On the whole, like most media aimed at kids, children's music sucks. Media producers and marketers think of children as a homogeneous, unthinking mass of protoplasm that will sit like drooling idiots and listen to or watch whatever swill is sent their way. As a result, children's music in particular is a vast wasteland made up of treacly nursery rhymes sung by long-forgotten (or never memorable) singers on one hand or the quasi-Christian, dulcet tones of Raffi (a singer with all the charisma of Davey and Goliath) on the other. And let's face it: Even though it's called "children's" music, what it's really all about is adults' willingness to listen to a CD not once or twice or even 30 times. No, it's about listening to the same CD for what seems like a lifetime and with the same attentiveness our stoner friends used to listen to Bob Dylan.
My household has long been fans of They Might Be Giants -- before their "Boss of Me" (the theme song for the television show Malcolm in the Middle) won a Grammy; even before "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)" hit the charts, back to the early 1980s, when the band existed largely through their Dial-A-Song (when answering machines were first introduced, They Might be Giants began running ads in the Village Voice for an answering machine that played their music). What's not to like about a band with lyrics like "She's actual size, but she looks much bigger to me" or "Particle Man," which asks, "Is he a dot, or is he a speck? When he's underwater does he get wet? Or does the water get him instead?" or "Glass of milk/Standing in between extinction and the cold and explosive radiating growth"?
When They Might Be Giants released their children's album No! many parents and fans were delighted. No! delivered the same mix of intelligence and quirkiness -- it was quintessential They Might Be Giants, with songs like "Robot Parade" that kids just love. No! was wonderful: intelligent, inventive, and fun. And it was funny to hear my then three-year-old, The Generalissimo, singing "The Edison Museum / Not open to the public" at the top of his lungs.
No doubt fuelled by the success of No!, They Might Be Giants just came out with Bed, Bed, Bed, a combination bedtime book and bedtime CD. I wasn't quite sure how to approach this. Do you listen to the CD while you read the book? For those without the media-equipped bedroom, can you just read the book and save the CD for headphones or the car? We tried reading the book first, which turned out to be a mistake -- They Might Be Giants lyrics are really meant to be sung and not read out loud: "Gavotte's a kind of dance and / It really comes from France and / it's like a minuet but moderately fast. / Other cats come around here just to / Gavotte with me and you too. / Put to rest the rumors that a hippie cat can't dance." The book is pretty enough, with intricate and imaginative illustrations by Canadian artist Marcel Ozam, but without the CD, it just doesn't work. Even with the CD, the concept doesn't work that well. The songs aren't the band's finest -- they're a dumbed-down version of the songs that appear on No! In fact, Bed, Bed, Bed seems to be the rather hasty result of some marketing genius' strategy for taking advantage of the success of No!
Neither The Generalissimo nor myself are opposed in principle to multimedia presentations, but bedtime (as any parent or child knows) is about simplicity and routine, not good marketing ideas. I mean, what's next? A PowerPoint presentation of Green Eggs and Ham, complete with flying multi-colored eggs and ham and bullet points with sound effects? I think we'll eschew the multimedia in favor of that older technology -- the book. In terms of music, spend your money on CDs like Dial-A-Song, Flood, Apollo 18, or No! for your kids and yourselves. They'll have a longer service life than the bedtime book and CD, and you won't mind hearing them again and again and again and again ...