by T. B. Schmit
The pop-culture menu for the two-to-eight year-old set has lately gotten a lot more interesting — or so the flood of hipster-credible, “indie” tokens into that marketplace surely ought to persuade a bystander (and it’s worth remembering that we’re all, even parents, by definition bystanders, at least until the advent of a criticism written by toddlers). For every cynic who might grouse that They Might Be Giants were making children’s music all along there are undoubtedly moms and dads who’ll testify to the difference in verifiable juvenile pleasure delivered between, say, “Particle Man” (which sounds like kids’ music to adults) and “Robot Parade” or “I Am Not Your Broom” (which does to kids). That’s to say, TMBG’s children’s album No, No, No, No, No is perfect on its terms, and as much a classic of its genre as Burl Ives’ The Little White Duck. Hence, what that does or doesn’t say about the creators’ larger career is an afterthought, if an interesting one. The same is true each time Michael Chabon or George Saunders or Dave Eggers turn their pen deftly to children’s writing – could we imagine Fitzgerald or Hemingway doing the same? It’s typical, lately, to dismiss that generation’s prototypical artists by suggesting that their weird susceptibility to congenital preadolescence exposes their larger claim on grown-up attention. Yet there’s a counter-argument: that late techno-capitalism has made spoiled children of us all, and so we desperately require our artists to negotiate a meaningful response to this condition from the inside. If this is so, then we may want to be especially attentive when such artists turn their attention to making art intended to entertain and/or edify actual children, since that is, paradoxically, a rather grown-up thing to do. Children, you see, don’t actually care to entertain or edify one another. Children identify with themselves, or with animals, mythical creatures, knights or princesses. It is artists who may seem sometimes – too often? – to identify with children, but at the moment they choose to create with children as an audience, they are actually acting in the role of parents.
Yo Gabba Gabba, created by hipsters who identify as parents first and art-makers only accidentally, would seem to crown this current vogue – at least at first glance. The half-hour program nests in Nickelodeon Jr.’s schedule alongside what parents love to hate, and dream to see their child outgrow and reject: Dora The Explorer, her friend Diego, and Blue’s Clues, along with such moderately clever stuff as Backyardigans and Wonder Pets. (Unlike Dora, which numbs attention as effectively as staring at a wall of Lego bricks, you can watch five or six episodes of each before wishing to renounce ever having been a child.) Parents crowd couches for Yo Gabba Gabba, and set DVRs to capture episodes where Jack Black or The Shins appear; meanwhile, the childless reputedly get stoned to watch the show. It’s a cinch to see why. The show’s DayGlo aesthetic draws on disco futurism and space-age nostalgia in equal measure and with a delirious and charming result. If the sets and costume design are derivative of Gary Panter’s Pee-Wee’s Playhouse sets and Syd and Marty Krofft’s accidentally psychedelic ‘70’s kids shows, the crossroads of those derivations is a pretty funky place to be. And the host, “DJ Lance Rock”, basically looks to be Sly Stone’s or Bootsy Collins’s beatific little brother: Starchild as Pied Piper. His direct-address to the kids, or wannabe-kids, is ingenuously enthusiastic and strange. For all he may seem to encode a dissident – not to say gay – aesthetic, he’s too wide-eyed to be capable of winking. That fact makes him lovable.
Rock negotiates between the viewer and five fluffy creatures, who read as, more or less, a robot, an alien, a cat, a monster and a pink, feminine blob of gum or candy. Through camera trickery, these life-sized figures with actors inside (à la Big Bird) shrink to a size which suggests that to Rock they’re merely toys. These five enact various mildly-conflictual playlets, and dance to the snazzy music, but remain like symbols or icons – Teletubbies who went to a thrift shop for some wardrobe. The whole result is a seductive flatness, a Roy Lichtenstein or Andy Warhol quality that while sweet is also decidedly cool, in a Marshall McLuhan sense of the term. The top-drawer guest star-regulars include Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo, Biz Markie, and Amy Sedaris; against the bright 2-D backdrop they’re liberated to exhibit their most endearingly accessible selves. Trippy without being in any way ominous, the show manages the trick of being enchanting to adults while containing none of the direct cultural references or double-entendres usually included to flatter or scandalize adult sensibilities (In fact, the show barely contains even single entendres, unless “Don’t Bite Your Friends” is meant as a hiding-in-plain-sight sadomasochist’s refrain). An adult viewer’s relief at never once being required to snigger is no small thing, right?
Another interesting thing about Yo Gabba Gabba is that I hate it. For me, the show distills everything problematic yet ultimately forgivable in its models, but without the forgivable part. The dreamlike antiseptic solipsism of Teletubbies, for instance, was redeemed by that show’s hypnotic communion with the pre-linguistic mind. Sesame Street’s snappy indulgence of short attention spans, which made it, arguably, complicit with television’s enmity to narrative flow, was redeemed by an eagerness to make its interruptedness a mosaic of real-life textures. The willful insipidity of Pee-Wee Herman was made palatable by his glorious eruptions of hostility. Yo Gabba Gabba is to its precursors as The Decemberists are to Neutral Milk Hotel – a rendition-into-harmlessness that leaves me gasping. The presence of the hip guest stars reminds me less of Electric Company, where visitors from the culture seemed to wander into a dreamkit for the manufacture of genuinely hip children, than a kind of campy cultural Blarney Stone for stars to kiss, as when Tallulah Bankhead and Otto Preminger and Liberace fashionably deigned to appear on the ’60’s Batman as the supervillains. You can almost hear their agents’ phone calls in the background.
Wait, I hear you say: how does it feel, to hate something manifestly harmless? My answer: not simple, but not terrible either. It might seem that in a culture riddled with harmlessness worth hating – harmlessness that everywhere occupies the spaces where real stimulation, real provocation, real discomfort ought to be explored – it might seem that in such a culture, the one place where harmlessness should be tolerated is children’s TV. And yet I’m obligated to hate Yo Gabba Gabba because, though my sample size is small, I’ve witnessed children try to watch the thing and losing interest immediately, failing to get any purchase on the slick façade of its tastefulness. Yo Gabba Gabba is made of ‘delightedness’, through and through, but it isn’t delightful. Its sin is its decorative lifelessness, its bubble of safety from reference to an outside world that might disturb its color scheme, its static refusal to be in any way disturbed by its own cultivated eccentricity.
The results scream complacency. In fact, Yo Gabba Gabba’s pastoral-disco vision of innocence is enough to make one pine for the snarky and smutty asides of Shrek (or, come to think of it, Looney Tunes). The reason being that if a child’s attention is going to be drawn to the question of the viewing pleasures of the adult sitting beside her, better those contain some tantalizing acknowledgement that the world of the adult consists of some comforts – and discomforts, the eternal seat of humor – not yet known to children. At its best, children’s entertainment not only enfolds this twin layer, of innocent impulse and sophisticated self-consciousness, but generates force and delight from the prospect, or risk, of their synthesis. In the place of even attempting such a thing, Yo Gabba Gabba presents to an alert child the possibility that adults really might like to suffuse themselves in tasteful self-congratulation, in avoidance of the slightest glimpse of Desolation Row – finally, in pretending they are not only children, but rather easily-amused ones at that. If the “grown-up” artists who dabble in children’s music or writing are routinely accused of dilettantism – an unfair accusation, but bound to crop up – I suspect the creators of Yo Gabba Gabba are unwilling to risk a creation to suit the terms of their ambition to mingle with the intelligentsia. So, they skipped the part of the script where they make “real” art and then endearingly lower themselves to working for kids (a script which includes modest references to kids’ being “the toughest audience at all). If I’m guessing right, that’s why Yo Gabba Gabba looks to be more about adults communing with adults, in a space scrupulously devoid of adult stuff like sexuality, loss, aggression. Yes, these must be sublimated to be acceptable in a kid’s format, but they have to be there, too.