Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The Best Pop Songs for Kids

It seems like there is always music playing in our household. In the car, we listen to satellite radio and CDs; at dinner we listen to Pandora or classical radio; when we're getting ready to go out somewhere Dad is often noodling on the piano or Mom is belting out a show tune or the kids are singing a song they learned in church or in music class at school. Our children have certainly been exposed to an unusually wide variety of musical genres. And they're reaching the age where they're starting to express definite preferences and tastes of their own. I'm always delighted when my son requests the Moonlight Sonata or my daughter requests the Nutcracker at bedtime. But I'm often less than delighted when they ask to listen to some pop song or other that may not have the most age-appropriate lyrics. So how do I allow them to listen to popular music without permitting inappropriate music? I do it by carefully vetting their requested songs and making a list of their favorites that are acceptable. And fortunately, there are a lot of great pop songs out there that do have a positive message, and that are musically valuable. Here's a list of the top ten of my kids' favorites that are both popular and positive.

"Happy" by Pharrell Williams

This song has music and lyrics that are catchy and upbeat. I am physically incapable of not dancing when this song is playing. It has a peppy refrain with great harmonies and fun rhythms. The melody is simple, with some lines almost chanted, so it's easy to learn and sing along with. And the message (complete lyrics can be found here) is just as peppy and upbeat, basically saying "I'm so happy that no amount of bad news could bring me down." And there are a bunch of different covers out there (by the Pentatonix, Sam Tsui, Pomplamoose, and Maroon 5, among others), so you can even have fun comparing different interpretations and arrangements.

"Can't Stop the Feeling" by Justin Timberlake

Timberlake's disco-inspired song from the movie "Trolls" is another feel-good, make-you-dance song. Although this is clearly a love song ("And under the lights when everything goes, nowhere to hide when I'm getting you close. When we move, well you already know, so just imagine..." - complete lyrics here), it's clean and relatively non-suggestive.

"Red Balloon" by Charli XCX

Kids' movies are a great source of pop songs that have to be clean due to the nature of the movie, and this song is one of several catchy tunes from the movie "Home" that are extremely popular with my kids. The aspect of the message that I appreciate is summed up in the lyrics, "Today I opened my eyes and now I'm so happy and free, I got my friends by my side and that's all that matters to me" (full lyrics here). It doesn't claim you should not have any worries, but instead that you should learn to let go of them and rely on your friends to help you. I also kind of love the chorus' repeated yodel-esque "ah-ooo!"

One caveat on this one: Most of Charli XCX's music is decidedly inappropriate for younger listeners, so if your kids ask for more music like this song, stick to other songs from the "Home" soundtrack rather than other songs by her (and if you decide to purchase this song, get it as a single or get the movie soundtrack album, not her "Sucker" album, which also contains this track).

"Alone" by Marshmello

This piece is largely instrumental techno-pop, with a simple, subtle refrain sung periodically in the background. But the tune is boppy and is actually a kind of digitally-enhanced vocal scatting that I (and my kids) find pretty catchy and hummable. The song itself doesn't tell much of a story, merely repeating the lines "I'm so alone, nothing feels like home. I'm so alone, trying to find my way back home to you." (Seriously, you don't have to click on any link. Those really are the only words in the song.) But if you want an interesting message to go with the song, check out the music video. It tells the story of a marshmallow-headed teen who gets teased and mocked at school by fellow students and teachers alike, until he asks out one of the pretty, popular girls via a note and she stops by his house to turn him down, but spies him mixing music and dancing, and secretly takes a video. She shows it around the school and soon everyone is wearing improvised marshmallow heads made from sacks and buckets, and dancing to his tunes. The message is clearly that it's okay to be different, and you just need to find what makes you special. I honestly have no idea what the connection is between the song and the story of the video, other than that the boy is obviously feeling very alone at the beginning, but song and video both have value.

"It's a Beautiful Day" by Michael Buble
The story behind the song, as shown in the music video, is not particularly appropriate for younger kids, since the video opens with Buble walking in on his girlfriend kissing her "yoga instructor". But the song itself is more the story of his relief in dodging the bullet, so to speak, and realizing that his life is much better after this heartbreak. Sample lyrics: "It's a beautiful day, the sun is up, the music's playing, and even if it started raining you won't hear this boy complaining, 'cause I'm glad you're the one that got away" (complete lyrics here). The message really is that after pain and heartbreak, things often get a lot better. And Buble's rich, velvet-smooth, pitch-perfect voice is easy on the ears even if your kids want to listen to this song 300 times in a row. And they will.

"Firework" by Katy Perry
Perry's celebratory "power anthem" was released in 2010, but it's still a catchy and popular tune. The message is a great reassurance that we all feel like "a plastic bag drifting through the wind" sometimes, but also that "there's a spark in you, you just gotta ignite the light and let it shine" (complete lyrics here). The pulsing rhythm and repeated "oh, oh, oh" and "boom, boom, boom" lyrics beg to be danced to and belted out, and the positive message is one that can't be repeated too many times.

"Good Feeling" by Flo Rida
I'm no fan of rap music, but my 7-year-old is, so I do occasionally look for rap-style songs with clean lyrics, and this song qualifies (as not many do). With a message of not just "I got a good feeling", but of drive and determination to work hard and achieve your goals (full lyrics here), it's a song about healthy ambition to succeed rather than merely ego-driven desire for power or wealth. A nice change from most rap songs, plus it's more melodic than most fully-spoken rap.

"Shake It Off" by Taylor Swift
Swift's "Shake It Off" was released in 2014, but its message that you can't control what other people say about you, so just "shake it off" (lyrics here) is timeless, especially for school-age kids. What kid hasn't come home in tears because a "friend" made a nasty remark, or someone started a false rumor about him or her? This song is a good reassurance that everyone has to deal with it, even (and maybe especially) people like Taylor Swift. And bopping to its catchy beat is a great way to help shake it off!

"Best Day of My Life" by American Authors
This song takes a bit of a twist on the I'm so happy/this is a great day theme by making a conscious decision that it WILL be a great day: "This is gonna be the best day of my life" (complete lyrics here). It also has a fun echoing "oh-oh-oh-oh-oh" refrain that kids love to sing along to. Plus there's a plucky banjo part, and who doesn't love a plucky banjo?

"Alone" by Alan Walker
Walker's "Alone" is a very different song from Marshmello's song of the same name. The lyrics are not much more complex than Marshmello's version, consisting mainly of the repeated phrase, " I know I'm not alone" (complete lyrics here), but also including the phrase, "Anywhere, whenever, apart but still together", which I like. My son and I had a discussion about feeling a connection to those you love, even when they're not with you physically, which can apply to both loved ones we've lost, such as grandparents, or family and friends who are far away.

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