Somewhere at some point in time someone decided that the only kind of music little kids like is the kind with the most annoying singing, the must mundane melodies, and the stupidest motions to go along with the horrible earworms that this music produces. Sure, a lot of it is educational and relies heavily on the positive side of life and appropriate character development and whatnot, but for the millions of parents and adults out there who are subjected to this incredibly annoying medium, it tends to drive them crazy. I do not have kids, nor am I anywhere near close to having them at this time in my life. However, I am an uncle to three of the greatest nieces I suspect any uncle can have and I am treated to several visits to them throughout the year. My brother Mike is father to two of the older ones who are 6 and 4 years old. Over the past few years as I have visited his family, I have been introduced to the music of Justin Roberts who for the past 15 years has not only been creating some of the best pop music for kids, but has been writing some of the best straight up pop songs period.
Now I don’t mean to say that I own any his albums or that he’s become a favorite artist of mine, but I will say that when I hear the melodies, harmonies, choruses, and bridges within his songs, it’s nearly impossible for a smile not to come to my face. There is no way I should like kids’ music this much. The guy draws from rock, pop, folk, country, punk, and ska and just writes some phenomenal pop songs. When my brother informed me that he’d be taking the family to see him during my spring break visit, I couldn’t pass it up.
Roberts tours the country and at each venue he plays, he sets up a number of shows in the morning and afternoon. This particular venue in Vienna, Virginia showcased three shows on a Saturday and we attended the final show which kicked off at 2:30 at the Jammin’ Java. The stage was small and the floor was filled with fold-up chairs for the adults while a small space was reserved up front for the little kids to form their own mosh pit (which basically consists of them just jumping up and down waving their arms in the air). The venue appeared to be mainly a coffee shop and I was all ready to get some coffee when my brother suggested that we just get some beers. We were a little suspect of this since it was a kids’ show and didn’t know if they’d be serving at this time. When I went up to the bar and asked the bartender if they were serving alcohol, the woman next to me emphatically retorted “Heck yes they’re serving alcohol!” Evidently, a rock concert put on for scores of little kids is the perfect place to be serving booze. So yeah, my brother and I got a little tipsy at a Justin Roberts show. And as I was ordering a second round, I was asked by my sister in law to pick up some apple juice and Goldfish crackers for my niece. I turned to the bartender and said “I’m about to make an order that I never have before”.
The show itself was a blast. Roberts and the Not Ready for Naptime Players (one drummer, and one bass player) played about an hour and never lost any energy. They talked with the kids in the mosh pit, took requests (one from my niece), invited kids to sing and dance along, and even put on a few very funny puppet shows. They also did an excellent job of throwing in comments about classic rock musicians and songs (Van Morrison, Deep Purple, Bob Dylan to name a few), which I’m sure was a calculated effort to include the adults into the show. They played very tightly together and their harmonies were spot on. I kept smiling throughout the show. No way did I ever think that music for kids could sound this good.
The show prompted several conversations between Mike and me mainly centered on what makes a great pop song. In some ways, it’s hard to describe. It’s not like Roberts was inventing any new chords or chord progressions. There were no groundbreaking moments in any of the songs. But there is something about his writing style that although geared for kids, can still hold up amongst other great adult pop songs. Mike had a lot to say about the bridges of the songs and of pop songs in general and how a great bridge can make a good song great. I think that’s a fairly true statement, but there is more to Roberts’s songs than just the bridges. They’re just great all around. And I don’t think there is any scientific formula you can put to this to distinguish a crappy pop song from a great one. It’s just another one of those mystifying aspects of music and art in general. But if I can be certain of anything after leaving this show, it’s that if I ever have kids, there is no doubt that I will expose them to a ton of music by the Beatles and Justin Roberts. With a foundation like that, the rest will take care of itself.