Kids’ music is big business, particularly on the internet. But are authenticity and originality sacrificed for quick-fix clicks? Children’s writer and music specialist, Cathy Clethero, flies the flag for better, more diverse kidumusic and says let’s raise the bar.
Is it just me or is lots of the children’s music available on the internet a bit, well, rubbish?
Type ‘children’s music’ into YouTube and you’ll find any number of specialist platforms hosting hours of nursery rhymes zhuzhed up for a modern audience. The internet is awash with kids’ songs sung in transatlantic accents by turbo-charged grown-ups with sinus problems: there are raps about the solar system, the weather, the alphabet, the seasons; there are compilations and playlists and educational videos and 3D animations; there are whole networks devoted to kids’ music that entertains, kids’ music that educates, kids’ music that does both. It’s big business.
As part of my work as a children’s writer and music specialist, I teach in nurseries and I often arrive to see groups of children sat in front of the obligatory iPad, watching an animated version of Old Macdonald or Dingle Dangle Scarecrow or any of the countless other nursery rhymes and children’s songs we all grew up singing. And I’m not knocking it – the small screen has always made a good babysitter and music is a brilliant way to impart knowledge at the same time. Think of all those counting songs for starters – 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, Once I Caught A Fish Alive, 10 Fat Sausages Sizzling In The Pan, 5 Little Men In A Flying Saucer. These are great not only for literacy and numeracy but also fine motor skills – counting on our fingers is an excellent way to develop manual dexterity.
A manufactured feel
But what about the delivery? This music is made in bulk and, for the most part, uses samples and drum loops. The singing, as I’ve already mentioned, is nasal and American-sounding. The whole thing often has a slightly urgent quality, which seems to say, ‘Keep going, no time to stop, must get on, on to the next song’. True, there are lullabies but even these have a manufactured feel. I’ve just dipped into one compilation with over eight hours (eight hours!) of tinkling music to a video consisting of clouds rushing by at breakneck speed – it was not relaxing.
Do I sound like a grumpy old woman, reaching for the smelling salts because, shock horror, companies are flooding the children’s music market with content I don’t personally like? Yup, that’s me, I hold my hands up – I don’t like this stuff and I think children deserve better.
And there’s lots better out there if you know where to look for it. As a music specialist, I get to choose the songs I teach the children in my classes and, over a career spanning 30+ years, I have become a bit of an expert in this area.
So much more than The Wheels On The Bus
Just under a year ago, I started teaching music in a Montessori nursery in South London, which chooses a different theme every 10 weeks. So far, we’ve covered Australia, the Story of the Earth, Lights & Lanterns and British Woodland – all brilliant, interesting subjects, which the children have absolutely loved. Have I had trouble sourcing songs and music to support these themes? No, because I have about a million kids’ songs swimming round in my head all the time and I’ve just cherry-picked the best ones. This is not me boasting but it is me telling you there is so much more out there than The Wheels On The Bus, even if it is performed as a rap or – like the YouTube video I saw the other day – an RnB remix.
And by the way, I’m not dissing rap or RnB. I found out about Desmond Dennis’s RnB version of The Wheels on the Bus through a 20-something Facebook friend who works in a local nursery. He loved it and judging by the comments underneath the video, so do the rest of its 1 million+ viewers. And why not? It’s tapping into contemporary urban music and making it accessible for kids. Parents and younger nursery staff recognise the genre and feel a sense of ownership. What’s not to like?
Brilliant writers creating new material
But there is more to children’s music than modern remixes of traditional songs and nursery rhymes. For a start, there are some brilliant writers out there creating new material – there have been ever since I started teaching. What about Raffi, the award-winning Canadian children’s singer/songwriter whose 30+ albums – with songs covering everything from everyday activities like baking and shopping to social and environmental issues – sell worldwide? His Baby Beluga is one of the most beautiful children’s songs ever written.
Now you might wonder why I’m choosing to mention someone who sings in a Canadian accent when I’ve called into question ‘transatlantic accents’ and ‘American-sounding’ vocals above. Well, for me, there’s a world of difference between listening to a highly respected songwriter performing his own songs in his own voice and the singers you hear so often on children’s music: generic, forgettable – at best radio-friendly, at worst, whiny and annoying. I’m fascinated by the millions of ways in which we speak and sing so I’m not dissing the American accent but I do wince when I hear British singers mimicking it by default.
Songs that reflect all the people of the world
Or perhaps they’re not; perhaps the content we hear on YouTube compilations and playlists and educational videos and 3D animations was generated in the US. If so, that makes me sad too. I want to hear music that reflects my own experience here in the UK – music sung in a variety of voices and accents: English and Irish and Scottish and Welsh but also Jamaican and Vietnamese and Indian and Nigerian; Cockney, Scouse, West Country, Brummie; gruff, lilting, singsong, mellow. I also want it to reflect the many styles and genres of music available across the globe: classical, jazz, folk, world; reggae, samba, calypso, ska; marches, waltzes, hoedowns, ballads. I want children’s songs to reflect all the people of the world and the wonderful ways in which we express ourselves.
But I’ve gone off-piste. The point of the above is to draw your attention to the huge variety of original children’s music out there – from the many songs available under the Sing Up banner to the wonderful books and CDs created by Out of the Ark Music, Playsongs and childrensmusic.co.uk. All of these are publishers of one kind or another but there are also individual artists and bands releasing amazing stuff.
Great arrangements played on real instruments
Here in London, there’s the excellent Steve Grocott whose Bright Sparks CDs contain brilliantly recorded acoustic songs for children, songs which work well in the classroom but are also great for family singalongs. Rosie Adediran at Mama Sings has just launched a YouTube channel, London Rhymes, featuring songs she’s co-written with parents and their babies at Youth Music-funded projects across the capital. My friend and the co-founder of my early years music facility, Bangers & Smash, Sarah Allen, performed on the popular children’s album, And Don’t Tell Your Mama by The Bisky Bats (now sadly discontinued), which is full of great arrangements of traditional and original children’s songs played on real instruments.
Further afield, you’ll find David Holt immortalising the music of the Appalachians in his children’s CD, I Got A Bullfrog, and Iya & the Kuumba Kids, promoting the history and culture of Africa through their album, Ooh Kuumba. Not to mention Frances England and The Not-Its!, both recording a new kind of kids’ music, kindie rock, aimed at parents who want their children’s listening to reflect their own, more indie, musical tastes.
Commercial versus educational children’s music
And then there’s me. I’ve been writing children’s songs for over 30 years – I use them in my teaching – but I’ve never tried to find another market for them until now. This article is written in part to help me sort out in my own head where I stand on commercial versus educational children’s music. Could I sell my songs commercially? Educationally? Who would market them? Who would buy them?
What’s clear is that they don’t fit the kidumusic mould – that’s about mass-production, about generating income through clicks, isn’t it? Well, yes, but one internet-based children’s network does broadcast original material as well as the usual traditional songs and nursery rhymes. Pinkfong is dedicated to ‘an adorable prince from planet Staria with boundless curiosity’. It’s also the home of Baby Shark.
The best of kidumusic
Most people have heard this song and seen the accompanying video – it’s an internet sensation. And it’s great – really catchy, really smart and just bang on the money. OK, it’s sung in an American accent but, hey, I can forgive that. For me, it represents the best of kidumusic and it raises the bar.
Over the past 18 months, I’ve been working on a musical children’s animation series. I have an agent and he’s currently pitching this to TV production companies. It’s an exciting time but what’s emerging is that people in the business are nervous of commissioning shows with original music because they are expensive to make. I’d like nothing more than to see my songs on the telly – and we’ll see – but in the meantime, I’m gonna keep flying the flag for better, more diverse children’s music. I’m gonna keep writing and recording and singing and teaching. And I’m gonna see if I can join Pinkfong and all the other brilliant creators of original kids’ songs out there in raising that bar.
About the author
Cathy Clethero is a musician, writer, editor and teacher with over 30 years’ experience delivering music in early years and primary settings.
She worked professionally as a jazz vocalist and singer/songwriter, performing in venues across London and taking her trio (vocals/guitar/trumpet) to community venues across the UK with Live Music Now.
As a backing vocalist and session singer, she provided vocals for the Kenny Wheeler Big Band, Pete Brown (Cream), Martyn Ware (Human League), Miki Imai, Spizzenergi and Crass – as well as various TV and production companies – and sang the original theme tune of popular children’s phonics series, Letterland.
Cathy co-founded early years music facility, Bangers & Smash, in 1987. She continues to teach music in nurseries and to run ‘Music in the Wildlife Garden’ family events with Bangers & Smash Co-Founder, Sarah Allen (flute/accordion).
Cathy creates songs, stories and screenplays for children under the pseudonym, Kitty Pidduck.