The Kids Are All Right: RFT Music experiments on children

Aug 1, 2013 at 4:00 am
The Kids Are All Right: RFT Music experiments on children
Sam Washburn

"I believe the children are our future. Teach them well and let them lead the way."

—Whitney Houston, "The Greatest Love of All"

Children are indeed the future, but Houston probably wasn't considering their musical taste when she belted out one of her most famous singles. With One Direction, "Kidz Bop" compilation albums and Nickelodeon's Fresh Beat Band all vying for kids' attention, it's easy to understand why your precious urchins seemingly have bad taste in musical entertainment. And if they're delighted by this crap now, what kind of bands will they form or support later in life?

That's a future that makes us shudder, so we'd prefer to focus on the second half of Houston's famous lyric. We feel that if we teach children to appreciate good music, it's more likely that they'll continue to explore interesting tunes as they age. But where do we start?

By experimenting on children, of course!

We brilliantly decide to hold an exclusive RFT Music experiment to get a base line for kids' musical tastes so we can determine a course of action for ensuring that only the best songs will be appreciated generations from now. During our focus group of children and their guardians, we'll play a variety of tunes and eagerly watch the kids' reactions.

Would the little ones prefer kid-oriented songs simply because they are what adults already share with them? Is it just the sunshiny beat that makes them crave tunes by teen-pop idols? Would they appreciate music from other generations and genres? Would their parents' musical preferences have any bearing on their own favorite songs?

There are seven opinionated children in the RFT conference room, er, music lab. The kids range from one to six years old, and they're chowing down on Goldfish crackers and Hi-C juice boxes before we begin assaulting their ears. Some become pals, some shy away from everyone except their parents, and some ask if the dance party they've been promised can start already.

We gather the kids together and explain how things will go down: We'll play songs from our specially curated Spotify playlist, and the kids can give us a thumbs up or thumbs down to each. They're encouraged to sing along, dance and chat with us about what they hear. Everyone got it?

Our captive audience screams a collective "Yeah!" and some begin dancing before the music even starts. While cuing up the first song, we ask them what kind of music they like, and the responses run from "dance music" to "poop music."

We kick off our focus group with a few kid-oriented songs, including Raffi's "Down by the Bay," that insufferable children's song about watermelons growing and bears combing their hair. A few kids seem to enjoy the tune, but we see a lot of thumbs down and accusations of mommy singing it around the house. This already is going well.

The children don't seem to know Raffi's second song, "Brush Your Teeth," but they dig it. William, four, son of RFT managing editor Chad Garrison, says that he loves the song because he likes brushing his teeth. Elliott, three, chimes in that he brushes his own "stinky teeth every day," to the delight of his father, Jason Robinson, former vocalist for local band the Orbz. We're learning so much here.

The children are mesmerized, and the room becomes quiet for Lisa Loeb's "Do Your Ears Hang Low?" Ava, Elliott's twin sister, exclaims, "I like it! That song is from the singing truck!" (That's her term for an ice-cream truck.) But not everyone is a fan. Jupiter, three, son of photographer Jay Fram, howls that he doesn't like the song because "My ears don't hang low!" William helps Jupiter's cause by letting us know that his own ears are "high up." These kids make great points.

We take things in a different direction by playing some popular tunes as well as their kid-friendly covers. Jupiter claims that he doesn't know either version of fun.'s "Some Nights" and demands that we turn down the volume. Elliott gives it a thumbs up and says the song was fun, without any irony whatsoever. William hated the "Kidz Bop" version but breaks out his sweet dance moves when he hears Nate Ruess singing the real deal.

We pull out the "Kidz Bop" and Katy Perry versions of "Firework." Sloan, eighteen months, daughter of multi-band musician Gerald Good, immediately smiles wide and starts a bouncy dance that lasts for the entire clip. Ava says she likes it and giggles a little. Her brother Elliott proudly claims, "I think it's good!" Most of the kids take the opportunity to jump around together, and our cynical, pop-hating hearts totally melt.

We're apprehensive about encouraging any Black Eyed Peas action, but we play "I Gotta Feeling" anyway. Jackson, three, son of professional-development specialist Audra Frick, excitedly exclaims, "I like it!" William claims to know the words but balks at singing them in front of his new friends. Ben, six, son of Tom Niemeier, says it's his favorite song so far. We ask the kids if they know what and Fergie's obnoxious opus is about, and Jupiter asserts that it's about indie-rock musician Andrew Bird. We think Jupiter is going to grow up to be an excellent music critic.

Just three notes into the "Kidz Bop" version of "Ghostbusters" by Ray Parker Jr., Elliott jumps up and begins dancing; William gives a thumbs up and follows suit. Elliott happily informs everyone that "the 'Ghostbusters' song is something where they sing 'Ghostbusters'" and that it's from a movie, though he's unsure what happens in said movie. Don't worry, kid, there's plenty of time to fear Zuul.

We go through a few more songs. Wham!'s "Wake Me up Before You Go-Go" is met with boredom, and Nickelback's "Photograph" gets loud boos from kids and parents alike. Ava suddenly becomes shy and says that her favorite song is a secret; Jackson decides that maybe he really did like Wham!, and Jupiter has had enough of this stuff and wants to go home. We pause to dry tears and eat some Goldfish.

When we return, we try keeping the kids calm with the "Rockabye Baby!" version of Jay-Z's "Empire State of Mind." The xylophone-laden lullaby generates interest from William and Jackson, and Jackson's mom, Audra, shares that they own most of the "Rockabye Baby!" series. We then play the original song, and Sloan squeals as she hears Jay-Z's voice. We have a feeling that girl will be clubbing every night once she's older.

We switch gears with Muse's "Stockholm Syndrome," an angry electronic symphony with plenty of keytar. Sloan happily shrieks, but Ava quickly gives it a thumbs down because it was noisy. Jupiter thinks the song is loud and sad, something many of the kids echo. Our heart breaks.

Suddenly, our nightmare situation happens. As soon as Psy's "Gangnam Style" comes on, nearly all of the kids jump up and dance with their hands in the air. They're rolling their heads and leaping around with their tongues hanging out so much that we feel like we're suddenly at a rave. This — this? — is the song that gets the best reaction?

We switch things up again and start playing some current pop. Taylor Swift's "Mean" gets some confused looks but tepid approval, One Direction's "Live While We're Young" is ignored, and Miley Cyrus' "Party in the U.S.A." nets blank stares and a few thumbs down. The kids dance to Lady Gaga's "Born This Way" while parents sing along. William and Sloan both give big thumbs up.

Time for the real test — how will the kids react to some of our favorite songs?

Jackson digs the Clash's "Rudie Can't Fail," but several children bum us out by giving the song a thumbs down. Fram and Robinson look dismayed when Jupiter and Ava turn their nose up at Elvis Costello's "Radio Radio," but Sloan excitedly shrieks as soon as she hears Napoleon Dynamite's voice, and Ben bops his head with satisfaction. The Go-Go's "We Got the Beat" fires everyone up, with Jackson surf-dancing and Ava giving it two thumbs up. The kids give Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" their approval, while a few of the parents wince.

So what does all of this mean? Does it matter that children like Psy but hate the Clash? Is our musical world doomed? Honestly, we're not sure. The only things we've learned from our little experiment are that kids will dance to just about anything, and they're happy to tell you exactly what they think about what you play for them. What we can advise is to simply hope for the best when you share your favorite tunes with your sons and daughters. That, and keep Goldfish crackers handy for bribes.