When Karen O was trying to compose music for the rumpus scene in the feature film adaptation of the beloved children’s book “Where the Wild Things Are,” she would think about writing for kids -- and run into a wall. “The first few versions kept falling prey to being upbeat and happy,” said O, the lead singer for the rock band Yeah Yeah Yeahs. “As soon as we’d start doing that, I felt specious, like I was writing for a Muppets movie.”
So the 30-year-old songwriter, who is not a parent and had never written anything specifically aimed at children before, stopped thinking about the audience. Instead, she focused on what she and the team of A-list indie-rock musicians she assembled did best. The approach worked. Singing in her reverb-free tomboy yelp, Karen O and the Kids’ playful songs provide the expressive heart of director Spike Jonze’s emotional movie.
In the same way as Jonze’s movie and Maurice Sendak’s original book do, O’s soundtrack stretches our idea of what children’s media can be. “Kids respond to music that’s pure of heart,” O said. “They’re emotionally complex little human beings.”
Like O, a slew of musicians from the worlds of rock, folk, alternative, reggae, country and hip-hop are expanding the edges of what family music can and should sound like. Dan Zanes, Ziggy Marley, Laurie Berkner, Ralph’s World, the Sippy Cups, Justin Roberts, Elizabeth Mitchell and many more are creating for the under-10 set -- and their parents -- the sort of listening alternatives that grown-ups have enjoyed for years. As Dan Perloff, founder of the new Venice-based label Minivan, said: “There’s a lot out there that’s not Disney.”
Kids stages have sprung up at major festivals such as Stagecoach and Lollapalooza. Moodsters the Shins and hip-hop band the Roots have contributed songs to the new album “Yo Gabba Gabba! Music Is Awesome!,” based on the popular Nick Jr. TV show. Ozomatli, Los Lobos and the Decemberists are all putting on family shows. There’s even a groaner name for some of this music: kindie rock.
Kindie rock is subject to many of the same charges of eliteness and boutique trendiness as its “parent” genre, indie rock. But at their best, the new makers of music for kids offer live and recorded cultural experiences that parents can share with their offspring without suffering the aural equivalent of having pigged out on cotton candy. They also provide kids a way to understand music that’s not as distancing as taking in a big show.
“If kids just wanted to go to a spectacle, they would go to the Ice Capades,” said Mikel Gehl of the Baltimore band Milkshake. “You have to realize what makes this different.”
Zanes, widely considered the daddy of this scene, doesn’t call what he does kindie rock or even kids music; he calls it all-ages or family music. And he says it’s not new but timeless. A dozen years ago, when his daughter was 3, he began looking for “the music I grew up with: Pete Seeger, Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie. They drew from a variety of traditions and made records that sounded like they were recorded in the kitchen. I thought I would find an update of that, or I would never have made an album.”
Before recording the first of nine CDs of family music (his newest, “76 Trombones,” will be released Tuesday), Zanes led the rock band the Del Fuegos. He admits that when he started making family music, “a lot of people felt sorry for me, like it was a big step down.”
“But actually, it was a huge step up,” he adds. “I feel like I’m working at a much higher creative level than I ever have.”
Many other leading kid rockers have previous or double lives as adult musicians. Peter Himmelman already was an acclaimed singer-songwriter when he made the kids record “My Best Friend Is a Salamander” in ’97. They Might Be Giants make youth-themed albums for Disney and grown-up alt-rock too. Members of Milkshake played the Lilith Fair as Love Riot, and members of the Moldy Peaches, the Mekons and Medeski, Martin & Wood have all dabbled with family music, generally because they have become parents.
“Established musicians really taking the plunge doesn’t hold any stigma anymore,” said Berkner, who’s throwing a pajama party at downtown’s Orpheum Theatre on Nov. 28 and at Long Beach’s Terrace Theatre on Nov. 29. “There’s such an air of agreement that it’s really important to bring your kids up on music.”
Paul Godwin of the San Francisco band the Sippy Cups calls the explosion of family music part of the growth of “conscious parenting. We’re grateful to be parents and want to share every wonderful cultural experience with our kids.”
Milkshake and the Sippy Cups both incorporate clowning elements -- goofy props, colorful costumes -- into their shows. A Cups concert is like “Romper Room” meets a rave. Their music is bright, riffy psychedelic rock; along with such original tunes as “Use Your Words,” they cover the Ramones and the Rolling Stones. At the band’s recent show at the House of Blues, the entertainers wore crazy glam outfits, and kids and parents sat on the floor, playing with giant beach balls and confetti or dancing, hippie style.
Himmelman, a former Minnesotan who has lived in L.A. for years, represents the other end of the kid-rock spectrum: He’s a straight-man troubadour who talks to his young listeners like they’re grown-ups. He sings about trampolines, candy and baseball but rarely cracks a smile.
“Somebody had an idea you’re going to make a kids record and dumb it down,” he said. “Kids aren’t dumb. You’re never as intelligent as when you’re a kid. I try to be careful not to adopt this oversized adult posture. I’m writing exactly the same way as I write for adults, except I’m careful to write about subjects that children will have a context for.”
There’s a considerable difference between the Sippy Cups and Himmelman, but that divide might reflect the cultural split between San Francisco and Los Angeles, given how regional family music can be: Zanes reps multicultural New York, while Milkshake are alt-rockers from Baltimore. It’s difficult for most acts to gain national attention, though, unless they are lucky enough to get face time on Nick Jr. or Playhouse Disney (like Zanes, Berkner and Milkshake have). Touring doesn’t quite work the same way it does for most adult-oriented acts; after all, who’s going to take their children to a show on a school night?
Nonetheless, an industry is sprouting up around the explosion of family-friendly acts. “People are very savvy in terms of the creativity that comes out of it, how they connect to their fan base,” said Minivan’s Perloff, who’s also launching a live family series at the Santa Monica club Air Conditioned with a concert today by the Hollow Trees.
Karen Rappaport, who has worked in children’s entertainment for years, founded Muddy Girl Productions, which books the kids stage at Stagecoach and many other L.A. shows. She says the biggest issues for the genre are CD distribution and finding places to play. CD Baby and NewSound are favorite online outlets for kids albums; many artists also sell CDs at toy stores and other children’s retailers.
“It’s shaking the trees of the music industry to get them to pay attention,” Rappaport said.
There are striking similarities between the current rise of what could be called alternative kid rock and the rise of alt-rock in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Both have grass-roots bases in local scenes and DIY aesthetics. Both see themselves as oppositional to a more corporate entity.
Himmelman, who has an online kids show, “Curious World” (at www.peterhimmelman.com or www.landofnod.com), says music like his is the last stop before the prepubescent pop that’s the Disney Channel’s stock in trade, which he describes as “the disappearance of innocence and wonder.”
For Zanes, family music is about parents sharing a love of listening to and making music with their children. While he bemoans the lack of cultural diversity in the new wave of kids rock, he’s happy that it’s developing the thematic and aesthetic complexity already seen in books and movies.
“Of all people, young people deserve to have options,” he said. “There should be a lot of choices. Music can be such an integral part of being a human being and learning [about] the world around you. That’s really where we can learn about life and death and the natural world and feelings and friendships.”