In 1997, grunge musician David Weinstone started teaching a children’s music class in the basement of an East Village restaurant. Called “Music for Aardvarks and Other Mammals,” the program centered around original songs written specifically for city kids – out with farmers in the dell and twinkling little stars, in with taxis, bagels and walk-up apartments. Ten years later, hundreds of New York parents line up for Music for Aardvarks classes, the companion CDs have received national attention and Weinstone’s songs have been praised by such musical luminaries as Philip Glass. We caught up with Weinstone shortly after the release of his greatest-hits style collection, Taxi. – Gwynne Watkins
Jon Stewart says, “You will listen to David’s music even when your kids aren’t around, and unlike other children’s music, it will not make you angry.” What it is about children’s music that makes Jon Stewart angry, and why is yours the exception?
Unlike Jon Stewart, I didn’t feel angry about the music I didn’t like; I just thought it was shortchanging the kids. One of the reasons I started Music for Aardvarks, which was ten years ago, was that I was taking my first child to look for a music class, and I just thought the music – the centerpiece of the class – was the weakest part of it. The nursery rhymes, the trained sopranos singing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”: so I thought, “I’ll just write some of my own tunes for my own kids and do little play groups and stuff,” and I wrote songs about subways and taxis and bagels and skyscrapers and boogers, and it just took off.
A lot of parents want their kids to listen to the same music they do. What do you think kids get out of listening to music, like yours, that’s written specifically for them?
Kids love to jump up and down, they love to move, so I have songs that match that energy level. I also have songs that are lullabies. Some of the songs are just pure silly, and I think they like that. I think they really get off on the diversity of it. Someone once asked me how to write a good kids song, and I told them to think about things that happen to kids, watch their reactions the world around them, add some funny noises and have a hook – don’t have 20-minute drum solos, just keep it simple and have it repeat. The way they learn is through repetition, so you don’t want to have, like, a Bob Dylan, 20-verse song for kids. I wrote a song called “I’m a Thumb” and all it says is, “I’m a thumb a thumb I’m a thumb:” I have songs, too, that deal with things that most children’s writers wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole.
I wrote a song called “Poopin’ on my Potty” and I got a lot of emails from people wanting their money back after they’d bought the CD, saying, “I don’t appreciate potty humor in my children’s songs.” And yeah, it’s a silly song, it goes “I’m poopin’ on my potty and I’m really, really proud, I bent my knees and gave a squeeze and plop it came right out.” But I didn’t write it just to crack people up about poop – although kids love saying “poop.” I wrote it because going from diapers to a potty is this monumental transition, and it’s scary for them. I wrote it to be kind of reassuring, to take the fear out of it, and to give them a sense of pride for doing it.
I read in Newsweek that you got a complaint that there were sexual undertones to The Bagel Song?
Someone told me that “I’m big and round I got a hole in the middle, I’m lumpy and bumpy they call me pumpernickel, come on and gobble me up” had sexual undertones to it. I was just like, Jesus Christ, it’s a song about a bagel. But then I was thinking, like if Mae West sang it – “I’m big and round, I got a hole in the middle” – okay, maybe, yeah. But I’m not Mae West.
Can you describe briefly what happens in a Music for Aardvarks class?
The children come in and sing a hello song that mentions each child’s name. I have twelve CDs and counting, so we pick a CD for that particular semester and focus on the songs on that CD. Most of the time, I don’t even take out my guitar, because then it becomes more of a performance; I might take out my guitar three times during the whole class, and the rest of the time is spent doing things with the kids that are interactive: movements, shaking the eggs, clapping, smacking the floor. I just want it to be completely non-instructional, and give kids the sense that they can participate in music as easily and with as much fun as they would kick a ball, and that there’s no wrong way to do it.