Beat on the Brat

How to program your baby's musical tastes and pretend not to be trying

In April of last year, New York magazine published an article by Adam Sternbergh called "Up With Grups," discussing the phenomenon of hipster parents. He touched on the sociological and economic nightmare we face if there is no longer a quantifiable generation gap — if parents' habits and tastes are indistinguishable from those of their children — suggesting ultimately that kids are drawn to their parents' music because . . . it's just better.

The basic premise behind grups goes back to the Peter Pan Syndrome, a term coined by Dr. Dan Kiley in 1983. Ignoring the onset of adulthood, the Peter Pan generation partied, consumed, and worried about pop culture past the point where they should have been planning for the future. Kiley was noting a rise in solipsistic lifestyles, and naturally, the premise's sustainability slanted toward the big cities. Today, though, aging hipsters don't have to live in this sort of denial, or even in big cities — thanks to the Internet, becoming and staying "cool" is a zero-effort gig. Theoretically, growing up has become a false choice. Empirically, though? Forty-year-old men should not have complex opinions on Lady Sovereign.

As a new father and aging hipster, I have some choices to make. Yes, I just bought a pair of Vans, and no, I have never skated in my life, but that Baby Björn carrier is hell on your ankles, and white sneakers outside a gym are shameful. I wore my Vans home over Thanksgiving — easier for driving — and my 12-year-old niece was like, "Ffff, mine are better," and she was totally serious. The other weekend, I was going to meet some friends at a show, a night off from baby duty, so I pulled out the tattered "Boys Don't Cry" tee shirt I've had since I was 15. I laid out an entire I-used-to-be-so-hip-I-was-shattered outfit — it was just right, not trying too hard — and then the baby spit up, and it was the closest thing to a rag in front of me. In our house, Boys Clean Up, so Robert Smith is in the hamper.

Paul Corio

The soundtrack to my daughter's first three months has been a comical representation of class-adjustment emotional paralysis. I have a pink iPod Mini docked to a Tivoli iSongBook above her crib — yes, you should be laughing — filled to its 4GB brim with amorphous, meditative ambient music from Brian Eno, Gavin Bryars, Aphex Twin, Andrew Chalk, Stars of the Lid, Ekkehard Ehlers, and others. I can tell you most of this stuff works like fairy dust (at least on our girl), but this is not traditional "baby" music. I contend that the long-form nature of ambient music and its recurring phrases strengthen recall and provide a comforting, auditory assurance of constancy. The wife is basically amenable to that rationalization, but we're not kidding each other. We both know I'm programming my kid.

But I'm not dressing her in punk onesies or pushing up an infant Mohawk; I'm not using her to project my tastes to the outside world. To buy the baby Ramones tee shirt or play Kid A in the minivan on the way to gymnastics, both parents have to be into it, and if one of you isn't embarrassed by that kind of thing — "we're cool, our daughter's cool, deal with it" — you're not ready to have kids. Still, the flip side — the pastel potato sacks, the "World's Cutest Baby" and "I ♥ Daddy" tees — is commonplace to the point of unsentimental detachment. The same goes for Peter, Paul & Mary; for the computer-tuned, multi-tracked choruses of the Kidz Bop series; and even for gentle fireside grandpas like Burl Ives. We have a whole spectrum of cool baby clothes, but little in the way of hipster baby music.

Recently, CMH — the record label that brought us the Pickin' On line of bluegrass covers albums and Country for Kids series — figured out a way to preserve parental dignity while broadcasting your impeccable taste. Via CMH's Baby Rock imprint, Michael Armstrong has recorded 18 albums under the Rockabye Baby! brand, translating Radiohead, The Pixies, Nirvana, U2, The Ramones, The Cure, and other left-of-the-dial vanguards into twinkling instrumental delicacies. Armstrong makes some wild choices (I've stayed away from the Tool disc), but most of his playpen appropriation is seamless to the point of instant comprehension. Radiohead and The Cure are standout triumphs in this regard: "No Surprises" is arguably improved by his take, and though it's no surprise to find "Lullaby" now literally a lullaby, The Cure's reliance on guitar leads makes for easy restaging of standards like "Boys Don't Cry" and "Just Like Heaven."

According to a Washington Post article on the series, Michael Armstrong has no children and considers this work a "tongue-in-cheek" lark. Alterna-baby music has never been presented so professionally or enjoyably before, but I can appreciate his nonchalance, since it's very easy to reverse-engineer a pop song these days. In time, however, Armstrong may take pride in his efforts, and for their social more than artistic significance. The transition from selfish, wide-eyed social animal to half-asleep shushing machine is a blurry and exhausting process, one that begs for a sympathetic soundtrack. For this generation of yuppie parents, the Rockabye Baby! series presents a contextual marriage of our musical past with an oppressively traditionalized aspect of child-rearing. Not that it's necessary, or that I'll be depriving my daughter of "Puff the Magic Dragon," but it is always nice to have options. Like any generation, we tried too hard to have our own music, and while Michael Armstrong didn't design it as such, Rockabye Baby! is a strong argument on behalf of our convictions, however naive. We're still wicked alternative after all these years.

 
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