Children, music, and discourses of the “digital native”

I presented a paper titled “US children, music technology, and discourses of the ‘digital native'” this weekend at the annual meeting of the Society for Ethnomusicology. This was part of a wonderful roundtable on “Children as Cultural Agents: Informed or Unformed?” organized by Trevor Wiggins. The abstract for my contribution is below:

Digital music technologies like file-sharing and portable music devices are frequently presented as icons of rapid change in the U.S. media environment, and U.S. children and youth are often situated as core users of these technologies. Discourses of the “digital native” position young people as uniquely competent users of new media technologies. Unlike many approaches to children’s “unformed” status as cultural participants, these discourses present children as uniquely “informed” practitioners of a highly mediated and commercialized culture of musical consumption. But discourses of the digital native also partake of the exoticizing tropes that the term “native” often implies, othering children’s technological and commercial knowledge as esoteric and potentially dangerous (as when celebratory discussions of musical “sharing” veer into worry about “piracy,” “theft,” and the devolution of 20th century media industrial forms). This contribution to the roundtable will explore how children’s musical practice are framed through discourses of technological exoticism, and it will use ethnographic data from research with K–8 schoolchildren in Vermont to question presentations of children as uniquely competent users of certain technologies. I seek to destabilize the boundaries of “informed” and “unformed” in presentations of children’s musical cultures by problematizing “competence” as the framework for thinking about cultural and technological practices. From this position, I will argue that ethnomusicological discussions of children are relevant to contexts beyond childhood, and we should think about adulthood, and adults’ cultural and technological practices, as also blurring the boundaries between informed and unformed.

The tween music industry and child counterpublics

My article on the tween music industry came out at Popular Music recently: “The new ‘tween’ music industry: The Disney Channel, Kidz Bop and an emerging childhood counterpublic” (Popular Music 31/3, October 2012, pp. 417–36).

The article is here, and below is a version of the paper that I presented at the Society for American Music last year:

In the period from 2005–2009, the ‘tween’ music industry in the U.S. emerged as a major economic and cultural force. One week early in 2006, for example, the three top-selling records on the Billboard sales charts were children’s albums, and the top-selling album in the U.S. for the entire year was the soundtrack to the massively popular Disney Channel original movie High School Musical. Pop music for children has become a significant area of growth in an otherwise struggling music industry, and brands such as Kidz Bop, the High School Musical movies, and the still-prominent acts Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus, the Jonas Brothers, and Justin Bieber topped numerous sales charts and have achieved mainstream—if fraught and uncertain—prominence in the popular music industry. Through these developments, age has emerged as a key marker of identity and affiliation that position the children’s music industry, and children themselves, in a complicated role in media and public culture.

The category tween emerged in the early 1990s to identify a marketing demographic of young people ‘between’ childhood and adolescence—9–12 year old kids (narrowly, or broadly 4–15 years old, according to some marketing literature) who might otherwise be called pre-adolescents (Cook and Kaiser 2004). The history of tweens coincides with a dramatic increase in children’s purchasing power: children directly spend tens of billions of dollars annually, and influence as much as $200 billion in family spending. The cutesy play on ‘teen’ and ‘between’ reflects the significant insight that tweens embody the contradictions of separation and inclusion seen in television channels like Nickelodeon, whose mantra, ‘let kids be kids’ (McDonough 2004), framed children’s increasing status as media audiences as empowering of them as a distinct and separate group (Banet-Weiser 2007).

The tensions involving tween participation in mainstream consumer culture came to a head at the MTV Video Music Awards in 2008 and 2009, as adult and tween public figures shared the stage, embodying the conflicts that emerge as tweens increasingly occupy the limelight. Televised awards shows have been filled with tween stars the last several years, and hosts frequently make jokes at their expense. Pointing out stars like the Jonas Brothers or Zac Efron from High School Musical in the audience seems at times to be a punchline in itself, suggesting a sort of bewilderment on the part of show hosts at the popularity of these youthful stars. In the examples I consider in this paper, onstage at the VMAs we can identify traces of an emerging group identity and solidarity among tween-oriented acts. No longer simply about avoiding conflict and ameliorating adult concerns to legitimate children’s consumption, we can see tween media as a counterpublic field of conflict and opposition that presents children as a visible and powerful group.

At the VMAs in 2008, host Russell Brand, a British comedian whose act is intentionally vulgar and shocking, made fun of the Jonas Brothers’ promise rings and ridiculed their abstinence.

It is a little bit ungrateful, cause they could literally have sex with any woman that they want, they’re just not gonna do it.

Brand continued to riff on the Jonas Brothers’ virginity throughout the show, until Jordin Sparks, who had won American Idol the year before at 17, came on to introduce an award.

All right I just have one thing to say about promise rings. It’s not bad to wear a promise ring cause not everybody, guy or girl, wants to be a slut.

Brand’s good-natured poking fun of the Jonas Brothers for being virgins was now being seriously thrown back at him in much stronger terms. Sparks, it appeared, was standing up, publicly, in solidarity with other young artists, and suggesting that their values might be significantly different, even preferable.

The next time Brand was on stage, he apologized:

I’ve got to say sorry, cause I said them things about promise rings. That were bad of me. I don’t mean to take it lightly or whatever. I love the Jonas Brothers, think it’s really good, and you know, look, let me be honest, I don’t want to piss off teenage fans all right? In fact, quite the opposite – So promise rings, I’m well up for it, well done everyone. It’s just you know a bit of sex occasionally never hurt anybody.

The following year at the VMAs there was an even more prominent collision between adult and tween stars. Nineteen-year-old country-pop singer Taylor Swift’s first success came at age sixteen, and she continued to be hugely popular with tweens and to write songs and star in videos with school and teenage themes. Swift won the 2009 Best Female Video award for her ‘You Belong to Me’ video, a conventional narrative video about high-school romance, over visually and conceptually groundbreaking videos by Beyoncé and Lady Gaga.

As Swift, clearly overcome by the recognition, began her acceptance speech, rapper Kanye West also ran onto the stage and grabbed the microphone from Swift:

Yo Taylor, I’m really happy for you, I’m gonna let you finish, but Beyoncé had one of the best videos of ALL TIME. One of the best videos of all time.

He shrugged and handed the microphone back to Swift, who was speechless. West was widely vilified in the press and on the Internet as a jerk to the young and sensitive Swift.

Ten minutes later in the show (after several intervening acts), Justin Bieber, a 15-year-old singer who had only just broken out, and Miranda Cosgrove, the star of the popular Nickelodeon show, iCarly, came out to introduce a performance. Like Sparks the year before, the very young-looking Bieber interrupted the script:

First of all, I’d just like to say give it up for Taylor Swift; she deserved that award!

Cosgrove concurred:

Yeah! Whooo! Taylor Swift!

Cosgrove and Bieber went on to introduce Swift herself in a performance of the winning song.

West later apologized—on his website, on the Jay Leno Show, and directly to Swift.

The good-natured, if insistent, tone of Brand’s prodding of the Jonas Brothers—who, with their promise rings, seemed to be willingly submitting to, even inviting, the sort of sexual hypocrisy that normally only female celebrities have to endure—was overwhelmed by Sparks’s reactionary application of the awful term ‘slut’ to Brand and, presumably, his ilk. And West, who seemed to be publicly, if rudely, standing up for a strongly held conviction, was forced instead to publicly grovel before tween-affiliated artist Swift.

I am interested in these moments at the VMAs as very public collisions between adult and tween performers. In fact the audiences for all these acts overlap significantly, as the audience for pop music is overwhelmingly young and tween media increasingly targets older children, so both incidents at the VMAs were potentially intelligible without reference to age. The Brand-Sparks encounter was, in part, just another flare up in the culture wars, an existing framework into which young artists like Sparks or the Jonas Brothers could easily be slotted (and Sparks did later appeared the Fox News Channel’s Hannity & Colmes as a courageous exemplar of ‘values’). The West-Swift incident fits less neatly into any one framework, except that it fits so neatly into all the available frameworks: a confident/adult/black/male/hip-hop/superstar aggressively dominating a meek/young/white/woman/country/singer-songwriter.

But in the expressions of solidarity among young celebrities, supporting one another against the apparently unfair and powerful attacks of mainstream adult stars, we can see them claiming each other as members of a group. If their ages and mainstream success made Swift and Sparks potentially marginal figures in tween entertainment, the Jonas Brothers and Justin Bieber were full members, who were understood first and foremost as tween stars. (Perhaps by virtue of their maleness and whiteness, their age might be the first ‘marked’ aspect of their identities.) Despite not necessarily being identified primarily as a tween star by others, Sparks herself seemed to demonstrate an identification with whatever group the Jonas Brothers represented, by presuming to speak for them, or at least in their defense. And lest the cultural conservatism obscure the age identification, Brand returned to the stage to emphasize that the powerful group for whom Sparks spoke was precisely an audience specified by age—‘teenage fans’—rather than political affiliation. (Though since the audience for Brand’s own style of shock comedy presumably includes many teenagers I imagine he intends something more like “tween-age fans.”) Whereas Sparks claimed for herself the role of spokesperson on behalf of tween artists, Justin Bieber interpellated Taylor Swift (whose self-presentation as an outsider emphasized that she sings country) as someone with whom he has solidarity, and thus, despite her almost twenty years of age, a member in good standing of the tweens he and Miranda Cosgrove unquestionably represented. Russell Brand and Kanye West, on the other hand, seemed to dismiss the Jonas Brothers and Taylor Swift as marginal curiosities undeserving of respect or, in West’s case, even notice, until the overwhelming power of tween solidarity forced them to show deference, even to grovel.

Tweens’ ‘power,’ of course, derives substantially from adults who mobilize on behalf of put-upon kids—very different from adolescent logics of youth-cultural defiance. The commercial interests invested in acts like the Jonas Brothers would certainly feel along with Brand that the ‘teenage fans’ are not an audience to be glibly dismissed, and Brand’s apology after returning from backstage might well be the result of direct or understood pressure from MTV and the other corporate backers of the VMAs. In addition to direct commercial interest, an unlikely resource in the emerging power of tweens is a widespread cultural logic that understands children as powerless—vulnerable, even helpless—along with the more mundane compunctions not to ‘pick on’ kids. Sparks’s ‘defensive’ response—though in my view perhaps the most aggressive act described here—positioned Brand as the attacker, and an unprovoked attack on ‘children’ by an adult (especially a rather disheveled, dangerous-looking adult) is of course completely unacceptable in polite society, because the power dynamics are asymmetrical: supposedly children can’t defend themselves against such attacks. The irony is that Sparks could and did defend herself and those she identified as her peers. ‘Tween’ is generally coded as white and feminine, and the logic of vulnerability applied in even greater force to the encounter between West and Swift, where the asymmetry of a powerful adult man ‘attacking’ a meek young woman was all the more apparent. By going after the Jonas Brothers or Taylor Swift, Brand and West immediately lost any moral advantage that might have motivated them. Thus the construction of childhood as naturally innocent and vulnerable is mobilized as a powerful resource in tweens increasing claims of authority and agency on a public stage.

So tween media positions kids as legitimate consumers in the marketplace, but also, through anticipatory tropes of maturity and contradictory tropes of innocence, as particular, marked subjects, following a familiar logic. Michael Warner writes:

It is at the very moment of recognizing ourselves as the mass subject, for example, that we also recognize ourselves as minority subjects. As participants in the mass subject, we are the ‘we’ that can describe our particular affiliations of class, gender, sexual orientation, race, or subculture [or age] only as ‘they.’ This self-alienation is common to all of the contexts of publicity, but it can be variously interpreted within each. (Warner 1992:387)

This sort of double-consciousness plays out in the alternately childish and mature presentations of children’s media, producing the reinforcing dialectic of marginality and participation, authenticity and assimilation, that is common to subcultural movements. Children’s media play both sides of the dialectic, presenting a vision of childhood that, as anthropologist Mizuko Ito writes, “is distinguished from and resistant to certain structures of adult society without being depicted as inferior” (Ito 2007:105). Appeals to the vulnerability of kids in criticisms of adults picking on them frame celebrities with normative tropes of childhood, despite those celebrities’ presence on major televised stages. And portrayals of artists as ‘asexual’ are essentially infantilizing moves that characterize them as children more so than the adults or adolescents that they may actually be. Depictions of celebrities’ personal lives similarly present visions of authentic childishness: Miley Cyrus, for instance, released on the Internet a series of apparently impromptu home videos in which she and her ‘girlfriends’—other Disney personalities—appeared without makeup or stage costume, in what were ostensibly girlish sleepovers during which they playfully talked into their computer’s webcam.

The usefulness of this appeal to—and construction of—authenticity is that for many groups marginality can be seen alternately as a site for powerful critique and transformation, or as a space of exclusion and disenfranchisement, and this is the tension that allows children to articulate their powerful public presence precisely as vulnerable, private, childish children. The things about childhood that make it seem unsuitable to public participation are also the things that allow it to be articulated in terms of solidarity and group identity upon entry into the public sphere.

The emergence of tweens as a group that is increasingly able to speak up for itself makes sense as a straightforward example of a “public,” to continue using Warner’s terms (Warner 2002)—that is, a social space created by the reflexive circulation of expressive discourse (here read: entertainment media). Insofar as this expanding tween public is constituted negatively—through explicit opposition to adults in the VMA incidents, through exclusive tropes of authentic childishness, or simply because ‘between’ requires something not itself on either side—it is a counterpublic, which “maintains at some level, conscious or not, an awareness of its subordinate status. The cultural horizon against which it marks itself off is not just a general or wider public, but a dominant one” (Warner 2002:119). Sparks’s and Bieber’s comments positioned themselves as individuals who could legitimately speak for a dispersed group constructed through this spiraling circulation of discourse, and in opposition to representatives of another group, performing on TV for everyone to see the dynamics of exclusion and inclusion that Warner argues are inherent in the constitution of any public, or any counterpublic, for that matter (2002:113).

Cited:

  • Banet-Weiser, Sarah. 2007. Kids Rule! Nickelodeon and Consumer Citizenship. Durham: Duke University Press.
  • Cook, Daniel Thomas, and Susan B. Kaiser. 2004. “Betwixt and be Tween: Age Ambiguity and the Sexualization of the Female Consuming Subject.” Journal of Consumer Culture4 (2): 203–27.
  • Ito, Mizuko. 2007. “Technologies of the Childhood Imagination: Yu-Gi-Oh!, Media Mixes, and Everyday Cultural Production.” In Structures of Participation in Digital Culture, edited by Joe Karaganis, pp. 88–110. New York: Social Science Research Council.
  • McDonough, John. 2004. “It’s ‘Kids First’ Philosophy and ‘Let Kids Be Kids’ Mantra Drive the Mighty Nickelodeon Engine.” Special advertising section of Advertising Age (March 15): N2–N10.
  • Warner, Michael. 1992. “The Mass Public and the Mass Subject.” In Habermas and the Public Sphere, edited by Craig Calhoun, pp. 377–401. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • ———. 2002. Publics and Counterpublics. New York: Zone Books.

Music, cartoons, merchandising, and kids’ television

In The Business of Children’s Entertainment, Norma Pecora describes the business model that led to the dominance of cartoons in children’s TV in the 1980s and 1990s. Starting in the early 1980s with shows like the Smurfs, Carebears, and He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, television production companies increasingly partnered with toy producers in their shows. The main goal of this, Pecora argues, was risk management: if Mattel commits ahead of time to merchandising (and buying advertising for) the characters in your show, there’s a lot less risk in producing new shows for kids. Cartoons make merchandising a lot easier, too. It works better to make a toy, doll, or action figure based on a drawing than on a live-action character. (You avoid some uncanny valley issues, at minimum.) And the specific sorts of cartoons that started to be made—He-Man, G.I. Joe, Thunder Cats, My Little Pony, Care Bears, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Smurfs—had basically unlimited casts of characters. That way, there is no ceiling on the number of toys you could market, and you can build on the “collecting” practices that kids already participated in (baseball cards, Barbies…).

So Pecora points out that in the 1990s, Nickelodeon, which had started out as a non-advertising-based channel that conscientiously avoided some of the more commercial practices of children’s media, including emphasizing live action shows like You Can’t Do That on Television in at the core of its lineups, had shifted much of its programming to cartoons (Ren & Stimpy, Doug, Rug Rats, SpongeBob SquarePants, and quite a few others), because that was the successful model (p. 93ff). The same dynamic is true even for public broadcasting, and by the 1990s kids’ shows on PBS were geared toward marketing opportunities.

But Pecora also points out that cartoons are only appealing to certain groups: boys and younger children (p. 83). (Moderately) older kids express preferences for live-action game shows and dramas, and older kids are definitely an audience that television companies want to attract.

I think this is a major part of the background that explains the explosion of live-action shows with strong music tie-ins in the oughts (especially beginning with Hannah Montana and High School Musical). Tween-aged girls are especially interested in popular music among child age groups, and they prefer live-action shows. That cartoons are not attractive to them was a problem that children’s media professionals were aware of and struggled with.

Music, then, provides a hook for cross-marketing and merchandising of live-action shows. And that’s what happened: the soundtrack to the first season of Hannah Montana was a top-ten selling album in 2006, the tour in 2007 was a big deal that also lead to a popular concert DVD, karaoke decks,
karaoke CDs and karaoke video games, and of course lines of clothing and toys. Disney has always been especially horizontally integrated, and its business model has long involved cross-marketing of its long-running properties (so the Disney Channel always emphasizes Mickey Mouse and other classic Disney characters and franchises). But Cyrus pushed this even further, as “the first artist to have deals with four areas at the Disney Co.: TV, film, consumer products and recording” (Variety)

hm bag
hm wig
hm headsethm mic keychain

And now almost every live-action show on the Disney Channel has a music tie-in, and stars of non-musical shows like Selena Gomez of Wizards of Waverly Place produced music.1 Nickelodeon struggled to catch up, but even in 2007 Drake and Josh’s Drake Bell’s record It’s Only Time sold reasonably, and iCarly’s Miranda Cosgrove eventually started making music, and now even Nick Jr is now specializing in music television for younger-than-tween kids: The Fresh Beat Band is currently selling tickets for its summer tour, and Yo Gabba Gabba! did the same in 2011.2

So why was the Disney Channel right there are the center of this tween music explosion? At least in part because tween music was a way to make merchandising for tween television possible, and Disney had been banging away on that problem for a while. (Hannah Montana was originally conceived as a show about a TV star, not a pop star, building on the success of shows like That’s So Raven and Lizzie McGuire.) But the music format that they stumbled onto with Hannah Montana and High School Musical in 2006–2007 proved to support a very similar sort of merchandizing and cross-marketing that made television for younger kids both profitable and low-risk propositions.

1I can’t not link to this amazing post by Voyou about the surprising anti-perkiness of Gomez’s character Alex on Wizards.

2The success of music programming on Nick Jr seems to complicate my thesis linking the business model of tween music shows with cartoon shows for younger kids. To some extent younger kids’ television, especially more educationally oriented shows, has always been highly musical, so this new emphasis is a natural fit. And there’s a backlash against the product-placement style shows, and it’s possible that these music-based shows, even though they’re still supporting lots of merchandising, manage to sidestep the existing skepticism about a cartoon model that’s been around for 30 years. The Fresh Beat Band website has a banner that says “You’re kids are learning while they watch!”:
fresh beat

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.

Puerile boys and tween girls?

I was excited recently to discover Natalia Cecire’s writings about puerility and boyhood. Working on tween music and media, it is an ongoing question how much tween only means girls. (It clearly does, but to what extent remains open, especially because childhood itself is so often feminized, and to the extent that tween is always first and foremost a marketing category, it’s definitely the case that tween media companies are working hard to bring boys into the mix — e.g.). It’s easy to collapse tween into girlhood, but there’s a risk of the whole analysis becoming limited to gender (which I think can sometimes be true of girlhood studies itself), when age is a really important factor. And there’s definitely something about the development of children’s consumer culture over the last half-century that, while certainly focused on girls, has implications for children more broadly.

So, Cecire doesn’t frame it in these terms, but for me peurility is strikingly useful for thinking about why boys don’t seem to fit very well into the category “tween,” and I think it has a lot to do with why the category is called that in the first place. Be-tween foregrounds the tension between childhood and adolescence that girls of a certain age deal with. As Cook and Kaiser (paywall) point out, that tension is reflected in the actual products produced for tweens — girls’ clothing that tries to strike a balance between aspirations to adolescence and the demand that girls as children not be sexy. That tension is a real thing that many kids and adults experience and think about, and I think that explains why the term “tween” has so successfully moved from being a professional marketing term to enter common usage.

But that betweenness is so intensely focused on sexuality (as, again, Cook and Kaiser detail pretty thoroughly in their analysis of the clothing industry). The problem that tween solves is that girls’ and women’s sexuality is so fraught, which is so clearly on display when tween celebrities like Miley Cyrus or Britney Spears struggle mightily to transition their public image from child to adult — the controversies are always and only about their sexuality. (Seriously, Miley smoking pot got nowhere near the attention that the nude-but-covered Vanity Fair photos did, or the pole-dance at the Teen Choice Awards did.)

So this is only half-baked, and it’s really just a placeholder for thinking more carefully about it in the future, but puerility seems to help boys massage that transition from child to adolescent in a way that girls don’t have access to. When I write about this stuff I usually use Sutton-Smith’s “phantasmagoria” and McGillis’s “Coprophilia”[1] to describe kids’ gross-out humor, bathroom jokes, sexual innuendo, etc. But the better word is “puerile.” For younger kids that stuff is moderately gendered, of course, but girls as well as boys practice and enjoy it.

But something like “propriety” kicks in at some point for teenage girls, as part, I think, of the demands that they police their sexuality (that’s what propriety means, right?), and propriety clearly excludes all that gross-out humor and stuff. All that stuff never leaves boys’ culture though! Comedies like the Hangover, or Wedding Crashers, that teenage boys and young men flock to in theaters, are full of the same sorts of silly, gross, ridiculous humor as boys’ cartoons. (I have not read it yet, but I suspect that Halberstam on Dude Where’s My Car would be compatible with this — again, lots of placeholders.) One of the criticisms leveled at Bridesmaids was that the puerile humor of diarrhea and sandwich sex was masculine, so rather than finally having a comedy written by, starring and for women audiences, you get the same old puerile non-romcom humor that movie comedies always have. (The link is to the Spectator because its anti-feminist perspective is exactly the one that’s relevant here.)

But what’s more, precisely because the gross-out humor of puerility is so concerned with genitals, puerility ends up being this thing that (straight) boys can embed their sexuality in. So while girls are supposed to be asexual children and then, all of a sudden, sexual but proper women, with any grey area being grounds for huge freakouts and moral panic, boys get to work in the comfortable field of puerility for their whole lives. Puerility seems to provide a sort of scaffold for boys, from childhood to adulthood, where they can build on what they already know. And that means, I think, that there are fewer moments when they or their parents find themselves thinking about being “between” anything, which means that there’s less utility in media and consumer products that are addressing the particular desires of “tweens.”

Unlike Sutton-Smith’s phantasmagoria, which I’ve been using, puerility, at least to my ear, really highlights the tropes that are shared between boys’ culture and men’s culture. And because puerility is something that’s easy to recognize in men’s culture, it highlights the ways that men are freed to be childish.

Clearly, this is far from perfect. Cuteness is this interesting growing theme in public culture, which suggests an increasing availabity of girlishness for grown women. But I think the thing about puerility is that it doesn’t preempt sexuality, whereas girlishness might. (The magic pixie dream girl, for instance, is an object of male desire but isn’t supposed to express her own sexual desires, right?) And then, of course, tropes of girlishness get smacked down quickly, because, as the Jezebel piece points out, maturity matters for women precisely as defense against criticisms from men.

[1] McGillis, Roderick. 2003. “Coprophilia for Kids: The Culture of Grossness.” In Youth Cultures: Texts, Images, and Identities, edited by Kerry Mallan and Sharyn Pearce, pp. 183–96. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Retreat to the private sphere

Following up on the Sherry Turkle post below, Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow has a good review of Elisabeth Badinter’s The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women at the Boston Review (via @danagoldstein):

This single-minded focus on children’s health and flourishing leaves little room to think about the bigger picture. In a 1980 journal article, social critic Robert Crawford used the term “healthism” to refer to a new preoccupation of the middle class with personal health and wholesome lifestyles. He also drew a connection between healthism and political disengagement. A sense of impotence—“I can’t change the world, but at least I can change myself,” as Crawford put it—fed the mania for vitamins, exercise, herbal supplements. And in turn, as people poured more energy into their own health, they had less time and inclination to invest in civic or political involvement. Since 1980 this outlook does not seem to have abated, to say the least, and for parents it applies doubly to their children. In shaping contemporary parenthood, this retreat to the private sphere has been at least as important as a retreat to nature.

Maybe it’s unfair to say that the failure of Turkle’s account of technology is that she doesn’t read and think about breastfeeding and parenting more, since it’s a book about technology. But her concerns are all grounded in this idea that there are some fundamental knowable values, but when you push on them she seems to just be lapsing into a very familiar sort of moralizing about the family.

Sherry Turkle’s reproductive futurism

I know Sherry Turkle has plenty of critics, so maybe this is piling on. But I want to make a particular point from the perspective of childhood studies, to note how so much of Turkle’s expressed concerns are focused on parents and childrearing. Especially in her public presentations about the book, the central emotional concern she seems to expect her audience to take away is that children are being harmed. (Others do a better job than I can critiquing Turkle’s “digital dualism” problem, like when she describes “bailing out from the physical world” in the TEDx talk below, as though that were something that might be possible.)

So, for instance, in this TEDxUIUC talk from a year ago, Turkle’s examples are of parents pushing kids on the swing while texting, kids sleeping with their phones, or, in what I think is a really telling example of her style, she says (at 3:13):

Children describe that moment at school pickup, they’ll never tell you that they care, but they describe that moment where they come out of school looking for that moment of eye contact, and instead of that moment of eye contact with a parent, who after all, has shown up at school pickup, that parent is looking at the iPhone, looking at the smartphone, and is reading mail. So from the moment this generation of children met technology, it was the competition.

There’s this affective resonance here, for an audience who’s caught up in a series of stories about how the minute, everyday aspects of our lives are actually full of emotional power, and that emotional power depends heavily on the preexisting intensity of the trope of concern for children. That is, once we start talking about children, we allow ourselves — we enjoy, even — this immersion in sentiment that seems wholly commendable (how can concern for children be something to question?)

But I think Turkle use of this rhetorical approach really asks her audience to suspend their critical faculties as she goes through this list of concerning moments. Because, really? A parent reading while waiting to pick their kid up after school is creating some sort of notable emotional distance or disappointment? What if you substituted a paperback novel for the iPhone in this story? Turkle’s concern is explicitly about attention, and in situations like this a book would clearly be creating precisely the same interactional dynamic as an iPhone — i.e., preventing the parent from giving 100% attention to the possibility of their child’s appearance at the school door.

And thinking about books, I think it makes sense, here, to draw a connection to Janice Radway’s classic article about women and romance novels. In that piece, Radway talks about housewives using romance novels as a form of escape from their domestic lives. Radway describes immersive reading as being very much about transcending the physical space within the walls of a family home to enjoy a fantasy life, really, a way to “bail out from physical reality.” So if one of the 1970s midwestern stay at home mothers in Radway’s study were to drive to pick her kids up at school, and sat with her book while she waited, at least from Radway’s account, she wouldn’t just be managing boredon, she’d be actively avoiding her duties as a parent — duties which in very many cases are not, it can’t be stressed enough, always fulfilling or happy.

But in that situation, we’d never think to blame the technology of the book for preventing women from being good mothers. (On second thought this is probably only true for a narrow sense of “we,” but I expect Turkle would be part of that “we.) Instead, we have feminist tools for criticizing the situation that puts mothers in a position of needing to escape an oppressive and unfulfilling family life, and we have additional theoretical tools for thinking about how even such private, escapist reading might be a tool for building connections and community that really do counterbalance the failures of family life (Warner’s chapter on “Public and Private,” especially the discussion of the Beechers, really resonates with Radway, I think). And if someone were to argue that the problem is those darn mass market paperbacks, well, it would be hard to see that as anything other than a cynical attempt to change the subject, and to comfort the comfortable.

So, since we already have a good understanding of how exactly this dynamic of media-vs-parental-attention has played out in another context, it’s really on Turkle to argue that the issues are different (that they’re not about gender roles, about ideologies of parenting and the family, about time and money and work, etc.). Why, for instance, doesn’t Turkle ever cite Arlie Hochschild, who actually has a substantive political and sociological story about how the attention of family members is increasingly directed away from one another? And Hochschild’s story accounts for the same issues but goes back decades, so where’s Turkle get the idea that phones are too blame?

Another favorite example, from an interview Turkle did for the American Psychological Association:

One gender element that did become apparent is that mothers are now breastfeeding and bottle-feeding their babies as they text. Of course, in feeding an infant, so much more is going on than giving nutrition to a baby. There is the emotional exchange on the most primitive level, the feeling of gratifying someone and being gratified in return. A mother made tense by text messages is going to be experienced as tense by the child. And that child is vulnerable to interpreting that tension as coming from within the relationship with the mother. This is something that needs to be watched very closely. It reminds me of something that has occurred to me often as I have done this research: Technology can make us forget important things we know about life.

So again, in remarks for a popular, educated audience, Turkle turns to concerns about failures of intimacy in families. A while back Kieth Humphreys at the blog Reality Based Community posted [updated below] a link to this interview, with the quick aside that “some moms are texting while breastfeeding instead of focusing on their infant (which many mothers tell me was one of the most intimate experiences of their lives).” I and one other commenter noted that breastfeeding, while certainly intimate, can be a very tedious and time-consuming experience as well. Humphreys’s response (link doesn’t go to a comment because this whole exchange was deleted; see update) to me was “As a parent I like to know about research findings that are relevant to children’s well being, if you don’t that’s up to you of course, but this is the reality-based community … we discuss scientific findings here whether they make people feel good about themselves or not (the climate is changing too, BTW).” What’s notable is that Turkle’s comments don’t actually reflect “scientific findings” — in fact, breastfeeding doesn even appear in Alone Together, except in a discussion of robots. So, as with her TEDx talk, Turkle appeals to this concern and sense of emotional primitiveness that her audience is going to be primed for that exists around children and parenting, and she uses that to get educated audiences to suspend their critical thinking, and instead to project disapproval towards some other group of people (namely parents, which means, really, toward mothers). I single out Humphreys because I don’t want to overgeneralize about audiences, but his response is a clear example of my point: he compares my suggestion that these scholarly discourses might have an ill effect on mothers to climate denialism while using the word “science” to describe Turkle’s off-hand comments to an interviewer for a popular publication, always keeping “the well-being of children” at the forefront, as though we’re sure we know what that is and as though that trumps anyone else’s well-being.

It really seems like Turkle and Humphreys (himself a psychiatrist), seem to think that for every moment they are breastfeeding, mothers should be focusing all of their attention on this “primitive” emotional exchange, having some sort of transcendent euphoria for several hours of each day. What I find just impossible to understand is that Turkle doesn’t see right off that the expectation of having an emotionally primitive connection during every instance of breastfeeding would itself create the sort of “tension” that she worries receiving a text might create — especially because she simply worries that the tension elicited by a text message might be understood by the child as being about the child’s relationship with the mother, when the tension caused by excessive pressure not just to breastfeed (for possibly overstated health reasons), but also to have an emotional connection at the most primitive level with the child (who may just be hungry and not interested in cuddles or whatever) … that tension is bound to be interpreted as about the child, because it is about the child.

So, mothers are under extraordinary pressure to be perfect, and mothers of infants, especially, are given this impossible task of shifting happily from the particular and often exhausting work of pregnancy, to the particular and often exhausting and often alienating work of giving birth, to the particular and often exhausting and often incredibly isolating work of caring for their child. And now they’re not supposed to text their friends or family?? It’s a very similar issue with waiting for your kid at school: are parents really supposed to spend several minutes every afternoon staring at a school entrance just to make sure that the very moment their child appears there they will make eye contact and provide their child with that little nugget of emotional connection? How does Turkle’s example make sense if that’s not her prescription? From where does Turkle claim the authority to conscript what seems like the entirety of parents attention and internal lives to the emotional management of their children? Is Turkle’s goal for mothers of infants to be alone in the home with their child, cut off from the world? From her comments, the only situation that wouldn’t be concerning would seems to be a return to the world of bored housewives cut off from connection or fulfillment that Betty Friedan described. Of course she’d protest that characterization, but the direct implication of her arguments about technology distracting parents is that parents’ attention is the rightful claim of the family, regardless of the consequences for their own well-being (again, this means ipso facto that women’s lives are the rightful claim of the family). But for parents and their children, women using media (in the form of smartphones) to communicate with friends and family while they’re caring for their young children simply must be a better thing than women using media (in the form of romance novels) to escape the isolation that a particular social configuration of mothering forces on them.

At minimum, Turkle’s playing really fast and lose with childhood as a social figure that is uniquely available for affective moralizing. What this is is reproductive futurism, which in the end is a lot more about disciplining adults than it ever is about caring for dependents. The irony here is that Turkle’s earlier work held out the promise that computers might accommodate play and experimentation with non-traditional, non-normative identities and now, when she returns having changed her mind in light of new developments, her objection is not that such promise is unfulfilled, but rather that computers are disrupting traditional, heteronormative sexual and gender identities, by giving parents (mothers) connections to a world beyond the home and childcare. And that’s the problem with making arguments about technology instead of making arguments about people.

Update: Looks like a little while after this post went live the comments containing my exchange with Humphreys were all deleted, along with comments of third parties weighing in, as though to pretend the exchange never took place. That’s really unfortunate, in my view, but most of the exchange is up here and here. These comments are out of the Google Cache already, but as evidence that my comments are actually being deleted, here’s a screenshot of a more recent comment that is also missing.

“Tween Music Industry” article for Popular Music

My article about the current state of children’s music, “The New ‘Tween’ Music Industry: The Disney Channel, Kidz Bop, and an Emerging Childhood Counterpublic,” was recently accepted in Popular Music, published by Cambridge University Press, where it will appear in revised form. A PDF is here. Here’s the abstract:

This article examines the expansion of the U.S. children’s music industry in the last decade. It considers the sanitizing of Top 40 pop for child audiences in the Kidz Bop compilations, the entrance of Disney into the popular music market, and the meteoric rise of “tween” music products such as High School Musical, Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus, the Jonas Brothers, and Justin Bieber. Children increasingly consume mainstream musical products and, in the converse dynamic, children’s artists themselves play an increasingly prominent role in popular culture. In many ways they have taken the lead both in commercial success and in stylistic innovations. Examining public expressions of age-based solidarity among celebrity musicians associated with children, this article argues that children’s music is increasingly articulated through tropes of identity politics, representing the emergence of a childhood counterpublic.

Presentation at AAA 2011

I’ll be presenting a paper in Montreal at the meeting of the American Anthropological Association, called “Intimacy and Inarticulateness: Entertainment Versus Literacy in Constructions of Age-Based Identities at a Vermont Primary School.” It’s on an exciting panel about age identities, language ideology, and language socialization, organized by Elise Berman (I don’t think this link will last very long). My paper’s abstract:

This paper argues that age-based identities in US schools are constructed through a contrast between classroom-based literacy practices and communicative repertoires linked to entertainment media, building on extensive ethnographic research about popular music consumption and media use among schoolchildren at a small primary school in rural Vermont. “Literacy” is often seen as the dominant language ideology in school, emphasizing decontextualized, monologic, and non-indexical modes of communication in essayist writing and Interaction-Response-Evaluation classroom interactions. This paper argues that entertainment media, by affording repertoires for communication that strongly contrast with literacy education, occupy a privileged position in constructions of childhood and adult identities in school. When schoolchildren listen with friends to music on portable devices, they go out of their way not to talk about music in descriptive or denotative modes, and instead they creatively explore the possibilities for intimate, embodied, and indexical interactions that arise in social contexts involving media: practices such as sharing headphones with friends that emphasize communicative layering, physical contact, and bodily coordination, and devalue descriptive language. Theorizing such practices using Ray McDermott’s account of the oppositional power embedded in “inarticulateness”—while emphasizing the intimacy and solidarity among children that inarticulateness makes possible—this paper argues that children actively politicize the communicative ecology of school as a site for articulating age difference, setting media consumption and indexical communication in opposition to decontextualized classroom communication, connecting the one to childhood solidarity, and the other to bureaucratic, institutional, and ultimately adult identities.