's also about not alienating parents. And that's why there's been such a dramatic change in the quality. Repetitive silly songs, kids doing nursery rhymes, covers of what are often inappropriate songs for children — there's a real movement today to get away from all that.”

Bingo operates under the mantra “Don't feed your kids junk music” and releases authentic re-creations of Beatles and Motown tunes with carefully orchestrated vocal parts performed by children. The label isn't about offering music that's a happy, simple diversion, but rather about helping to forge bonds between parent and offspring. And, ironically enough, it's being done with the very classic pop that once divided generations.

For Putumayo Kids — the children's and educational division of Putumayo World Music, an independent label founded in 1993 — the music is a tool in introducing little ones to new cultures. The label showcases musical stylings from New Orleans to Brazil and Hawaii. “Kids are like sponges,” says director Mona Kayhan. “Introduce them to new cultures at a young age and they will be more open to them as adults. In a way, we like to think we're making good global citizens.”

Baby Loves Music is equally ambitious in its efforts to enlighten growing minds and deliver a product that won't drive parents nutty. The brainchild of Andy Blackman Hurwitz, it features songcraft that is second to none, thanks to a bevy of established musicians and producers. Baby Loves Hip-Hop, for example, features Chali 2na of Jurassic 5 and Ladybug Mecca of Digable Planets, and was produced by Prince Paul. With silly vocal hooks and basslines kids can bump to on their Big Wheels, the album delivers young listeners a nifty lesson on perceptions and stereotypes. “Kids don't like to be talked down to,” Hurwitz says. “The same applies to their music. They want to listen to an album that hasn't been dumbed down.”

According to Hurwitz, landing noteworthy professionals for his series was relatively easy — and not merely because of his producer background. Musicians and producers are typically eager to hop on board with such kid-centric ventures. “Everyone wants to do something good for the children, right?” he says. But it also offers consummate recording pros some levity in the studio. “You just get in there and have a great time,” says Jones, who heads up the Dap-Kings and showcased her scatting abilities on Baby Loves Jazz. “It's a nice way for you to have fun in the studio without people thinking you're cockeyed.”

Thanks to this new vision for young ears, being a parent no longer means being punished with insipid songs about giant purple dinosaurs. The eggman and the walrus get their chance to broaden the imaginations of growing minds as well.

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