Friday, April 27, 2007

Barry Louis Polisar

A while ago, Melissa Block from NPR wrote an article about kids' music (click here and scroll down the page to read the article) that made me pause and wonder... The first paragraph said: "I'm the mother of a 4-year-old girl, so I spend a good amount of time in the company of kids' music. And I've become pretty choosy. I don't have a lot of patience for music that panders to what I consider to be misguided notions of what adults think kids must like. Excessive goofiness? Out. Phony silly voices? Out." I read that and thought, kids don't like goofiness or silly voices? Huh?? Having two young girls myself (ages 4 and 2), and having played shows for thousands of kids, one thing that I continue to observe on a daily basis is that kids love to be silly and goofy, even excessively so, and they also love that in their entertainment. In fact, if they love something silly and goofy, then they'll often love it again and again and again and again. If anybody likes goofy and silly things excessively, it's kids. I'll readily agree that goofiness and silly voices do not necessarily make for good kids' music; there still has to be some quality and charm to the "goofiness". And silly voices need to have character to them and be "cast" well to fit with the content of the song. And certainly there is a lot of room in kids' musical palettes for all kinds of other kids' music that is more straightforward or even serious... But to imply that it is a misguided notion that kids like goofiness or silly voices? Well, that's a very misguided notion to me.

The timing of that article was good, though, as it coincided with my receiving some CDs by longstanding children's music artist, Barry Louis Polisar. Barry has been creating and performing kids' music longer and more consistently than anybody else I am aware of (his first kids' music album came out in 1975), and he has been more successful doing that than just about everybody else in the field (over 350,000 units in print), and a lot of his music definitely falls into the goofiness/silly voices category.

Barry sings about and celebrates the way that kids are, not the idealized way that grown-ups want them to be. And a really great thing is that he lets you know up front what he's all about. His albums have titles like: Naughty Songs for Boys and Girls, Off-Color Songs for Kids, Stanley Stole My Shoelace and Rubbed it in His Armpit and Other Songs My Parents Won't Let Me Sing and Old Enough to Know Better: The Worst of Barry Louis Polisar. If you're a parent and you see a title like Naughty Songs for Boys and Girls, you should know the kind of music that's on there. Barry's music will not be every parent's cup of tea, and there are probably some kids who won't take to it, either, especially if they're used to less provocative kinds of kids' music. And I wouldn't play his songs yet for my girls... they're too young to appreciate it. But I think that most elementary school kids will find a lot to love and laugh at in Barry's songs, and Barry speaks to that audience like no other.

Sure, some of Barry's songs may seem kind of obnoxious on the surface, but a lot of them work on a level that is more than just obnoxious. For example, "Don't Put Your Finger Up Your Nose" is some darn good advice. And there are quite a lot of his songs that might seem to be a little unsettling at first until you hear how they resolve. A good example of that is "When Suzie Sneezed" from the Old Enough to Know Better CD, where the first verse goes: A friend of mine came by last night / Said, "Come on out and join the fight / Between Robert and Richard and Susan and Jimmy / 'Cause they just started beating up Timmy / 'Cause Timmy hit Billy who just hit Steve / When Steve hit Laura after Jack and Johnny / Hit Tommy and Richard hit Emily / Who accidentally pushed Debbie when Suzie Sneezed." The first time I heard that, I was thinking, is this really a kids' song about a fight club?? And it builds up in the second verse, escalating to tanks and guns. But it starts to change in the third verse: So I said, "What would happen if you tell Jimmy / You're sorry you hit him and that he hit Timmy. / Maybe Timmy would go and shake Billy's hand / Hopefully some day, they'll understand. And it continues on from there with the one kid trying to convince the other not to keep fighting, so it ends up being a great message about how misunderstandings can escalate into all kinds of craziness, but how at some point you can turn things around with an apology or a kind gesture.

"I Don't Brush My Teeth" may initially seem to glorify slovenliness, but it becomes clear that the protagonist suffers socially from his habits. I can imagine sensitive parents thinking that "Never Cook Your Sister in a Frying Pan" is giving kids all kinds of terrible ideas for how to hurt their siblings, but the final verse reveals its skewed take on the Golden Rule. And a song like "I Don't Wanna Go to School" seems rebellious until you get to the great punch line at the end. Barry's work is loaded with that kind of thing... He's really quite brilliant at playing with expectations, and kids definitely like to have their expectations played with when they're being entertained. Heck, probably 80-90% of all comedy is merely setting up an expectation and doing a twist on it. Not that it's easy to do well, though, and Barry is definitely a master in the vein of Shel Silverstein when it comes to that. And like Shel, Barry has the ability to turn some very clever phrases, such as the "stereotype" line from "That's What Makes the World Go Around": Some folks jog, some smoke pipes / Some are mono-toned, some are stereotypes / Right side up or upside down / That's what makes the world go 'round.

Barry also has a number of regular songs, without any twists or turns or controversial subjects or titles, and they can range from being quite sweet to very funny, such as "I Need You Like a Donut Needs a Hole", "I Miss Grandma" and "I Wanna Be a Dog" (which has been covered by several other kids' musicians... and should not be confused with Iggy Pop's "I Wanna Be Your Dog"). There are also some terrifically poignant songs like "Mom and Dad Are Always Right", which shows a kids perspective on parents who are always critical: Dad says he was stronger when he was half my age. / Mom never got dirty when she went out to play. / I guess they both were perfect kids when they were young like me; / They always did what they were told and that's how I should be.

Barry does a lot of silly character voices throughout his work, but even his usual singing voice might be considered kind of cartoonish as it is. It's definitely not the most polished voice, and yet it has an exuberance that works great for his material. You get the sense that he really is the kid whose point of view he's often singing from, who eats a bit too much sugar cereal and is trying to make the best of understanding his world. Fans of the Violent Femmes should like Barry's voice, as it's very similar in tone and phrasing to Gordon Gano, and Barry's music is often somewhere in the neighborhood of the Violent Femmes and John Prine.

I asked Barry if kids' tastes have changed over the last thirty years. He said that adult sensibilities change over time, and he's been around long enough to watch the styles of kids music go left, then right, then left, then right again, but that is probably more about the adults' tastes than anything... Kids have remained constant—laughing and giggling at the same things they did years ago. So it's no wonder to me that kids have made Barry so popular for so long. Barry speaks with their voice, and sometimes that voice is a very silly and goofy one, and kids love it. As opposed to advocating bad or obnoxious behavior in his songs, Barry is really making fun of it and trusts that kids can tell the difference. On his website, he says, "I have used my writing to hold a mirror up to kids, bringing things out in the open where they can be laughed at rather than swept under the rug." Elementary school is often the last chance for kids to really be kids and laugh at themselves and allow themselves to be goofy and silly without being so self-conscious, before things start getting a lot more mixed up and tense in middle school and high school. So I say, and I'm sure that Barry would agree... until that time... Excessive seriousness? Out.

Barry Louis Polisar website

1 comment:

kelli ann & lorie said...

hi eric-- i enjoyed this entry as it proposes the point of view of someone who is out there, doin' it, and doin' it very well BTW-- i think that we have to be careful about snappy, and downright judgemental, attitudes about kids' entertainment. kids like lots of stuff. they *especially* like getting silly. and it's really hilarious to get silly with 'em. i've learned that i can not dictate what my boys like: i try to understand the reason (whether it corresponds with my own tastes or not) and sometimes must inwardly shudder as they karate-chop dance to music from the (weird, weird!) 'crazy frog.' whenever i can, i try to reflect on what we propose, and try to celebrate together (concerts, plays, puppet shows, museums): but it ain't always beethoven. but there's always a moment there, esp. when there's no expectations of lofty *perfection* or hipster coolness: the elephant song is a gem! it transcends so much, and charms instantly. cheers, -KAF