Sep 26, 2010

What's Wrong (And Right) With Sesame Street's New Music Videos

Today we have a very exciting article for you, Muppet fans! It was written by the one and only Steve Swanson, host of The MuppetCast and it discusses the good, the bad, and the booby of Sesame Street's new music videos.
NOTE: This article was written before Sesame Street removed Katy Perry's song with Elmo from Season 41--but fret not, it still works just as well.
Remember that Sesame Street's 41st season starts tomorrow, September 27th on PBS
 
WHAT'S WRONG (AND RIGHT) WITH SESAME STREET'S NEW MUSIC VIDEOS

Steve Swanson - Many of us have probably wound up watching Sesame Street far beyond the years anybody thought we would. If not religiously, we still tune in at least every now and then. And as probably everyone reading this blog knows, Sesame is set to debut their new season tomorrow, Monday, September 27. As has been the case in previous years, the folks at Sesame Workshop just can't contain their excitement about all the new stuff they've created for the show, and they've released some of it to the web for fans to enjoy ahead of time. That's one of the reasons I like those folks; they all seem to be endlessly creative and passionate about the content they create that, for over forty years, has been educating and entertaining like nobody else.

Along with the Muppets themselves, I've been a longtime fan of Sesame Street music. There's something there, some magic ingredient, that sets it apart from almost all other children's music. Why has "I Love Trash" and "C is for Cookie" stuck with us for decades, when songs from other children's shows--such as 321 Contact or even The Electric Company--simply haven't? There is an inherent specialness that's hard to duplicate. Even when mainstream musicians make appearances on the show, their work takes on a new quality and in some cases lives on well into future popularity (case in point: R.E.M. with "Furry Happy Monsters").

But for a great number of fans, Sesame's musical hayday lies in its past. Recent years brought the inevitable shift from using real human musicians to largely synthetic music, and changing the overall style to more hip-hop and imitating other modern genres. And while some were very vocal in stating that something uniquely "Sesame" is now gone from the show's soundtrack, famous singers and musicians of all types still flock to the Street to lend their superb talents. Just two such individuals in the new Season 41 include singer Katy Perry and rapper Will.i.am.

I have little problem telling you I'm one of those folks who appreciate "classic" Sesame Street material over the new stuff. In fact, it kind of helps my story here. There are people who enjoy the newer Sesame Street music far more than I do. There are exceptions--I loved Feist's re-working of "1,2,3,4"-- but they are few. So when I saw The Muppet Mindset's link to a new Sesame tune sung by a rapper and co-founder of the Black Eyed Peas, I was... well "skeptical" is an understatement. But I dutifully clicked the link, and was absolutely delighted with what I saw and heard. It was a bright, cheery, incredibly fun and unbelievably catchy song! And simple; I couldn't believe how effective Will.i.am dancing and singing with a half-dozen of the main Muppets, in various combinations, in front of a plain white background really was. I'm singing the song in my head right now, just thinking about it! It's already my favorite thing from the new season. Too bad it only lasts a minute and a half.

I had my preconcieved notions, I was proven wrong, and as so often happens I learned something new and was truly glad for the experience.

Couple that with Katy Perry's newly-released Sesame video. I saw the links appear for this one while I was at work one afternoon, and couldn't wait to get home to watch it. I was still on my high from Will.i.am's "What I Am," and although I know nothing about Katy Perry except, well, her cherry chapstick, I thought if this was anything like my "What I Am" surprise, I was in for a treat.

I have to pause here and say that, prior to these experiences, I had never heard anything at all by Will.i.am or Katy Perry. So I need to ask you an honest question: is it weird that I don't know who these people are? I take pride in being blissfully unaware of pop culture and the "celebrity" landscape. Heck, I barely know who Ryan Seacrest is. Is that odd?  Anyway...

So I get home and eagerly click the link to watch Katy Perry's rendition of "Hot and Cold." And something strange happened. In one of those mind-flashing moments, I remembered back to my pre-"What I Am" mental state, expecting to be nonplussed or even put off and winding up being a rabid fan of the song. And then I compared that to my current "Hot and Cold" mindset-- that of eagerly anticipating watching the video, and then seconds into it, sinking into disappointment. Which eventually became appalled disbelief. I wound up turning it off.

Why am I writing this much about two little Sesame Street videos? Because these two specific examples demonstrate what's right--and still wrong--with some of the decision making regarding the show's content. I vehemently disliked the Katy Perry piece, and I wanted to be able to articulate specifically why it was so bad a fit for Sesame Street.

It's a little odd that Will.i.am's song, so simply put together and executed, could be so powerful and positive, while Katy Perry's video seemed to have so many components to it, and most of them were awful.

Let's start with her wardrobe. This is a simple one: overt cleavage is not appropriate for preschoolers. In any way. Do I need to repeat that? This went beyond distasteful; rather than simply cleavage, I saw much more of her upper anatomy than I ever want to see (on Sesame Street). Really, Sesame wardrobe people? That dress got signoff? I know you're better than that.

The song was refitted with lyrics for the Sesame audience, and that's how it usually goes with these things. It's her song "Hot and Cold," which I think I've heard in passing once or twice. While I couldn't understand what she was singing most of the time, it seemed good enough. But the song wasn't the guilty party here, it was everything around the song. The premise of this piece was that Elmo had told Katy they were going to play dress-up, and when Katy showed up in her dress-up costume (which Elmo would have had much more to say about had they been on Jay Leno or Jimmy Kimmel), Elmo decides he doesn't want to play anymore and takes off running. So Katy runs after him, chasing him every which way, all the while lamenting and singing how she always wants to play with him while he remains aloof.

The whole thing had nothing educational to offer--it hardly included a Sesame Street character. It was barely a Sesame-worthy piece; Elmo only seemed to be onscreen as an excuse to put this on the show. Almost every time you saw Elmo, he was secondary to Perry. This was unquestionably all about her, and it demonstrates exactly what I despise about many Sesame celeb appearances: it was an excuse for Katy Perry to appear on Sesame Street to get her hit song out there, and further expose promote herself.

Will.i.am didn't need a storyline behind his video. He didn't even need a background! With a good song, effective use of characters, appealing visuals, and a positive, self-affirming message, he did more in two minutes than Katy Perry, with all of her flashy, vapid, over-produced music and video, did in what felt like 20 minutes (but was probably more like four).

To the writers and producers of the show: you know we love you guys! We've stuck with you for over forty years, and by and large it's been great seeing the show evolve and serve the needs of today's youngsters. But when you're deciding on which high-profile people on invite on the set, please, please don't feel the need to stick celebrities in there just because they're the "it" thing today. Sometimes that's a good idea because they add something truly special to the show, something that stems from their natural talents and (in Will.i.am's case) gives something wonderful and invaluable to your audience. But with some individuals, as with Perry, you can get something empty, self-promoting, and at its worst, inappropriate for your audience.

As a quick sidenote, I was in for a third surprise when I watched Elmo and Rev. Run sing "Hop This Way" (a parody of Aerosmith's "Walk This Way"). I loved it! Cute, fun, and accessible to both kids and their parents.



Steve Swanson is the host of The MuppetCast, the only podcast dedicated to the work of Jim Henson and the Muppets. Every Sunday, The MuppetCast presents Muppet news, information, and entertainment completely free to fans worldwide. Subscribe in iTunes or at http://muppetcast.com.











The Muppet Mindset by Ryan Dosier

6 comments:

  1. I think I'm the only one who gets what the "Hot and Cold" song is supposed to teach. It's about opposites (He's UP, He's DOWN, He's IN, He's OUT). The music is a little louder than the vocals, so it's kinda hard to hear after the first chorus.

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  2. If there was some sexualisation going on in this song I would object, but there isn't. Her breasts weren't sexualised. Elmo didn't greet her with an innuendo laden "Hey Katy, nice knockers!". They weren't pushed up or unnatural looking. To say that natural cleavage is inappropriate for preschoolers is absolute madness. It teaches the lesson that breasts are mysterious and forbidden and it allows little boys to grow into young men who happily objectify breasts and women, and little girls to grow up ashamed of their own developing bodies. I have two daughters and I'd much sooner let them watch the Katy Perry piece than let them read this article.

    I agree that it's unfortunate to see Sesame Street using celebs in a shallow promotional way, and while I understand that they need to attract viewers they could do a better job integrating the celebs with the educational aims.

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  3. This songs and coments make ME (Sparkle) want to get a dress like Katy's and glasses like williams.

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  4. I have to agree those two apperances show both sides of the spectrum.

    Maybe they'll air something classic instead of the Perry song since it's now dropped (well, one can hope).

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  5. Also, don't forget the variety Sesame covers. All the segments have their different styles. Some can be big production numbers while others can be simple ones.

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