Audiences at a recent They Might Be Giants concert were rocking out — or at least jumping up and down a bit before bedtime.
Kids about kindergarten age filled the front rows during a bookstore concert by the veteran rock duo that built a following among the college radio crowd for their witty, often nerdy, songs. But on this night they were supporting a new CD and DVD made especially for kids, an homage to the alphabet titled “Here Come the ABCs.”
The children packed in alongside twentysomethings as the group gave a rousing rendition of “Alphabet of Nations”:
“Algeria! Bulgaria! Cambodia! Dominica! Egypt! France! ...”
Singers often just dip a toe into the kiddie pool, like Avril Lavigne recording “The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie” theme. But there are rockers who dive in headfirst like the Giants, who have released two kids’ albums.
“Kids music has been very sophisticated for a very long time,” said Regina Kelland, a consultant who has been marketing children’s music for 22 years. “We’ve really gone beyond ‘I’m a Little Teapot.”’
The Giants’ new album— full of guitars and adult-friendly witticisms — is a change-up from old school kiddie music. Decades ago, kids’ records were apt to be closer in spirit to John Philip Sousa than Chuck Berry. Think of the Mouseketeers shouting “M-I-C! K-E-Y! M-O-U-S-E!”
That changed when raised-on-rock baby boomers began searching out records hipper than “Tubby the Tuba” for their own kids. Rock artists obliged.
A landmark 1990 album, “For Our Children,” featured jangly covers of kids’ classics. Bob Dylan croaked out “This Old Man” and Little Richard gave a full-throated treatment to “Itsy Bitsy Spider.” The late Grateful Dead frontman Jerry Garcia followed up a few years later with an album called “Not For Kids Only” with David Grisman.
The kid music crowd can enjoy “various artists” albums. Moby and Madonna are on “Mary Had a Little Amp.” Isaac Hayes is on “A World of Happiness.” The soundtrack to “The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie” boasts not only Lavigne but speed metal pioneers Motorhead.
Kelland believes a fair number of kiddie rockers are inspired by having children of their own — maybe they bought some CDs for their kids and thought: “Hey! I’d like to do that.”
Growth marketStill, most rockers treat kids’ music like a one-song stand — Motorhead seems unlikely to release an album of lullabies. Recording multiple albums for kids is rare for rockers. Aside from the Giants, the short list includes Dan Zanes of the ’80s band the Del Fuegos, who has found a critically acclaimed second act recording and performing for kids.
The transition seemed logical for the Giants, whose biggest hit, “Birdhouse in Your Soul,” was sung from the point of view of a child’s night light. They also did the kid-centric theme for “Malcolm in the Middle.”
They released children’s album “No!” in 2002, and its success attracted the attention of Disney, which inked them to a deal that resulted in the “Here Come the ABCs” CD and DVD.
This time, songs are about rolling Os and flying Vs and the tight relationship between Q and U.
“We’ve done a lot of research on the ABCs and we’re ready to share that information with 3-year-olds everywhere,” said John Flansburgh, who joined up with John Linnell in the early ’80s in New York to form the band. “We have all the answers regarding the alphabet.”
Flansburgh said writing songs for kids is not much of a stretch. The cardinal rule is the same: Make it entertaining. And don’t talk down to kids with “vitamin-enriched” lyrics that try to persuade them to brush their teeth and the like.
Kelland notes that the kids music has evolved into an anything-goes market encompassing everything from calypso to classical.
Damon Whiteside, vice president of marketing for Disney Record/Disney Sound, is bullish on bringing more adult acts such as the Giants into the children’s fold.
“It’s definitely a growth market,” he said. “Especially when you look at acts that have a big fan base.”
The Giants, meanwhile, will continue being a sort of ‘tweener band, switching back and forth by recording music for adults and for kids. They’re thinking of following up on the A-B-Cs with 1-2-3s.
“It will be a little bit tougher for us,” Flansburgh said, “because we did so badly in math.”