The music editor cornered me.
"Hey," he said, all friendly-like. "The Wiggles are coming to town. Want to review the show?"
Stefan Shepherd's top six albums for kids
Singable Songs Collection, Raffi
You Are My Little Bird, Elizabeth Mitchell
Now the Day Is Over, Innocence Mission
Catch That Train, Dan Zanes
Let's Go Everywhere, Medeski (jazz)
Play, De Soto Records (compilation)
The Wiggles are scheduled to perform Monday, July 27, at Dodge Theatre. Stefan Shepherd's review will be posted at www.PHXmusic.com the following day.
Damn, I thought. I really should cut my bangs to cover the "MOM" tattoo on my forehead.
I don't blame the music editor. As the mother of young children, I am supposed to love The Wiggles — to want nothing more than to treat my girls to a live performance by four men in bright-colored, long-sleeve T-shirts and dorky black pants, whose repertoire includes old favorites like "Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes (Knees and Toes!)" and new hits with lyrics such as "Toot toot, chugga chugga, big red car / We'll travel near and we'll travel fa-a-a-r." Don't get me started on Dorothy the Dinosaur or Captain Feathersword, the characters that really get things going onstage.
I just couldn't say yes, even though The Wiggles are supposed to be good for your kids — the original members met in an early childhood-development class in the early 1990s in Australia and invented the band to fulfill a class assignment. Today, they've franchised to other countries, trading their songs and colored-shirt scheme to Disney in exchange for total ubiquity. They play everywhere, including this Monday at the Dodge Theatre.
Here's the thing I'd better confess right now: I've already seen The Wiggles and, at the time, announced it was the best live performance I'd ever seen. My oldest daughter (now 8) was 2 — or maybe 3, I don't remember exactly. Sleep deprivation. I do remember loving the show or, rather, loving watching my toddler love the show. "Better than Paul Simon's Graceland at Royal Albert Hall!" I told my good friend (and fellow mom), as we left Gammage Auditorium, kids in tow. Better than Roger Waters in Berlin after the Wall came down! Better than Elvis Costello, even.
Watching my kids have fun is more fun than just about any grown-up entertainment. I stand by that statement even as I tell you that no way am I going to see The Wiggles again. Maybe when I have grandchildren, if the group's still around, carried on by their own grandkids. What can I tell you? Dorothy the Dinosaur has an expiration date. Maybe it's some sort of Darwinian self-preservation thing; my youngest hit 4 and I simply couldn't listen to another round of "Fruit Salad, Yummy Yummy!"
Anyhow, since my own kids were tiny, so much good children's music has come along, music that adults can appreciate, as well as kids. (Not long ago — true story — I actually bought a CD by The Format after hearing one of their songs on a children's music comp.)
And I'm no longer sleep-deprived.
"Gee, I'd love to, but we're busy that night," I told the music editor, forgetting he hadn't yet told me the date of the show he wanted me to review. "But I think I know someone who might be interested."
I'd been looking for an excuse to meet Stefan Shepherd. Not long ago, I'd heard that the premier children's music blog was written by a guy from Phoenix. I was curious, figuring Shepherd was a recent Brooklyn transplant or something. This isn't exactly Funkytown, even when it comes to the toddler set. Phoenix is too staid.
Turns out, Shepherd is a little staid, too, though a heck of a nice guy. He's the mild-mannered father of two (a girl, 8, and a boy, 4) and the deputy director of the state's Joint Legislative Budget Committee — which means he's really good at math. He moved here several years ago for the job, he explained not long ago over a lunch of Asian fusion, careful not to spill on his tie.
I wanted to get to know him before I popped The Wiggles question. This was going to be tricky. Or maybe not.
As we talked, I learned that Shepherd doesn't harbor fantasies of taking the stage himself (none he'd share, anyway); and he doesn't have a formal background in any sort of music. He was raised on Herb Alpert and ABBA. Several years ago, his wife Sarah took the gig as editor of a local parenting group's newsletter and roped her husband into reviewing children's music. He liked it enough to launch a blog, called Zooglobble (a reference to a phrase uttered by Meryl Streep in a nonsensical song by well-loved children's author Sandra Boynton — Boynton writes songs as well as books, Shepherd taught me). Before that, he'd had a blog about the Arizona Diamondbacks, but it never really took off; I can see how music for kids is a lot more fun.
Zooglobble.com was up and running by early 2006. Good timing, Shepherd recalls. One week in February 2006, three of the best-selling albums on the market were for kids: Jack Johnson's Curious George soundtrack, the soundtrack to High School Musical, and a Kidzbop CD. Shepherd got a call from NPR and appeared on All Things Considered to talk about the phenomenon — and the rest is history. He's now the music critic for the hipsters-with-disposable-income kid-furniture company Land of Nod (www.landofnod.com), and he offered some picks in a recent Real Simple. He continues to appear on NPR from time to time.
"It's the one area of the industry where sales aren't imploding," Shepherd says of the children's music business. Why? He's got a flip answer: "Three-year-olds haven't figured out Limewire yet."
Or maybe it's that their parents (like me) don't have time to figure it out, either.
The blog is good: packed with news about what band's doing what, and also with reviews. He's up on all the coolest new music, and it's obvious from Zooglobble that Shepherd (like me) is partial to stuff by the likes of Dan Zanes (formerly of The Del Fuegos), as well as grown-up bands that make music for kids, like They Might Be Giants and Barenaked Ladies. And he knows about more obscure children's musical groups, like the Deedle Deedle Dees.
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In person, though, Shepherd is amazingly kind (or maybe you'd call it careful), refusing to badmouth any musical group or performer. Not even The Doodlebops, a truly terrible group promoted by Disney, featured in a horrible TV show that's sort of a mix between The Partridge Family and Laugh-In, which makes it sound better than it is. (He does go as far as to say he refuses to review groups like The Doodlebops, saying, "It's like reviewing the latest Spider-Man movie. What's the point?")
Shepherd won't even talk smack about The Wiggles. At his house, Shepherd says, there is no "anti-Wiggles policy." The Shepherd family does not have cable TV (gasp!), so years ago, he checked a couple of Wiggles DVDs out from the library. Didn't do much for his daughter, he says casually. (I'm quite certain that was said with internal pride, though he didn't let on.)
The Wiggles aren't inherently bad, he insists. "Bad is hearing it eight times in a car ride to the store."
Sure, he says, he'd be happy to review the show.