Barney: Maybe not so bad?

TL;DR: 2500-word #slatepitch making an obviously incorrect argument that the children’s show Barney really isn’t as bad as everyone says, with much more overwrought intensity than can possibly be called for by the topic, ultimately demonstrating my lack of any real taste or discernment.

(Updated below)

I guess I might as well just go all in and write down some of the crazy things that come from thinking about children’s music too much. Maybe this is impossibly contrarian and nobody will believe that I might be serious. But I am serious!1 Barney’s not so bad!

First, the “Raindrops” song is excellent. (The version that played on Friday, June 4, was even better, but this is what’s online.)

That “ah, ah-ah-ah, ah-ah-ah” in the chorus is really hip.

Even the New Yorker is endorsing contemporary children’s television.2 I agree wholeheartedly with Nussbaum’s piece, especially her exhaustion with “neural panics” (a nice point, and an effective play on “moral panics”), and she details the virtues of shows like Wonder Pets and Phineas and Ferb effectively. Wonder Pets in particular is really beautiful, charming, and funny, and the orchestral music and opera-style recitative that it’s set in feel comfortable and authentic, and never have the sort of Mozart-effect didacticism (or anti-elitist buffonery) that normally characterizes any instance of classical music in children’s media.

But Nussbaum contrasts today’s renaissance of excellent children’s shows with an almost entirely negative brief history of children’s television before the late 2000s, and I’m not convinced that the difference is so great. Of course Barney is part of the litany, exemplifying the point that “what was ‘good for children’ was not necessarily the same as ‘good.'” Which is to say that “that big purple optimist” is obviously bad.

Similarly, in a 2010 piece in Time about the Brooklyn kids’ music festival KindieFest, “Barney and Raffi” stand in for all the terrible children’s music of the past, before the contemporary explosion of sophisticated “kindie pop” that Harriet Barovick celebrates.3

And these are the tame mentions. There’s a whole Wikipedia page about “Anti-Barney Humor” and fantasy violence is a common theme. To the extent that a lot of the anti-Barney discourse is itself a genre of children’s humor, it is clear that the content of that discourse is as a form of distancing oneself from “childishness”—that is, kids disavow Barney in strong terms because kids are always caught up in a project of “maturity” which entails, at every age, rejecting markers of immaturity. But anti-Barney sentiment is common beyond children’s discourse, and expressions of hate, anger, and disgust proliferate. (Documenting this phenomenon is its own project, but my sense is that it’s not a stretch to expect that “I hate Barney” is a sentiment that many Americans will have experienced or observed.) My instinct is that spectacular fantasies about violence probably always reflect something deeper than simple “dislike.” And my other instinct is that anti-Barney discourses by adults have pretty similar content as anti-Barney discourses by kids: childishness is a form of abjection in our culture, and vehemently rejecting (particular forms of) schlock, silliness, and immaturity is a way of consolidating one’s own maturity. (Of course other forms of immaturity are preserved as a form of privilege.) The sheer intensity of people’s feelings about Barney is otherwise hard to explain.

So the fact that Barney is so easy to namecheck as an obvious representative of “bad” music or media even in relatively thoughtful pieces makes me pretty uncomfortable. Country music and hip hop came in for a lot of unreflective abuse in the 1990s, as both genres were emerging as major popular genres. As those genres have become increasingly core elements of mainstream pop, my sense is that that criticism has lessened, and it’s easier to see the class, geography, and race politics that inform such strong negative views. But as tween music too becomes more and more at the core of mainstream pop (it’s hard to argue that Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift are not directed significantly at tweens and not major pop figures in their own right) I don’t have the same sense that the criticism is dying down. Instead, Bieber especially continues to be an easy punchline who is subjected to a lot of derison. (We know better than to express open prejudice based on class, geography, or race, but we don’t have much of a politicized language to talk about age, so we don’t police ourselves.) And so we get these pieces celebrating that children’s television or music is coming into their own, but which have these obligatory disavowals of previous kids’ music, that we can all agree is terrible.

But is it really terrible? Maybe “we” all can’t stand it. But actually lots and lots of children love Barney. And really, what’s so bad? I don’t think we can single Barney out for being excessively didactic, moralizing, or condescending. More musically sophisticated shows like Yo Gabba Gabba! present basically the same relentlessly positive messages—share, help, be friends, encourage one another, don’t bully, conflict is always resolvable if you’ll just be nicer to one another—just set in agressively “indie” arrangements, insistently repetive, melody-less, and full of harsh synthesizers. Or Barney and Wonder Pets both have storylines about “cool” cousins visiting whose presence has to be negotiated. Barney has pretty low production values, so the children’s acting, especially, can be flat, which is off-putting, but again, looks to me like the product of amateurism and low-budgets. Clearly Barney was not hiring professional child actors the way that Nick Jr and the Disney Channel do now. We can celebrate that finally media companies are throwing money at kids’ shows, but low production values don’t seem to merit such strong negative positions.

If the problem is that Barney’s excessive positivity doesn’t teach kids how to deal with negative events, or that the world is a hard place, or that disagreement and conflict are real forces that can’t be resolved with perfunctory expressions of inclusion, that’s a valid point, as far as it goes. But, well, if your problem is that paternalist media is just paternalist in the wrong way, then objections of didacticism, condescension, and moralizing are back in force, against these newer shows and against this whole project of sorting out just the right pedagogy for kids’ entertainment. None of us police our own media for the “lessons” it’s teaching us, and the fact that children’s media is uniquely subject to parsing for pedagogical content is itself a situation that produces children as fundamentally alien. And then my view is that if there’s something kind of dehumanizing about the hating on Barney (which I think there is), there’s equally something dehumanizing about demanding that kids’ entertainment always has the right lessons and that kids’ pleasure always be subordinated to their development.4 Barney is a figure of such disparagement precisely because childishness and childhood are set off as deeply Other in a liberal society that values maturity and independence (and with them discernment and sophistication) above all else, and that value system is structured through discourses of pedagogy, education, and developement. Moral panics and neural panics all have their content in a rejection of the idea that children might be persons who can participate at parity. What makes it possible to fantasize about mutilating Barney with explosives is the same thing that has us always asking what lessons we’re teaching our children, rather than asking about the pleasure and well-being children in our communities have access to.5

So the key thing here is pleasure, the boundaries of which, for children as for everyone, are incredibly fraught. When we’re thinking about shows like Barney, it is really hard for me to find anything to hold on to except the fact that so many kids love this damn dinosaur so much, even despite the obvious pedagogical thrust of that show. That’s the only fixed point in all of this: whatever authentic, meaningful pleasure kids seem to have found in a show about a purple dinosaur. Yes, all pleasures are structured and mediated, and kids enjoy what they learn is enjoyable, but because it’s mediation all the way down, mediated pleasure is authentic, meaningful pleasure. What I hear in the anti-Barney discourses is a wishing-away of children’s pleasure in that show. And wishing away a groups’ pleasure is a lot like just wishing that group away altogether: like wishing infants weren’t allowed on airplanes, or wishing those children weren’t in this restaurant.

Kids like that show so much, in fact, that parents and caregivers often lose the battle, or don’t even wage it, and then complain about it in other forums, wishing the battle could have been avoided in the first place if only that ridiculous dinosaur hadn’t come in and claimed so much power over their homes. And that’s where I think the most sympathetic reading of anti-Barney views can be found. For parents, disliking what their kids love can be a real source of alienation from their children and of oppression within a domestic media environment that they are trapped in.6 Not having the power to choose what’s on the TV is a real form of disempowerment. Nussbaum and Barovick both pretty explicitly make the point that these new forms of children’s entertainment aren’t necessarily any better at entertaining children at all; instead they praise them for being more aesthetically agreeable to parents. That is obviously good: parents should not be forced to endure an oppressive media environment in their homes and to constantly defer to their children’s preferences. But that is different story, a story about private power, domestic conflict, preferences and pleasure and diversity and difference, not the simple obviousness of “Barny is terrible.”

The reason it matters that we think about Barney in terms of things like family politics rather than aesthetic value or abjection is because this newer claim that certain types of children’s media are “good” appears as a political act—a reassertion of adult agency over the media ecology of the home through the assertion of the legitimacy and correctness of adult taste. To the extent that kids really do like these shows, then they’ve solved a real problem of contrary preferences. But it’s worth pausing to note, at the very least, that this entails a sort of homogenization, a loss of diversity. The music on Yo Gabba Gabba! is just the same old indie music adults are already making. And what’s more, it’s hard to watch that show in particular, whose “indie” aesthetic is so aggressive, without constantly being reminded of what Yo Gabba Gabba! is not: it’s not Barney, it’s definitely not Raffi, it is so not those things it’s hipper than anything you’d ever listen to yourself.7

What about “lemon drops and gum drops”? Are we so confident that Barney’s annoying giggle, which some kids seem to enjoy, is “bad” in a way that those kids who enjoy it should have that enjoyment replaced with something else? Why are we willing to smile at Ming-Ming’s “this is sewwious!” as a charmingly cute affectation, while treating that giggle as such a problem? I can’t find a clear line, as much as I look. I watch Barney and I just find myself surprised: “that ‘Mish Mash Soup’ song was pretty good,” I think, and yes I’d rather watch Wonder Pets, or Big Brother, or Mad Men, but I can’t tell what it is about this one show that is so obviously terrible, or even what’s all that different. What I keep seeing instead is that this sort of arbitrary boundary-drawing between “good” and “bad” media just looks like the ongoing work of distinction, especially when the shows and music that get endorsed just happen to be full of classical music, of indie music, of hard folk, of the music genres with the largest endowments of cultural capital.

And I already know exactly how to enjoy Yo Gabba Gabba!. It’s actually a lot more of a challenge of aesthetic imagination to sit down and try to figure out how to enjoy Barney.

1 The trick of the argument that follows is that if this is so contrarian that it can only be met with mockery, then it just proves my point that childhood and childishness are irrecoverably abject! Ha!

2 The New Yorker‘s primary function is as the arbiter/disciplinarian of upper-middle-class literary taste, right? Isn’t the reductio-ad-absurdum aesceticism of their style guide there to say, “it doesn’t matter if it has any use or merit, it’s correct, dammit, and when did everyone else stop having standards?” I always thought of the New Yorker and Harper’s in terms of the ironic-gnome rule, where the New Yorker is the middle-class, and Harper’s are the aristocrats who can afford earnestness. Like everything else on this website, that’s probably incorrect.

3 For whatever reason (well, the reason is that they were both masssively popular, so adults couldn’t ignore them and everyone understands the reference when you bitch about them, etc.), Barney and Raffi are the canonically hated duo of children’s music, but Barney definitely gets it more than Raffi. I assume this is because Barney comes later, and Raffi was around for a pretty long time, so a lot of adults have fond childhood memories of their own of enjoying Raffi, whereas Barney is still a “kids-these-days” thing even for pretty young adults. I might note with the title of this post that Raffi is not so bad either. I don’t care for “Baby Beluga” too much, but the early stuff on Singable Songs for the Very Young is pretty great. Raffi’s voice on that album has a bit of an edge—it reminds me of Cat Stevens, if less creepy—and songs like “Aikendrum” and “Going to the Zoo” are driving and emphatic and powerful, and Bob Dylan’s “Must Be Santa” really doesn’t have anything on Raffi’s version. (It’s also possible that I just don’t have any taste.) (Update: On second thought, “Baby Beluga” is pretty good too.)

4 Seriously: No Future! Also, “Fuck Work.” Also, #nodads!

5 The underlying theory here is me trying to think through the implications of Nancy Fraser’s “participatory parity” (pdf link) (especially through Michael Bérubé’s application of it to disability) as it might apply to children, in combination with Martha Nussbaum’s “capabilities approach” to justice, with a large does of Michael Warner on the inherent exclusivity of the pulic sphere (can a public of children giggle?)

6 Caregiving obligations are a source of systematic disempowerment and oppression, espcially of women. There’s a strange way in which children’s enjoyment can be harnessed in service of women’s subjection.

7 If all pleasure is mediated than this sort of pleasure-in-distinction is authentic and meaningful too. It’s interesting, though, that Barney never seems to rely on distinction or resentment as a source of aesthetic power, the way Yo Gabba Gabba! does.


2 thoughts on “Barney: Maybe not so bad?

  1. Excellent observations. Thanks for writing this. As a performer of music for children, I’ve thought hard about a lot of the same issues. There is definitely a certain amount of the current music for children that is as much, or more, for the parents. Personally, this bothers me – I think that if kids are supposed to be the primary audience, then the music should be geared towards them, and their parents should enjoy it as a shared activity with their children. There is plenty of research about what kind of music is “good” for kids, in terms of their developing some inner sense of musical form and function, and it differs from what hip parents think is “good” by their own aesthetic or social standards.

    I also like your points about the violence of people’s reactions to music they don’t like. Music is such a source of identity that people seem to defend it – and attack other’s different choices – at the same primal level that we process religion and politics. Personally, I have been forced to be more tolerant than I used to be – as a result of teaching people guitar for one thing, and having to respect the music that they wanted to learn. I do think it’s immoral to judge another person’s pleasure in the art they have chosen to hold near and dear. Music is a personal thing – we should respect our children’s musical choices, the same way we’re expected to do the same for adults in the larger society.

  2. Thanks Will!

    Music is such a source of identity that people seem to defend it – and attack other’s different choices – at the same primal level that we process religion and politics.

    This is really nicely put, and very thought-provoking. But if the stakes are so high, this also makes me think the solution can’t be just asking people to be more tolerant (just as asking people to be more tolerant of deeply held religious differences is not so simple). People’s musical choices are “personal,” as you say, but still “the personal is political,” and I think the musical/taste differences between parents and their kids reflect some pretty deep structures in our society about the very subordinated status of children. But at the same time, the fact that people like yourself are increasingly addressing children musically and in other ways as individuals deserving of respect (or that an august institution like the New Yorker would contemplate recommending kids’ TV) suggests that perhaps something about those structures might be changing.

Comments are closed.