Spinning the Child: How records made for children construct childhood

In the sleeve notes to one of his two albums for children, Woody Guthrie wrote “Any fool can make something complicated. It takes a genius to make it simple.” As I discovered from my now-completed PhD on the topic of records made for children, Woody’s songs were often far from simple, yet his words have proved helpful whilst I was finishing up my thesis.

After working on it for eight years part-time against a full-time teaching job, huge quantities of writing happened in the last eight weeks (more like eight days). It took me at least two years to scope out the parameters of the work. I knew I wanted to do something about children’s music yet the field is so under represented that I struggled for a long time to frame the thesis. I knew that I didn’t have the time in my life to do ethnographic work on children’s reception of music, or much time for travelling, or conducting many interviews. So I ended up looking closely at the text and context of the children’s music that I remembered from my own childhood (The Muppet Show, Sesame Street, the Saturday morning radio show Children’s Choice, later called Junior Choice), areas that I wanted to know more about (the children’s music of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Lead Belly, the influence of Music Hall on children’s music), and case studies that seemed to choose themselves through sheer perverse appeal, the voice of Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus, Vocaloids and Babymetal being good examples. Many thanks to my supervisor Freya Jarman for encouraging and inspiring me to apply issues of gender and sexuality to my study.

Looking back, the material I wrote in those last few weeks was among my strongest. I had to work fast. Full of adrenaline, the chapters seemed to flow. At last I felt confident that I knew what I was talking about. By that time, I had internalised what I had learned from the huge amounts I’d read on children’s literature, children’s television and film. I had mastered the slippery notions of childhood and childness, of discourse analysis, implied readership and critical theory. I’d overcome most (but not all) of the insecurity I felt about looking at something that many scholars (and lay people) might consider trivial. Full of adrenaline, it got written. I took it to the wire. The man who does the printing in my college was literally standing over me as I was trying to format the contents page saying ‘I’m off for lunch in a minute. If you don’t send it now, you’ve blown it’.

By the time I had my viva a few weeks later, I felt ready for the constructive dialogue it turned out to be. I knew my stuff, was prepared to argue for the inclusion of various methods and sections, took a few criticisms on the chin, and came away with just spelling and grammar tweaks (how did they get in there?!). Thanks to Sara Cohen for her support through this process.

Overall, the PhD has been cathartic and therapeutic giving me a chance to revisit the large part of me that got stuck in childhood.

In quick succession, I have presented a paper on the relative educational philosophies of the music of The Muppet Show and Sesame Street at the IASPM conference in Brighton (Sept 2016), spoken at the Challenging Media Landscapes conference in MediaCity, Salford (Nov 2016) on the subject of Vocaloids (virtual projected pop stars, almost always represented as manga-style children), had my paper on Woody Guthrie's children's music published (Dec 2016), and co-authored a paper on British biopic movies, based on my work as the music coach on the Joy Division film Control and interviews with cast members and producers.

I’m now committed to making research and academic pursuits at least part of my career. I’ve vowed to give up the day job this year and commit to the reading, thinking and writing that are at present just a glorified hobby. My weekend job as a children's music songwriter and performer should see me through.