Rock & roll lullabies for the Pampers set
The house was shaking. The windows were rattling. The halls were awash with tears. The terrible twos had arrived.
As my husband curled up into the fetal position under the dining-room table, I scrabbled for something -- anything -- to make the tiny overlord stop screaming. And there it was, red and gold, with the familiar bear-head icon from Kid A, on the table: Rockabye Baby! Lullaby Renditions of Radiohead.
As the opening strains of "No Surprises" drifted out of the speakers, the glockenspiel offering an organic version of what Thom Yorke and company did on synthesizers, the beast was mesmerized. He stared off into space, intrigued by the sweet sounds filling the air. Maybe, I thought triumphantly, I had passed my love of baroque Brit-rock on to my son via the umbilical cord.
Of course, given that this is a boy with the attention span of a 2-year-old and very strong opinions about music, it wasn't long before he was demanding that the music be turned to something with a more danceable beat.
You can't say I didn't try. At least I've got something new to round out my Radiohead collection. And hey, it stopped the screaming, if only for a minute. For that moment of peace, I have Valerie Aiello to thank.
Like Gypsy Rose Lee said, you've gotta have a gimmick. Valerie Aiello, an Austin native who graduated from Westwood High in Round Rock in the mid-Nineties before earning a degree in graphic design from Southwest Texas State, did. Does. Rockabye Baby!
Landing a job at CMH Records in Los Angeles, which specializes in compilations of country and bluegrass classics, as well as the Pickin' On series, offering bluegrass "tributes" to Ozzy Osbourne, Air, and the Strokes, among others, Aiello offered a unique idea at one of the label's pitch meetings.
"I thought a lullaby version of Slayer would be funny," she says from her home on the Left Coast.
A year later, Queens of the Stone Age released Lullabies to Paralyze, which inspired CMH to move forward with lullaby versions of that album. Last August, the label followed up with Radiohead, Coldplay, and Metallica on its new Baby Rock Records imprint. The response was so positive that lullaby versions of Pink Floyd and Tool followed in September.
Since then, Baby Rock has released one or two titles every three weeks, totaling 20 releases, including the Beach Boys, Led Zeppelin, the Cure, Nirvana, Eagles, U2, the Ramones, Nine Inch Nails, No Doubt, Smashing Pumpkins, Bob Marley, the Beatles, Björk, and Green Day. That brisk clip slowed in March as the label tried out different marketing and the distribution company that handled the series shut down its music division. Production hasn't stopped entirely while the label seeks new distribution, though: Rockabye Baby! Lullaby Renditions of the Pixies dropped July 17.
Some of the material lends itself remarkably well to a transformation: Coldplay, Radiohead, the Cure. Others fall flat: Bob Marley, Nirvana, Björk. Some versions actually enhance one's understanding of and appreciation for previously missed nuances, such as the eerie, music-box version of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt." Then again, even instrumentally and therefore sans the line "I want to fuck you like an animal," it might be a bit too creepy for parents to play for Junior.
Most of the albums are produced and performed by Michael Armstrong, a contract musician who performs all of the instruments, primarily glockenspiel, vibraphone, mellotron, and some piano. Before Armstrong commits anything to tape, Aiello communicates her very precise ideas about what these CDs should and should not sound like.
"Grand piano can't be on there, because I didn't want them to be piano tribute albums," she explains. "I didn't want it to sound like some guy on a Casio. No strings, flutes, or acoustic guitar, because I didn't want it to sound like chamber music or a Renaissance festival. No Muzak. I wanted it to really be performed. You have to use your imagination.
Apparently, this formula has what it takes: in less than a year, the Rockabye Baby! series has sold more than 100,000 units in North America. The bestselling title in the series is Metallica, moving more than 18,000 copies, followed by Coldplay, the Beatles, and U2.
"Surprisingly enough, single guys in their 30s really seem to like it," Aiello chirps. "I have a friend who's afraid of flying and has to go on a lot of business trips, so he listens to Metallica and Coldplay when he flies."
Wave of Mutilation
So all this prompts the obvious question: Why the hell wouldn't you just play the actual music for your children?
Sure, any reasonable parent will agree that Metallica, Nine Inch Nails, and Tool are hardly appropriate listening material for impressionable little ones, but most music-loving parents probably won't have a problem popping in the original dreamy strains of Wish You Were Here or the sweet melodies of the Beach Boys and Beatles during playtime, chill time, or "all I want to do is make it to Whole Foods before they close" rush-hour traffic time. Kids love music, and they respond particularly well to melodic and percussive tunes, like Spoon or Parliament Funkadelic, so it doesn't make sense to play a watered-down alternative to a perfectly acceptable original version. In fact, some local music-loving parents are offended at the idea of lullabizing rock music.
Shannon, a 31-year-old mother of one, believes that children don't need to be babied when it comes to music.
"The whole concept of taking a good song and babyfying it seems like anti-artistic expression to me. If an artist felt a need to express something a certain way, it's a little disingenuous to then make a happy, shiny, light version of it."
Martha, a 38-year-old mother of one, agrees.
"If you want a lullaby, why can't you play a quiet song from any old genre? Why does it have to be a slowed-down, saccharine version? Lots of adult music is appropriate for sleepy time, without having been stripped of its edge."
Indeed, yours truly was the recipient of a painfully gorgeous mix CD of quiet songs lovingly selected specifically for my baby, featuring established artists Iron & Wine, Stars, Nick Drake, Rufus Wainwright, and Sigur Rós. To listen to it today is to revisit those days of crushingly powerful new love -- sleep-deprived days spent in a rocking chair marveling at new life -- and to trigger unstoppable floods of nostalgic tears. It's hard to imagine having such a visceral emotional reaction to a mass-produced package geared toward parents' wallets rather than at their hearts.
So, the question remains: Why play lullaby versions of the Pixies for your kid when you can just play the actual Pixies? Or music written specifically with kids in mind? Certain quarters of the music industry have done a spectacular job of carving out a niche for acts that perform original music for children, as one or two visits to Zooglobble.com, a site dedicated to reviewing kids' music, can attest.
Austin itself is home to artists making friendly music for happy kids; the magnificent Laura Freeman sings about turning off the TV, and you haven't lived until you've heard the Asylum Street Spankers' Wammo sing about boogers. The Jellydots are tweens' answer to indie rock, and the beloved Biscuit Brothers' commitment to children's music education makes for a giggly good listen without a trace of any stuffy learnin' talk.
Beyond these borders, former Del Fuego Dan Zanes composes marvelous and inventive music that inspires an appreciation for historical musical traditions, and kids love San Francisco's Sippy Cups and their mondo-psychedelic live show. And need we even mention They Might Be Giants' second career as purveyors of smart music for smart kids? The common denominator here is, of course, that these artists create living, breathing, organic music from their own souls, music that children can appreciate actively. They can sing along, clap, and shake their Fuzzi Bunz.
Lullaby versions of classic rock, on the other hand, reduce children to passive recipients of a company's vision of what rug rats should be listening to. It's a one-way relationship, devoid of the emotional connection that's so vital to cultivating a lifelong love of music. Even Aiello is pragmatic about the series' ultimate role in our culture and children's relationship to music.
"It's a way to connect with rock & roll," she offers. "It's not to make them smarter or cooler, but a way to share something you love. It's not a necessary thing, but a fun, extra-special thing."