Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Musical Education of Ben

There are only so many times you can listen to "Seventy Six Trombones" without going mad. The same goes for "Ya Got Trouble", "Wells Fargo Wagon", "Goodnight My Someone" -- any song from The Music Man, really -- "Do Re Mi", and a host of tunes from Sesame Street and other assorted variations on The Alphabet Song. These are Ben's musical touchstones. I doubt anyone outside of Meredith Wilson's heirs has such an abiding interest in Prof. Harold Hill's River City Boys' Band scheme. If Ben spies you at the computer, he will insist you navigate to YouTube. Then he will proceed to make your ears bleed as he makes you watch his favorites again and again until he falls asleep or the power goes out. Every day, several times a day, I deal with it.

"I want to hear 'Seventy Six Trombones', Daddy."
"Daddy, sing 'I Like Trouble'."
"Play it again! NOW!"

The boy has a talent for killing songs, one rivaled only by my college roommate, minister at my wedding, and generally good guy, Howard. But Ben hasn't had nearly as much practice at it, which makes it all the more impressive.

So, in an effort to broaden his musical palate, steer it in a direction more in line with my own tastes and thus save my sanity, I've been judiciously introducing some pop and rock into his YouTube diet. Nothing too aggressive at this point -- I don't need him, in his best Axl Rose impression, bellowing, "You know where you are? You're in the jungle, baby! You're gonna diiie!" at teachers and grandparents just yet. Anyway, there have been several successes and a few failures. Here's how it's going:


"Army", by Ben Folds Five

I'm an unabashed fan of Ben Folds. My hope was that it would be relatively easy to get Ben to feel the same -- Folds' piano-based tunes are very melody-forward, allowing Ben to focus on the songs easily enough, and contain plenty of verbal hooks for him to latch onto. Plus, with eight albums, 3 EPs and bunches of B-sides, live tracks and side projects, his catalog is large enough to keep Ben happily caught up in the music without resorting to annoying levels of repetition (even after weeding out the high percentage of crude and profane songs that populate the catalog). I just needed a gateway.

"Army" is that gateway. It's the perfect pop song, with a catchy melody and bright, bouncy energy to it. The video is theatrical, involves several set changes, isn't edited in a way that will induce epileptic seizures, gives Ben plenty of instruments to name, and, as he never fails to point out, has balloons at the end. It's become a favorite, one that Ben will request by name and sing to himself. It also helps that the video uses the edited version of the song, in which the opening profanity has been removed. The album version that gets played in the car or on the home stereo most decidedly does not say, "Dad said, 'Son, you must be high.'" Emily and I have gotten in the habit of yelling, "Ben, it's the ARMY SONG!!!" over the second line, which has become noticeable enough that Ben often does the same thing. Going forward, this could be problematic; still, it's a small price to pay.

"Lullabye", by Ben Folds Five

With "Army" going over so well, it was time to introduce another Ben Folds song. "Lullabye" is what its title suggests it is, and along with U2's "MLK" was one that I had hoped to use as a nighttime wind-down for him. Plus, I wanted him to learn the lyrics so we'd have perplexed teachers from his daycare asking why he kept talking about James Earl Jones. (I'm still working on that last part.)

This particular version is from a Ben Folds performance with the Western Australia Symphony Orchestra in Perth. While Ben seems to like the song, what has really grabbed his attention is the presence of a saxophone. He refers to "Lullabye" as "Saxophone Song", and gets impatient for the appearance and reappearance of said instrument. Actually, the whole performance with WASO has been a big hit with Ben. He loves identifying all of the instruments -- I see chimes! I see violins! I see bass! I see tenor Stuart Haycock! -- and I'm slowly figuring out what songs go with the names he makes up for them (he was near tears as I stumbled my way to figuring out that "Violin Song" meant "Narcolepsy").

Now, he'll often ask to hear Ben Folds, and it doesn't matter what song I play for him. He has his favorites, of course: Army and Lullabye, as mentioned, and Eddie Walker. But he's content with whatever I happen to play, and I now keep an 18-song mix cd in the car and a longer "Ben's Ben Folds Playlist" on the iPod.

"Buddy Holly", by Weezer

This is one of Ben's long-time favorites; it's been a part of his iPod playlist for at least half a year, so his interest in the song predates his interest in the video. The cd it's from is also the only album he's ever shown any interest in. By that, I mean he likes the actual physical cd, not the music. The album cover simply shows the band standing against a blue background; he likes saying "Hi" to it as well as playing peek-a-boo ("Where Weezer go? There it is!"). He has also had to apologize to Weezer for intentionally stepping on them and cracking the jewel case.

I'm not sure how or why we introduced "Buddy Holly" to Ben, or if it was even a conscious effort. However it came about, once he heard it, he immediately latched on to the "woo-hoo"s in the chorus. For a long time, it was simply "The Woo Hoo Song", though he has recently started referring to it by its proper name. In any case, he's been singing this one for a while now, as Emily previously documented. I've been teaching him the names of the various "Happy Days" characters in the video; we're still working on saying, "Aaay!"

"We're Going To Be Friends" and "Hotel Yorba", by The White Stripes

I really didn't expect Ben to like these videos. The songs had a fighting chance; I figured they'd go over well via iPod. But the videos are pretty sparse, especially for "We're Going To Be Friends." I thought the lack of activity would bore him and that he'd quickly ask to move on. I was wrong. He frequently requests "The Friend Song" and never fails to point to Meg White and say,"She's sleeping!" "Hotel Yorba" has been renamed "The Counting Song", thanks to the "1-2-3-4, take the elevator at the Hotel Yorba, I'll be glad to see you later..." part of the chorus. Thankfully, he hasn't started jumping on beds as a result of the video, but he seems to like the fact that Meg uses a cardboard box as a drum, and will drum along on the edge of the desk. To this point, I'm sticking with the more jangly White Stripes tracks; Ben's not a fan of the distortion-drenched wall of sound that makes up a good portion of the catalog.

"Stand", by R.E.M.

(R.E.M., their label, or both have decided that they don't want to allow video embedding. So you'll have to view it here.)

There are far better R.E.M. songs, and outside of "Losing My Religion" and "Everybody Hurts", none of them were as overplayed as this one. But most of those songs aren't as catchy as "Stand", and I needed something catchy if I was going to get Ben to eventually accept fifteen albums-worth of R.E.M. (I made the executive decision to rule out "Shiny Happy People", out of fear that he would like it too much and I would be forced to jam Q-Tips in my ears.) It helped that the video seemed like something that would be up his alley -- spastic dancing, jumping band members, and a bunch of random images that could serve as an "I Spy" game ("I see a bicycle! I see a chicken, Daddy!").

I was right. Ben's been requesting Stand with greater frequency, which means I need to figure out the rest of my R.E.M. strategy.

"I'm A Boy", by The Who

There's not a whole lot to this clip, really. The song is fun and goofy in a way that wasn't unusual for The Who's early recordings, and I could certainly imagine Ben stomping around the house yelling, "I'm a boy! I'm a boy! I'm a boy!" But those are arguments for the song, not the YouTube clip. No, the only reason I show him the video is in the hope that he will add some trademark Pete Townshend windmills to his "guitar playing". I make sure to point them out every time we watch it. And while Ben hasn't added that move to his repertoire yet, he does seem to like the song. So there's hope.


"Here Comes Your Man", by Pixies

Of course, Ben wasn't going to like everything I exposed him to. While "Here Comes Your Man" isn't especially representative -- it's much further down the pop spectrum than the Pixies' norm -- they influenced so many other bands that I figured it was worth seeing if I could get him interested, and then branch out from there. Besides, it's such a bright, straight forward little surf tune that I thought Ben would enjoy bouncing along to it. Perhaps if I had introduced him to the song rather than the video, that might have been the case. However, it only took one viewing to send him screaming from the room. I can sorta see why -- the distorted heads, dead-eyed stares, and intentional lack of lip-syncing are kinda disturbing.

"Short Skirt/Long Jacket", by Cake

I'm not especially surprised that Ben didn't like this one. I had hoped the song would win out, but knew the "Man on the Street Interview" style, with it's lack of anything going on and constant song interruptions would probably turn him off. He tuned out after 30 seconds.

"Smoothie Song", by Nickel Creek

I'm still not sure why Ben hasn't taken to Nickel Creek or this video specifically. There are so many elements to the "Smoothie Song" video that he loves: a ceiling fan, a fiddle, a roomful of guitars, and couple other instruments to boot. The only explanation I can come up with for his rejection is that he isn't interested in instrumentals, though his sporadic interest in Count Basie seems to counter that. Maybe it's just Chris Thile's lurching style of mandolin playing that he doesn't like. In any case, I'm not giving up on Nickel Creek that easily.

"Safety Dance", by Men Without Hats

Listed here not because I failed to get Ben interested, but because Emily would kill me if I tried.


Steve said...

What does Emily have against a classic like "safety Dance"? Threaten to expose Ben to "whip It" instead.

David said...

I wish I knew, Steve. It's the one song guaranteed to earn me a punch.

Em said...

It's a terrible song and on more than one instance, Dave started singing it right before I went to bed. He fell right asleep but I was stuck awake with that blasted song running through my head for an hour.

We're taking your Christmas card down off the fridge for the defense, Steve!