People who know nothing about children's music often confuse "optimism" with "happiness." There is a clear distinction, as I determined this past year.
I went through a number of life changes over the past 18 months. It was a whole Chinese restaurant menu of water tortures, and believe me, I wouldn't wish any combination special on most people.
Throughout the entire sad process, the one constant was children's music. As if in a daze, sometimes a funk, sometimes a mania, I perpetuated a steady output of previews, event recaps with photos and videos, and reviews.
I may have been sleep-deprived. I may not have eaten properly for days or weeks. But I kept to a schedule, attempting to get to everything within a two-week window of its release date.
And children's music became my Rock of Gibraltar. If I had an especially ominous interaction or could not turn off the conversations in my head, I turned on the next CD in my queue. These were not necessarily "happy" tunes. But overall, they diffused my dark mood so I could wake to face another day.
During the summer of 2015, I felt that my world had hit rock bottom (boy was I ever wrong). I took my older son (then 14) out to the beach, where he was only 17 miles from a special camp program. This gave him five hours of hands-on activity, for eight weekdays. Except it splintered the family and I witnessed a profound loneliness in him. He missed his younger brother, his shadow and protector. He could FaceTime with him and their mother. Occasionally he'd say "I'm sad" or "I'm okay," and I put my hand on his shoulder and we'd walk through town and make observations about people and stores and music. A lot about pop music that summer.
In retrospect, I can't imagine how I held it together at different junctions. I brought two CDs to review while we stayed at the beach. One of them was Renee & Friends' SIMPATICO. It contained the most emotionally devastating song I heard that year, "You Were Meant to Be" (duet with Glenn Phillips). It's a love song to a child, declaring that his or her birth was no accident, that the child turned a man and a woman into a family. It was a gut punch and I cried when it played. The second time through, I intentionally ensured my son was in the car so I could will myself not to tear up. No, it's not a happy children's song. But it's optimistic.
A month later I had a similar moment with Tim Kubart's Grammy-winning CD, HOME. It's a celebration of childhood, family, and shared bonding experiences. The first time I heard the title track, "Last Turn Home," I was driving back to the house with both sons. It had been a long day and they'd drifted off. But we were approaching the house, their home, the only home they've both ever known. The home and the family that I knew were coming to a close. I gripped the steering wheel tight with both hands and read between the lyrics. The song is about a journey, and the destination isn't really important as long as there's love there. Again, not entirely a happy children's song. But it's optimistic.
The closing track of HOME is called "Moving Day," which reinforces the album's concept of family as people and not a place. That theme became my mantra in 2016, when I repeatedly went through the "five stages," thinking I'd finished with two or three only to cycle back to the beginning. By the summer, we had relocated. By October, the bussing situation was rectified and the boys began to settle into their routines. I accepted some absences in my life. I filled some holes in my schedule. I continued to attend concerts, shoot videos, and write reviews.
What was it about children's music more that drew me in, when by all rights I could have blasted death metal, or played dramatic operas, or danced around to show tunes? Simply put, there's no hidden agenda. With an absence of irony and a commitment to building positive values, children's music is about inclusion and being forward-thinking. You can't wallow when you have a child whose needs come before your own. You can't be narcissistic and play your favorite comfort CD from college, even if it bores the kids to tears since they can't relate to it.
Children's music gave me an uplifting release. It focused me. It helped me obtain and move toward some form of acceptance, even when there were scheduling conflicts, soul-sucking emails, or the continued existence of people I could not – nor ever plan – to stomach.
That's the putative salvation of children's music that is often misread. It's not all happy. There's no Morrissey for six-year-olds. Even Amy Lee (Evanescence) put out a delightful, cheery CD this year, DREAM TOO MUCH. You don't have to be happy to be optimistic and that's the promise of children's music. Broke a toy? Split your time between mommy and daddy? Scared of new foods? Kids can change emotions in the span of a drumbeat. It may only take one note of a special song from a fun performer. It could even be that eerie song about things going bump in the night. Because kids might not be happy when that occurs, but morning is going to come and daylight will turn that ghost into a sweater on the doorknob. They're not happy about it, but they're optimistic. That's a true super power and it's why I still enjoy children's music.