In the fall of 2015 through the next spring I was living in Stamford, CT and got a job teaching an after school music program at elementary schools in Stamford, Norwalk, Greenwich, and a few other surrounding towns. I was hired by a third party company that had the idea that you could teach reading music to kids by color. I actually think that was a really good idea in concept but it didn’t work out all that well in execution. So they designed this little keyboards that didn’t have piano keys in the way that we know them, they were just different colored buttons in a row. We would give kids sheet music where all the notes were colored so then they could just match the colors to the buttons. The idea was that they would slowly take away the colors and BAM! The kids would know how to read music. It really didn’t work out that way since 1st and 2nd graders can’t focus on much for longer than a minute or two and when you have twenty some odd 6 year olds who are all cranky because they’re expected to learn music after a full day of school you don’t really care if they’re matching colors anymore.
So I came up with some alternative projects for my kids. I showed them videos of rock bands and we talked about different instruments they saw. We watched videos of orchestras and did the same thing. Once they figured out the whole color equals note concept I had them start trying to write their own music which worked to varying degrees of success. I brought in my accordion a few times and performed for the kids.
Here are some of the things I learned in the process:
Kids learn privilege at an incredibly young age. One of the schools I taught at was in a working class neighborhood in Stamford. None of these kids were poor by any means (or at least to my knowledge) but they were definitely all really aware of the fact that having their parents pay for an after school program was something of a luxury. All of them were really respectful towards me and even when they got distracted none of them really threw any tantrums when I tried to redirect them. By contrast a large proportion of the kids in Greenwich (one of the wealthiest towns in Connecticut) were just kind of dicks to me. They didn’t really care about the class - partly because they’re children- but I couldn’t help but feel it was at least in part due to the fact that their parents were probably shelling out for lots of programs and classes and activities. One day while teaching in Greenwich one of my students was inappropriately grabbing a female student. She kept asking him to stop. When I separated them I told the boy that you can’t touch others without their permission. Especially when they’re asking you not to. He apologized to the girl (who it seemed had already forgotten about the incident) but then looked at me and said, “I’m going to tell my parents that you hit me.” That was maybe the scariest thing a kid has ever said to me. After I gave time out LIKE A STONE COLD MOTHERFUCKER in the hall for like 20 minutes he apologized to me but the scariest part about the situation was that at 6 or 7 years old he had the vocabulary to blackmail anyone. This is the kind of kid who breaks his mom’s vase and blames it on the maid to get her fired.
Kids learn archetypes and stereotypes about music pretty young too. One day one of the kids asked if I ever perform music instead of teaching. So I showed them a video of my band playing (at this point I’m realizing that it sounds like all I did with these kids was watch videos but I swear we did lots of other productive music stuff too) and the class pretty much agreed that I was “too fat” to be in a band. I guess overweight individuals not being allowed to be in bands isn’t necessarily a music stereotype but I thought it interesting that all of the kids seemed to gravitate towards that consensus. At another point in the semester I showed them some videos of rock bands. When I asked them to identify the different instruments they had some surprising assumptions about the players. The kids were pretty quick to say that bassists are the least important member of the band and nobody cares who they are. They regarded guitarists and singers as the most famous but felt that singers lacked the necessary talent to play a “real instrument.” They also pretty quickly came to the conclusion that drummers are not as famous as the players in the front but (and I literally quote) “probably get asked on lots of dates.”
I’ve been teaching private piano lessons since I was 17 or 18 years old and the territory of that is that you mostly teach kids under the age of 10. A lot of the archetypal thinking I laid out above holds true for a lot of my students. At extraordinarily young ages kids are able to identify trends and character traits in celebrities and apply them to new and abstract concepts. One of the reasons for this is that kids are usually just really smart. Maybe a subject for a whole separate blog post is how the American education system probably makes a lot of kids somewhat more lazy, frustrated, less inspired, less creative, and maybe not even as smart. But the thing I’m trying to get at is I really want to know where some of this thinking comes from. There are lots of kids shows now that are music centric, but the most interesting is The Small Potatoes. (Yo Gabba Gabba is the better program but TSP has some weirdness going on that I really want to talk about.)
Having done minimal research here’s what I can tell you about The Small Potatoes. It was a short movie (I watched it on Netflix) that I believe was also developed into a TV show that may or may not still be on. The movie is presented in documentary style and tells the story of the band The Small Potatoes. Four actual talking potatoes who write some folk songs on their farm and they’re on their way to stardom. This movie has everything. Their music sweeps the nation in “Potatomania” as they explore rock and roll and start to experiment with Eastern musical traditions. They get a TV show! They get into doo wop, punk rock, and New Wave. Eventually they break up when they start to argue over stardom. Two of the potatoes try to start solo careers. One of them deals with an addiction to bread. The fourth doesn’t do much of anything if I remember correctly. Anyway, the film ends with a successful reunion and that’s it.
The Small Potatoes is one of these lame attempts to make something that is vaguely interesting for kids and shoves some weird moralizing messages down their throats while making a few inside jokes for adults to laugh at. In that way it’s really like a lot of kids shows since we collectively decided that letting kids watch truly fucked up TV like Ren and Stimpy and Rocko’s Modern Life isn’t okay anymore. We’ve decided that entertainment needs to be educational and safe. And what we’re left with is a cut and paste cartoon about potatoes (that doesn’t make any jokes or references to the fact that they’re potatoes by the way) that sings to kids about the importance of getting a haircut.
But what The Small Potatoes actually achieves (perhaps without the show’s creators even knowing it) is that it teaches kids about rock and roll stereotypes.
Nate and Ruby both represent current pop star trends but on somewhat different points along the spectrum. Ruby is akin to Selena Gomez, Justin Bieber, and a whole host of Teen Disney stars. She doesn’t actually have much talent or musical ability but has enough natural charisma to get by. She’ll jump on whatever bandwagon she thinks will keep her in the spotlight but as we see in the film she’s unable to sustain a real career by herself.
Nate meanwhile is something more like Kanye West, Taylor Swift, and possibly a late 60’s Bob Dylan or MAYBE an early to mid career David Bowie. Nate has an interest in jazz and poetry (it’s right in the theme song people) and regards music as a purely expressive medium. He’s the one that pushes the band into their punk phase and I suspect he might be their principal song writer. Nate is to the Small Potatoes as Brian Wilson is to the Beach Boys. Nate keeps the band on the cutting edge but makes sure the music remains palatable. Nate and Ruby are the guitarist and singer that my students from a few years ago are sure would be the most famous.
Now let’s talk about Olaf:
I want to direct your attention to the stanza that starts at 0:48. It starts with Olaf saying, “I’m Olaf. I’m the big guy!” This is really an issue of orchestration. Olaf’s weight is represented by the tuba (only present when Olaf is singing), and I think this teaches kids that A.) Tubas are for fat people which is certainly not true and B.) weight is something to be laughed at. I envision a world without what I call “the propaganda of orchestration” but that’s yet another essay.
Olaf is what my students perceive to fill the drummers role. He’s recognizable and can probably hold down a beat and almost definitely gets asked out by some potatoes who want a roll in the hay with a famous spud. And of course he’s the member of the band with no self control. He’s the one who joins the band because he wants to have a good time and get fucked up. For most of the movie Olaf is the dull smiling face in the background. UNTIL their manager has an intervention with him at the bakery. “You can’t fit any more buns on that plate.” Olaf is a classic carb addict. And what the movie does here is EXACTLY what Frank Zappa was opposing in Joe’s Garage. The Small Potatoes are telling kids to be creative and use their imagination, but not TOO MUCH. “Look what could happen to YOU if you pursue a career in music! You’ll end up like Olaf. Fucked up on carbs and without a band. Don’t be a drummer. Get a degree in engineering and put a drumset in your basement so your relatives can come over and say ‘Agh music your passion.’”
And meanwhile there’s nothing to say about Chip (other than he’s the only one who gets to actually make jokes about potatoes - his name is Chip for Pete’s sake! - and who is this Pete guy anyway????) because he’s the archetypal bassist and no one gives a shit about them anyway.