Some people like to play children’s music for their toddlers. That’s fine, but it’s not me. Don’t get me wrong, my daughter loves Raffi’s “Banana Phone” and all the absurd versions of “The Wheels on the Bus,” but I draw the line at kid’s music that actually sucks (specifically any iteration of the sonic vomit that is Baby Shark). Some of my dad friends ask me how I avoid shitty kids’ music and I explain that I take more or less the same approach to kids music as I do to intravenous drugs. I don’t introduce my kid to junk. The side effect of this, naturally, is that there’s a small, shark-shaped sonic hole in my child’s life. She has opted to fill it with The Rolling Stones.
Despite her perpetually sticky fingers, this shocked me at first. But it makes sense. The juvenile angst of The Rolling Stones really resonates with toddlers. Listen carefully and you discover that a huge chunk of the Stones oeuvre scans as kids’ music.
The Rolling Stones were always stuck in their terrible twos, the place my daughter currently resides. And when I bought a used copy of the Stones 1966 compilation album Big Hits (High Tide and Green Grass), I saw my daughter’s personality not so much change as emerge. It was like the me-me-me-me-ness of toddlerhood had been validated by the self-centered bravado Mick Jagger. At this point, in my house, we’ve traded “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” for the Stones anthem “Get Off My Cloud.” Let me tell you, you have not lived until you’ve heard a 23-month-old, say, earnestly, to one of her stuffed animals, “Hey- Hey, You-You, get off my CWOUUDD!”
Gets me every time.
Everyone knows that little kids at this age are creepy little parrots, repeating anything they hear, and internalizing whatever that stuff is as part of their little baby credos. So, on the one hand, my daughter’s interests in “adult” rock and pop music might be a product of regular little kid behavior; she soaks up what is available, and what’s available is mostly rock and roll. But there’s something deeper. I’ve come to believe that the Stones had a unique perspective that speaks perfectly to toddlers, selfish little monsters that they are.
In his excellent book Dreaming the Beatles, rock critic Rob Sheffield makes a compelling case that the enduring love of the Beatles has nothing to do with the 1960s. To paraphrase and condense his argument: The Beatles become something new for each generation, meaning there are 1990s Beatles and 2000s Beatles, and so on, depending on how each batch of kids approach the music. The “real” Beatles don’t exist, because what they represent is bigger than being a band of living musicians. This checks out not just for the Beatles, but for the Stones. But where the Beatles represent hope, love, friendship, and eclecticism, the Stones mostly represent the angst that comes from knowing you can’t have absolutely everything all the time. This is a specific emotion that is most accessible to young children and deeply terrible adults (not a pan of the music, by the way, which absolutely rocks).
My daughter has no context for The Rolling Stones. How could she? She’s not even two years old, the only images she’s seen of Mick Jagger come from the photos on the inside of the album. (Sidenote: these photos confirm that Keith Richards went from looking young and hot to looking approximately 70-years-old sometime between 1966 and 1970. There was no in-between.)
The best Stones songs from the 1960s are all about self-reliance and airing grievances about not getting what you want. On the one hand, you’ve got “Satisfaction,” which, if you skip over the stuff about “the same cigarettes as me,” pretty much sums up a toddler’s mood all the time. My daughter frequently runs around the house these days and says “I can’t get — No!” in the same staccato vocal delivery as Mick Jagger. She understands. She can’t get no satisfaction, partially because mommy and daddy don’t always give her the reaction she wants. Parenting experts the world over will tell you time and again when kids “act out,” they’re looking for a reaction. The Stones may not have been super emotionally mature, but that’s kind of the point.
The reverse lesson, of course, is “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” an anthem that could be for parents to sing to their kids, but really, is a song for toddlers to help them learn self-soothing. And, you’d think that “Sympathy For the Devil,” would be a no-no for a toddler, too — but true story — when that song came on the classic rock station in the car, my daughter not only recognized it as a “new” Rolling Stones song but also assimilated the chorus instantly. Guess what? Having a kid say“Please to meet you, won’t you guess my name?” is not inherently a bad thing.
To be clear, I really don’t know how this story ends. Obviously, I can’t have my two-year-old singing the chorus of “Gimme Shelter,” because come on, I’m not a lunatic. I’m also not sure what to do when she figures the specific implications of “19th Nervous Breakdown.” Do toddlers understand irony? On some level, I’d argue that they do. I can’t prove it, but sometimes I swear my daughter seems to pick up a little bit on my mild guilt that she’s singing kind of dirty and risque rock songs. But for now, I do know one thing: the Rolling Stones like to make demands in their songs, and that’s something my almost-two-year-old can relate, too.
On Big Hits (High Tide and Green Grass) the track after “Get Off My Cloud,” is followed by the Stones’ cover of “Not Fade Away.” Famously, it begins with some handclaps and the words “Let me tell you how it’s gonna be.” When my kid starts clapping to this song and smiling devilishly, I know exactly how it’s gonna be. We are going to give all of our love to her. Like a Jagger at the center of a stage, she’s not only in the spotlight, but, she’s in control, too.