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When Dan Zanes was 23, his band, the Del Fuegos, had already been named band of the year by Rolling Stone. This was 1984. The Del Fuegos had formed only a year or so before, and after fermenting in the underground scene around Boston, had already signed with Warner Bros. A string of records followed, as well as a few moderate hits like “Don’t Run Wild” and “I Still Want You,” before the group broke up in 1990 — “We made a lot of mistakes, and it all spontaneously combusted,” says Zanes, now 45 — and he set out on his solo rock career, which all but ended after one record. The group’s fate set the classic arc for an indie act through the ’90s — alternative credibility leads to mainstream attention leads to chaos and dissolution.
But the Dan Zanes story doesn’t end there. Last month, the indie rocker released a new album, “Catch That Train.” It’s Zanes’ sixth record on his own Festival Five Records label, and like the other five, the newest is a collection of folksy rock songs for children. Co-released through Starbucks’ Hear Music label — yes, you can pick one up along with a latte — the album was hotly anticipated by fans, earned positive reviews from the music press as well as a variety of kids music blogs, and and peaked at No. 4 on Billboard’s new kid audio chart (it also debuted at No. 9 in the Billboard independent album rankings).
After the birth of his daughter, Anna, in 1995, Zanes was casting around to find some really good music that the whole family could enjoy. A trip to the local Tower Records left the Brooklyn, N.Y., musician empty-handed: “Everything was tied into TV shows and movies — which ishn’t to say the music wasn’t any good. It just wasn’t what I was looking for.” So Zanes started recording his own music, making funky tapes of kids songs from the comfort of his own home. “I didn’t start doing this because I thought kids music was in terrible shape,” he says. “I just didn’t find the particular sound that I hear in my head.” In 1999, he started Festival Five and began putting out his own records.
Seven years later, Zanes is one of the biggest names in the new wave of kids indie rock — call it “kindie rock” — a genre that melds the sensibility of the singer-songwriter with themes aimed at kids under 10. (Listen to Zanes and others on Audiofile’s kindie rock primer playlist.) Far from regarding it as a step down, Zanes sees his second musical career as a vast improvement over his Del Fuego days. “There is no comparison — this is so much more fun on every level, even though being in a rock band was a great way to squander my youth,” Zanes says now. “All the things that made playing in a rock band exciting — musical freedom and a sense of adventure, and also this feeling of being part of a community and being connected to the audience — these things are alive and well and better than they’ve ever been.”
Lest anyone think music for little people isn’t a big deal, a few facts: In early March, the top three slots on the Billboard album chart were taken by kids records — Disney’s “High School Musical Soundtrack” (which has since gone double platinum, selling more than 2 million copies, and last week was still at No. 2 on the chart); an album of sanitized, kid-sung pop and R&B covers called “Kidz Bop 9″ (it has since sold almost half a million); and Jack Johnson’s “Curious George” soundtrack. And according to Nielsen SoundScan, kids-music album sales are up 103 percent compared to the same period last year, with 5.5 million units sold as of the end of April.
If Zanes is the king of the new kids music scene, then Laurie Berkner — often called the Ani DiFranco of the under-10 set — is its queen. Berkner, whose music, like Zanes’, has been featured prominently on the kids cable channel Noggin and was released through Starbucks, has been writing for kids for over a decade, but she too got her start in rock. She’d started writing kids songs alongside music for her rock band Red Onion in the mid-’90s, but she found the kiddie stuff much more compelling. “The feeling of it was kind of taking ideas that I would have written for a band but just kind of simplifying it a little bit — and not even that much,” she says now. “The way I write a kids song is so much clearer. They’re such better little pieces of art.” Berkner has four albums out, and when she released her first DVD, “We Are … The Laurie Berkner Band,” in mid-February, it almost immediately went gold, and has stayed at or just below the top of the music video sales charts ever since.
They Might Be Giants are perhaps an even more prototypical example of kindie rockers. Their transition from quirky indie pop band to quirky kindie rock act has been almost total, and while they still put out music specifically for adults — “We have kind of a bifurcated career now,” says John Flansburgh, one half of the duo — their kids albums have been huge critical and commercial successes. Their 2005 record “Here Come the ABCs,” concurrently released as a DVD, was their first album to go gold since 1990′s “Flood” (which featured both “Birdhouse in Your Soul” and “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)”). The group recorded their first children’s record, 2002′s “No!” after being approached by Rounder and they saw it as a way of exploring fresh musical territory. “We had been up and down and up and down the rock ‘n’ roll roller coaster,” says John Flansburgh, “and it just seemed like it might be interesting to do a project that wasn’t at all about how the group is perceived as a rock entity.” They were as surprised as anyone about the success of “No!” and “Here Come the ABCs” and are working on another album, “Here Come the 123s,” an album Flansburgh jokingly calls a prequel to the alphabet record. “I think this is a good time for creative people in the children’s field,” he says. “I think there’s obviously a clear burst of energy and genuine interest, and people are realizing that it does matter and it can be interesting.”
Examples of other indie rockers-turned-kindie rockers abound: Lisa Mathews of Milkshake, a band that recently toured with Zanes on Jamarama Live, a sort of Lollapalooza for kids, used to be in a band called Love Riot, who once played Lilith Fair. “A lot of us, like Dan Zanes and They Might Be Giants, we’ve had rock bands. So people that liked us before and now have kids get to go enjoy us in an unexpected way,” says Mathews. Her music now, she says, is “basically Love Riot for kids.”
There may be no clearer sign of how big kids music has become than the long list of artists who, like They Might Be Giants, have surrendered to its allure. Lisa Loeb put out a kids record called “Catch the Moon” in 2003; in March, Devo oversaw a kid-oriented rerelease of their album called “Devo 2.0″ with Disney that had teenagers performing all the songs; Stephin Merritt and his band the Gothic Archies are releasing an album of 13 songs based on Lemony Snicket’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events” in October. And even if they’re not making full albums, many artists have been making guest appearances as kids performers: Nick Cave and Natalie Merchant show up in duets on the forthcoming Zanes album (Lou Reed appeared on Zanes’ “Night Time!” in 2002), Belle and Sebastian have curated an album of children’s songs by Franz Ferdinand, the Flaming Lips, Travis and others to be released in the fall, and the two albums of the recent “For the Kids” series have included artists like Billy Bragg and Wilco, Tom Waits, Jason Mraz, Cake and Nada Surf.
Indeed, the appeal of a lot of these new kids songs is that with just a little tweaking, they could be regular adult rock. Take rising star Justin Roberts, whose most recent record, “Meltdown,” is clearly targeted to parents as well as their offspring. Roberts makes clever lyrical references to Elvis Costello and Modern English, and his excellent new record includes emo songs like the bittersweet ballad “Sand Castle” — Roberts describes it as “Death Cab for Brian Wilson” — that could almost find their way onto “The OC.”
Roberts traces his musical transformation back to the early ’90s. “I was playing in this band … in Minneapolis called Pimentos for Gus and my daytime job was as a preschool teacher. I really just started writing songs for kids there because it seemed like the thing to do,” he recalls. “Then even after I left the preschool, for some reason I just kept writing kids songs; I had no kids, I had no friends with kids.”
So what does the music actually sound like? It ranges from folksy balladry to faux-ska and proto-punk. Roberts’ “Meltdown” is all jumpy dance guitars; Zanes’ new album tends toward roots rock and charming folk tunes; Berkner’s perky songs feature jangling guitars and piano that wouldn’t be totally out of place on a Sufjan Stevens record. But like most kindie rock, their music has a special quality that somehow transcends the divide between music for children and music for adults. “Somewhere in-between those two extremes,” says Zanes, “there’s this whole world of music where everybody can be emotionally engaged and sometimes the songs might lean more toward the super-young people and sometimes they might lean more toward the grandparents.
“Songs about learning how to eat with a fork or put on a pair of trousers, those really don’t mean anything to me, because I’ve been doing it for so long,” he adds, “and if I’m singing songs about old girlfriends or drinking at parties, those aren’t going to mean a lot to a 4-year-old.”
Roberts says, “People think that kids want only really simple repetition and very simple melodies and simple songs.” And while it’s true that people like repetition (it’s what pop, to some extent, is all about), he cautions, “You should never expect what your audience is going to understand or what they’re not going to understand.”
“I’ve gotten quite a lot of e-mail, saying something to the effect of: ‘I found myself driving the car and playing your music, and the kid wasn’t even in the car and I was singing along,’” says Mathews. “And that’s kind of what I hope to accomplish.”
And even though They Might Be Giants aren’t specifically trying to appeal to parents, they’ve had their share of relieved fan mail. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had parents come up to us and say, ‘Your record saved our lives,’” Flansburgh says. “What we do is designed to stand up to repeated listening. That watered-down, kind of cutesy way of putting together children’s music that seems appropriate to a lot of people initially is actually the thing that drives parents insane.”
The idea of marrying rock to kids music has been around for a while — see Jerry Garcia’s 1993 record “Not for Kids Only” and the whole “Schoolhouse Rock” series back in the ’70s — but this new wave of musicians is grafting a specifically indie philosophy onto their songs for children. “I don’t actually thinks it’s a new genre; I think it’s a genre that’s in resurgence,” says Michael Krumper, senior vice president of marketing for Razor & Tie, the label that helped put out Berkner’s DVD, as well as the Kidz Bop series and children’s folk singer Tom Chapin’s records. The difference is that the former rockers now making the music have injected it with a certain amount of coolness. “I think it’s music you can get into just as much as the new Broken Social Scene record,” says Krumper, “and you don’t have to be ashamed of it.”
Kenny Curtis, director of children’s programming at XM Satellite Radio, agrees. “It’s becoming more mainstream — more chic, actually — to do music for kids,” he says. “We always make the joke that it’s amazing what happens when rock stars have kids.”
“It’s changed a lot, but only really in the last year,” Berkner says of the old kids-music stigma. “It still happens that people who haven’t heard my music make jokes when they first find out, thinking: ‘Well, kids music equals Barney.’ And I understand that, because that’s why I started writing it, because that’s what I found.” Or, as Roberts puts it, “They’re ready to hate it.”
“When I started doing this, I would mention it to people and a lot of them I think secretly felt sorry for me,” says Zanes. “Certainly a lot of people who didn’t have kids had no understanding of what I was throwing myself into.” But now, he says, “I’ll run into hipsters who say they’re working on kids records or family records.”
Another big force shaping the kindie rock world: the music video. Noggin, a children’s cable channel (tag line: “It’s like preschool on TV”) that currently reaches 48 million households across the country, began airing interstitial music videos in 2004. Then, last October, Noggin debuted a new series dedicated to them, “Jack’s Big Music Show.” The show, kind of a “Sesame Street” version of MTV’s “Total Request Live,” in which puppet sketches are interspersed with videos by kids performers like series regular Berkner, was an instant hit.
Appearing on Noggin can have an immediate effect on the careers of kids artists. Berkner recalls when the channel first approached her last year to do a few videos as interstitials to play throughout the day. “Within a week of those interstitials’ airing,” she says, “my sales jumped 10 times.” Zanes also noticed a boost in his sales numbers after his videos hit rotation.
Doris Grieder, an executive director at Noggin, says that artists are now clamoring to get onto “Jack’s Big Music Show.” The series just announced it would be adding a second season in the fall, with new episodes featuring Justin Roberts, as well as groups like the Dirty Sock Funtime Band, Nuttin’ But Stringz and the Mighty Weaklings. “Yes, I think it’s fair to say Noggin is MTV for preschoolers,” Grieder said. The show isn’t exactly edgy — there are, after all, still plenty of songs about counting, and the color palette of the sets runs to bright swaths of happy blues, yellows and oranges — but it doesn’t talk down to kids. “We’re shifting perceptions about what kids music is,” says Grieder. “One thing we do is never underestimate children.”
Neither should one underestimate Noggin’s impact: Loved by children and their parents, it holds a kind of cultish sway over its market in a way that MTV did in its early days, when it still actually showed music videos. Not that Noggin is all videos, either: Most of its 12 hours of programming (from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. the channel becomes the N, dedicated to the teen set) are a mix of a few original shows and reruns of “Sesame Street,” “Blues Clues” and kids shows from abroad, like “Connie the Cow.” There’s a real hunger among parents for more sources of good programming to offer their kids. Traditional radio and TV, with the notable exceptions of Nickelodeon, Noggin and Disney, have mostly abandoned the kids audience in favor of the 18-35 demographic. But Noggin’s success shows there is something there. With “Jack’s Big Music Show,” says Razor & Tie’s Krumper, “they’re creating an outlet that just never existed before.”
And then there’s the Web. Just as the Internet has helped small, previously unknown bands like the British group the Arctic Monkeys rise from obscurity to stardom in a matter of months, it has helped kids artists reach out to new fans. The barrier to distribution, one of the elements that has kept kids music in a lowest-common-denominator holding pattern for years, is simply taken out of the equation. It has also let the artists maintain control over their music in a typically indie way, with no major-label involvement. As Mathews says, “That’s why Dan [Zanes] has his own label, Laurie [Berkner] has hers — everybody’s doing it themselves. It’s quite possible to do.”
Musicians who’ve made the kindie jump insist they’ve found a new sense of freedom: Rock music comes with a lot of aesthetic baggage that kids music just doesn’t carry.
“I mean, I think I wrote some kind of cool rock stuff, but it was limited in how much I could really communicate with it,” says Berkner. “Obviously, kids music seems to communicate, and it communicates not just to kids, but to parents who are all my age.”
Flansburgh agrees: “I love rock music and I love playing the electric guitar and I love the rock music culture, but there are things about it that seem very frozen in the ’60s, and sort of immature, something kind of arrested about the way people think musicians have to be in the world.
“Writing for kids is uniquely liberating, it just invites you to be as adventurous as you can be,” he says. “There’s no downside to it in a way, except you can’t talk about death and sex. We don’t write that much about sex anyway, and we’ve probably written too much about death, so those were easy concessions to make.” The tough part is making the switch from being a rocker to a children’s performer. “We’re really used to playing in bars for adults, and it’s hard for us not to swear,” he says. “Being a children’s performer is not the ego ride that rockers are used to. We’re really used to a highly attentive audience.”
Indeed, Zanes often likens the behavior of kids at his shows to Grateful Dead fans — he calls it “a sort of controlled chaos” — and descriptions of his live shows certainly bear that out.
Still, kindie rock is slowly taking on the bar scene, too. Clubs like Brooklyn’s Southpaw and Cafe Du Nord in San Francisco have started featuring kids shows on weekend afternoons, allowing the under-10 set and parents nostalgic for nightlife a chance to soak up the scent of stale beer and bounce around in pint-size mosh pits. And Mathews points out that the Jamarama Live Tour recently sold out the 9:30 Club in D.C., something that would have been unthinkable in her Love Riot days. “We’re going back into some rock clubs, but it’s not at 11 at night — it’s 11 in the morning,” says Matthews. “You get the dads there with their beer, but then the bars that are smart are selling juice boxes for $2 a pop.”
Scott Lamb is a senior editor at BuzzFeed.com.More Scott Lamb.