A Thousand Little Melodies

My unfortunate addiction to children’s music.

The English language is not equipped to describe the crippling psychological torture of having a song stuck in your head. “Stuck in your head” sounds like a minor logistical mix-up; the real experience is like temporary schizophrenia. A vacuum cleaner jingle, overheard at a vulnerable moment, can wipe out a week’s worth of cognition. As usual, we have to turn to German (Weltschmerz, schadenfreude) to chart the subtleties of our own despair: We need the word Ohrwurm, literally “earworm,” which appropriately suggests the violent invasion of a parasite. Earworms have ruined some of the best moments of my life. The first time I walked over the Brooklyn Bridge—one of America’s sublime experiences—I was haunted by the Meatloaf power-ballad “I Would Do Anything for Love,”which ran in a continuous loop all the way across. The song returns to me now whenever I see a big-city skyline.

Earworms breed in all kinds of musical environments—the gangrenous wound of a Coldplay chorus, the festering pit of a cellphone ring-tone—but the most fertile breeding ground, by far, is children’s music. The genre is an earworm hatchery, the aural equivalent of an overstuffed Dumpster baking in the August sun. Its grubs are uniquely robust and brain-thirsty: Kids’ music is all hook, cutesy melodies pared to the most efficient possible sequence of notes and repeated until the recording studio runs out of tape.It’s like a reverse parody of atonal jazz: Instead of denying us the pleasure of melody, kids’ music heaps it on so heavily that our desire for it disappears, and melody disintegrates into pure pleasureless noise.

I know this because my daughter requires a constant stream of children’s music to fuel her epic, mesmerizing dance-marathons. I’ve been listening to her music intensively now for almost two years—which makes it, sadly and easily, my most intense engagement with any music since high school. Though our library of kids’ albums is small—a handful of discs inflicted on us at baby showers—I have involuntarily memorized every note. I’ve listened to these albums so many times they’ve lost their status as music and become a kind of continuous and ecstatic holy mantra. Instead of criticizing, I just bask irrationally in the soul-cleansing repetition. My musical standards have eroded completely. I know it’s just some kind of sensory trick, like submerging your hands in freezing water until it feels like they’re burning, but I have started to love it. Even with adult friends around, I sing passionate a-cappella soul renditions of songs I once reviled.

Two albums in particular have colonized my mental soundtrack. The first is Victor Vito, by a woman named Laurie Berkner. Berkner has risen over the last few years from grass-roots play-group fame to national prominence; now she dominates the music scene on Noggin, Nickelodeon’s popular and commercial-free younger sibling. She is sometimes referred to as the Ani DiFranco of children’s music: nosering, perky hair, low-fi acoustic songs that hop unpredictably between tempos and moods. She plays concerts with a stuffed pig on her head.

The first time my wife and I listened to Berkner’s album, we had to call and enthusiastically unthank the person who gave it to us: We could feel the songs fish-hooking themselves into our frontal lobes, displacing important phone numbers and relatives’ birthdays. The opening track, “Victor Vito“—which tells a story, set to syncopated hand-claps, of two nomadic children with a passion for diverse ethnic food—is hands down the earwormiest thing I’ve ever heard. It has become the unofficial theme song of my life; I’ve probably listened to it more times over the past year than I’ve brushed my teeth. The rest of Berkner’s album is similarly, maddeningly, catchy. One song’s chorus repeats the word “bottlecaps” eight times:

Bottlecaps bottlecaps bottlecaps bottlecaps
Every one I see
Bottlecaps bottlecaps bottlecaps bottlecaps
Every one I see

It’s impossible to resist onslaughts like this. I have become an unrepentant Berkner fan. I stomp to her stomping and emote to her emoting. The other day, her version of “Oh Susannah” came up on my iPod, tucked somewhere into what used to be a respectably cool shuffle, and, without a kid in sight, I listened to the whole thing.

The second album that has staked out permanent real estate in my consciousness is Here Come the ABCs, by the venerable alternative duo They Might Be Giants. The Giants’ crossover to children’s music wasn’t a radical step: Even during its college-radio heyday in the early ‘90s, the band wielded its tight polka-funk in the service of educating the masses. They wrote songs (or remade songs) with lyrics that sounded like cleverly compressed middle-school lesson plans— *

So take me back to Constantinople
No you can’t go back to Constantinople
Been a long time gone, Constantinople
Why did Constantinople get the works?
That’s nobody’s business but the Turks.
Istanbul! Istanbul!

so the transition to kids’ music was just a question of stepping the curriculum down a few grades, as in the song “C is for Conifers”:

If you see a Christmas tree
Or a stack of newspapers
Or the 2x4 frame of a house,
They’re probably made from pine trees
And pine trees are conifers
That’s what this song is about.
Or if you see a plant in the shape of an elephant
Or in the shape of a dog
It’s probably a shrub, a conifer shrub
Pruned into that shape by someone.

The song ends with a list of tree species (“fir … Douglas fir … cedar … yew”) spoken with such slow solemnity over an accordion-banjo dirge that it has made me laugh out loud in public. Part of the fun of Here Come the ABCs is seeing the Giants’ wry, melancholy alterna-rock sensibility grafted onto the agenda of spelling class: perky intellectual exercises, oddly poignant stories of humanized or missing letters. The Giants’ album is the best argument that modern children’s music has, like modern children’s movies, become slick and sophisticated enough to span generations.

That said, however, the genre is still dominated by cutesy voices, preschool subjects, and one-dimensional sincerity—it is, in other words, still children’s music. I find myself crossing new thresholds of aesthetic debasement almost daily. Someone recently gave us a CD by the incredibly popular Australian band the Wiggles. I listened to it once and knew, for a fact, in the same way I know that I have hands, that it was one of the worst travesties in the history of recorded music. The band members seemed to have infantilized themselves to the point of catatonia. Then, somewhere around listen 50, I saw the light—I finally got it—and I sang the opening track over and over until my wife threatened to slap me.

* Correction, Jan. 30, 2006: This article originally and incorrectly implied that They Might Be Giants wrote the lyrics to the song “Istanbul (Not Constantinople).” The song is a remake credited to Jimmy Kennedy and Nat Simon. Click here to return to the corrected sentence.