If you ask me, the recent New York Times piece “Why Do Kids Love Terrible Music,“ which argues children latch onto torturous tunes like “Baby Shark” because of their natural affinity for repetitive music and easy-to-understand lyrical themes, underestimates kids’ ability to develop their own complex musical tastes.
Music is cultural. The same way Americans tend to reinforce the bias that pink is for girls and blue is for boys, the music kids often listen to is based on the musical environment around them, and parents have a strong impact on that.
As a musician, DJ and parent of young children, I believe part of my responsibility is to shape my kids musical experience. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve had our share of singing “Wheels on the Bus,” “The Itsy Bitsy Spider,” and Rafi. In fact, we’ve seen Dan Zanes live a couple of times, as his tunes are on the tolerable end of the children’s music spectrum. But my wife and I have also been intentional about exposing our kids to the music that we like, and it turns out that the kids like our music at least as much as the stuff that’s supposedly made for them.
From infancy, the lullabies we sang to them at bedtime included tunes like the South African turned American folk song “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” The Beatles’ “Blackbird” and Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.” I’ve also built a Spotify playlist called “Love Songs, Lullabies, Laments” that we sometimes use to help soothe them to sleep. It doesn’t contain any music that was intentionally made for kids. As the Times article points out, the themes in music that kids relate to are the same themes that are the components of most popular music.
Our kids have been to Frozen-themed birthday parties, so they’re aware of it, but we keep that overly saccharine soundtrack off of our playlists. They’ve heard “Baby Shark,” but the closest thing to it that comes out of our speakers is the Jamaican dancehall version by RDX called “Mek We Dance.”
Essentially, our tactic has been to keep the kids away from the music we don’t want to hear. They’re perfectly happy to hear the tunes that we enjoy and that way we all enjoy them together. In fact, each of our kids has their own playlist on Spotify that I add tracks to when they say, “Dad, can you add this one to my playlist?” All of them are tunes I was listening to for my own enjoyment in the first place, so I’m always happy to put on their playlists when they ask me to.
There was an interesting moment last year when another child from our school got into our car and asked, “Do you have that ‘Poop-Diddy-Scoop’ song?” “You mean that Kanye tune, ‘Lift Yourself‘,” I replied. “Yeah, that one!” they said. I put it on and all three of the kids in my car were bouncing around in hysterics. It made me ponder whether Kanye had intentionally made a kids song. Whatever the case, all the kids and adults in the car were thoroughly enjoying the music together, and that’s the goal.
The same way kids need guidance when it comes to screen time or food choices, when parents provide a steady diet of interesting musical options with guard rails, kids learn to like “good” music from a very young age.
Jake Trussell’s musical interests lie in the liminal space between underground experimentation and mainstream accessibility. He believes that no genre is off limits as long as the music is magic. He wears various hats as a designer, writer, DJ and music producer who has staged experimental audio-visual events in alternative venues, held residencies at a number of clubs around Boston and Chicago, founded music blogs and record labels, and toured internationally as a DJ and musician. From time to time he can be caught lecturing on music, design or the impact of creatives on the economy.