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Childhood Music and the Shaping of Identity

Updated: Jun 11, 2023

This is a guest post by Beth Cook, a writer living in Portland, OR. Listen to our conversation on Zeitgeist Radio HERE.


I’ve been spending a lot of time lately thinking about rediscovering old media you loved as a kid, and that moment of either "Oh hey, this is still great!" or "Oh, this is actually terrible.” To steal a quote from You’ve Got Mail, “When you read a book as a child, it becomes a part of your identity in a way that no other reading in your whole life does.” The same is equally true of movies, TV, and of course music. The media we consume as kids helps us figure out who we are and helps shape who we become.


When I thought about the songs I loved as a kid that maybe weren’t so great after all, I remembered a song about Barbie on floppy blue 33 record that came with the California Dream Barbie:


(image from Toy Sisters)


I found the song on YouTube, and it turns out it’s called “Living Doll,” by none other than the Beach Boys. Once I heard it again, I just had to transcribe the lyrics so that you can come along on this journey with me:


Hey Barbie (Barbie)

Oh Barbie (yeah yeah)

You’re my California dream (‘fornia dream)

Oh Barbie (Barbie)

Hey Barbie (yeah yeah)

You are yummy like ice cream (like ice cream)


That same old feelin’

That gets the heart to reelin’

You’re so charmin’

You’re crazy and disarmin’

Oh Barbie

Barbie, you living doll


Hey Barbie (Barbie)

Hey Barbie (yeah yeah)

Your new clothes are so trendy

Barbie girl (Barbie)

Barbie girl (yeah yeah)

Your smile is so friendly


The sun is shining’ bright

Come time your skates on tight

Let’s cruise on down the beach

Buy a California peach

Oh Barbie

Barbie, you living doll


Our friends splash in the surf

The whole beach is our turf

Fun-filled days

And fun-filled nights

We just wanna keep on playin’

We just wanna keep on playin’


Hey Barbie (Barbie)

Oh Barbie (yeah yeah)

Summer days are here to stay

Come see why (why)

You and I (yeah yeah)

Can hang out and play all day


Mornin’, noon, and night

The sun is [“kinda”?] bright

You’re my shining light

California delight

Barbie

Barbie, you living doll


Now don’t get me wrong, the Beach Boys write legit bops with gorgeous harmonies, and I will sing along to any of their top hits any day of the week. The chorus of “Sloop John B” is especially appropriate for my “Work: Upbeat” playlist when I’m unpacking twenty totes in a cramped supply room.


But this is not the Beach Boys’ finest hour. Part of what irks me about this song as an adult is the way the meter forces them to put the emPHAsis on the wrong sylLABle: barBIE, ice CREAM, trenDY, friendLY, and then the absolutely unnecessary switch to DElight. And honestly, I quite visibly cringed when I had to listen to and then type out “You are yummy like ice cream.”


I can only offer an apology to my family and hope that the soundtrack to the new Barbie movie is as great as it deserves.


The other music possibly terrible music I wanted to look up was the album Dinosaur Rock:

(image from Amazon)


I won’t subject you to a transcription of the whole album, I’ll just summarize that with the wisdom of adulthood comes the understanding that the premise of this album is absolutely bonkers: two kids encounter a retired paleontologist on the beach who draws various dinosaurs in the sand, kisses a fossil from that dinosaur, puts the fossil in the drawing, dances a special jig, yodels a special tune, and thus brings singing dinosaurs to life—but only temporarily until the tide washes away the drawings.


For best song on the album, I think it’s a tie between the eponymous “Dinosaur Rock,” which is the most informative by giving actual information on the process of fossilization, and “The Hadrosaur From Hackensack,” which is catchy enough to be the only one I clearly remembered from 30-some years ago.


“We All Came From the Sea”—through no fault of the songwriters, who are conveying real info about evolution—gets the award for worst song. The two child actors sing for the first time, and they are… not skilled. It’s the last song on the album, and I rarely listened all the way through to the end of the tape because of that.


I think what I loved about this album as a kid wasn’t just the admittedly catchy songs (some better than others, of course) but the fact that it was a story album. True, the story is the weirdest part of it, but I think it made the whole thing stick in my brain more than if it had just been a series of unconnected songs like most other albums. Perhaps this foreshadowed my becoming a storyteller.


Maybe what makes any children’s music “bad” is the forced repetition, parents and teachers having to listen to it over and over again against their will. Ask any retail employee during the Christmas season—being forced to listen to anything over and over against your will can sour you on it for a lifetime.


The good news is that, given time and an unexpected twist, this process can be reversed. Even the tune of “Baby Shark” becomes bearable again when the fans are singing “Jamie Tart” on Ted Lasso. I noticed this phenomenon when I found myself adding boy band songs to my “90s/Aughts Nostalgia” playlist.



My middle school BFF and I used to parody every dang song we could, but especially boy bands. The Backstreet Boys and N*Sync had taken our peers by storm, leaving the two of us feeling like comically buffeted weather reporters in a hurricane.


“I Want It to Go Away,” “(God Must Have Wasted) A Little More Time,” “Show Me the Meaning of Singing Badly,” “Tearin’ Up My Butt,”—you know, peak middle school humor—and of course “Bi Bi Bi” (our version was pathetic compared to @subradioband’s). The irony here is that both of us were baby bisexuals, she mostly closeted and slightly clueless, myself entirely clueless.


We were also both ace-spectrum babies who didn’t yet have the language of asexuality to describe our feelings and experiences, with vastly less experience and/or interest in dating than our peers. I’m convinced this is part of why we clung to childhood and each other like battered umbrellas, trying to stave off the storm of growing up.


Excerpts from a recent chat between me [B1] and my middle school BFF [B2]:


B1: I’m musing on how the clarity of adulthood (hating popular things just because they’re popular isn’t counterculture and doesn’t make you better than everyone else) plus the dopamine hit of nostalgia can make people like songs as adults that they hated as adolescents

B2: It’s because we’re allowing ourselves to re-experience them genuinely as opposed to artificial bias

Maybe we still wouldn’t like them but we don’t feel pressured

B1: Exactly

How did our “People Are Strange” + Animorphs references go?

something something “when you’re a Yeerk”

B2: Sadly I don’t recall that one

But I think about our Bi Bi Bi fairly often

B1: Right? The damn foreshadowing

B2: And I marvel at how solidly we equated bisexuality to infidelity

B1: Oh damn yeah I forgot that. Man, the 90s and aughts really loved their ‘bisexual = slut’ thing, didn’t they?

B2: A bisexual girl is a girl who is willing to make out with another girl in front of your boy eyes and for your benefit

It was Big Fun! coming out as bi in like 2004

B1: You know what I just realized? With society’s impressions of bisexual and asexual back then, with the media we had available to us, I don’t think there’s any way we *could have* realized we were BOTH bisexual and asexual. They would’ve seemed inherently contradictory.


Through analyzing the media available to us in our core identity-development years, we’ve been able to come to a greater understanding of how it shaped us, how we understood ourselves, and how we understood our place in the world.


B2: It occurred to me that putting alt rock from my teenager years on the radio is making my kids listen to old folk music, which is what MY mom listened to

And that the way Blink182 sounds to us, sounds the way that some random hippie band did to them

With that in mind, please enjoy this video of C. loudly singing Jimmy Eat World

B1: THIS IS THE MOST PRECIOUS *@#&%^$ THING

B2: I was so proud

B1: We are our parents, and Blink182 are… well I was about to say the Beatles but no one was the Beatles

B2: Ha I love me some Blink but they weren’t no Beatles no

Heh. That little snicker Paul does in Maxwell’s Silver Hammer when he sings “maxwell waits behind” and John moons him

And they used that take and that’s beautiful

B1: I DIDN’T KNOW THAT STORY

%^&* that’s perfect

B2: Oh yeah

Because behind

These were songwriting visionaries

B1: Damn

So when we rewrote the theme song to the Animorphs show to be one long string of toilet humor, we were honoring the legacy of the Beatles

B2: The Beatles were men in their early 20s and almost every man I knew in our 20s thought that humor was hilarious


So even though we didn’t know it at the time, the way we engaged with the music we loved (and hated) was actually a legitimate source of creativity, another tool in our respective toolkits for figuring out who we’d become.


What makes children’s music good? I think the best examples occur when it’s universal. It’s art. It’s getting to listen to my friend and Fraggle Talk cohost Adam nerd out about the chord progressions in Mr. Rogers’ “It’s You I Like.” It’s Sesame Street parodying contemporary popular songs as a nod to the parents watching along. It’s norm-subverting ear worms like “I Love Trash.” It’s timeless sentiments like “I Don’t Want to Live on the Moon” and “Bein’ Green.”


And yeah, we could debate all day about what makes children’s music good or bad, but then we’d just go down the rabbit hole of what even IS children’s music. While we Muppet nerds might get pedantic about the soundtrack to the new Muppets Mayhem sitcom being on Billboard’s “Kid Albums” chart (The Muppet Show was always family entertainment, thankyouverymuch), the fact that it hit #1 on said chart makes us pretty darn happy.


(vinyl album cover art; image from Muppet Wiki)


In my adult life, very little is more exciting, more nourishing, or more meaningful than finding and building community. The more I’ve embraced the weirdo I am, the more I’ve found the people who dig that and want to hang out and be weirdos together. Finding a community of fellow Muppet nerds and joining the writing staff of ToughPigs has been (and continues to be) a wild ride. I found all these other people jamming on the same wavelength. We’ve always known Muppet music is (usually) great, even when the rest of the world forgets, scoffs, or jeers.


So my advice to anyone is: dig back into the half-remembered media from your childhood. Re-listen to the music you thought you hated when you were twelve. Whether it stands the test of time, surprises and delights you, or makes you cringe, it’s part of why you’re you, and for that alone it deserves to be recognized.




Beth a writer living in Portland, Oregon. Listen to our conversation on Zeitgeist Radio HERE.


Follow Beth:


ToughPigs articles: https://toughpigs.com/author/beth/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/bethannacook

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/bethannacook/

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