As often happens on Sunday evening, when it’s well past time to put together the weekly playlist, but I’ve put it off until the last minute and my wife is rightly chastising me because after all she’s the one who has to get these things up every Monday morning, serendipity manages to save me. The way it usually happens is I’m driving and I’ll hear a couple of songs rub against one another and suddenly I have a theme. This time it was Talk Talk’s “Happiness is Easy” which just happened to pop up as XTC’s “Dear God” was fading away. Quite similar songs actually, and both produced in the same year. And both using children’s voices as a central component of the track. Well, that chance encounter sent me on a quest to see which other artists had made use of children in one way or another. Turns out there are more than a few songs out there, and even more astonishing, they all seem to make use of these voices in their own unique ways.
1. The Smiths offer a sophisticated take on children’s voices. On the one hand, “Panic” deals with the Irish troubles and seems to reference a nightclub bombing, and in that sense the children provide a kind of pathos, the innocence of youth subjected to awful violence. At the same time, Morrissey wants to turn his final chorus, “Hang the DJ” into a taunt that seems childish at first but that holds real threat of violence beneath it. In that sense, the children here help provide a sense of menacing glee, not an easy fusion to pull off.
2. The children in Cohen’s “Last Year’s Man” don’t show up until the end of the song, and their sound is subtle, a kind of elegiac, perhaps angelic, addition to a song that mourns a life lived too long. In all, the children sing only three lines, but they provide a poignant summing up.
3. Turner – or more likely the producers of Thunderdome – thought this was a natural fit. Children in the film, children in the song. They offer a nice final lift to a track that seems to be rising from the moment it begins. Thunderdome, of course, isn’t the best entry in the Mad Max franchise, but this is a hell of a song and video.
4. Benatar wants the title – “We Belong to the Night” to soar. It’s pitched higher than the verses, and the opening emphasizes its heights in the first bars. In this sense, the children serve a sonic purpose, helping to make everything soar still a bit higher.
5. Talk Talk needs children here in a dramatic sense. “Happiness is Easy” sets up a contrast between the world as it is and the world we were promised as kids. More pointedly, they want to criticize the lies of the church and how while preaching love and peace to children, the church ultimately preaches war and greed to adults. Thus the adult voice offers criticism, while the children sweetly sing the lies of childhood, point and counterpoint.
6. Oh, what Thunderdome might have been if it had been filmed as a cartoon, as this Gorillaz video ably demonstrates. At any rate, the children here serve a similar function, innocents who have been drafted to fight in a futuristic world where everyone must struggle to survive.
7. In contrast, The Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” uses children for the high seriousness of the sound they provide. The tune is set at a church wedding, and the music generally is meant to capture the mood of the scene. There’s something in the song about the arrival of adulthood, and pomp and circumstance is called for. The children encapsulate that sound.
8. Curiously enough, this one came out the same year – 1986 – as Talk Talk’s tune, and makes almost precisely the same point about religion, though it does so somewhat more pointedly. Unlike some of the other songs on this list, there is only the single voice of a young boy, and where the children in “Happiness” represent a lost innocence: this voice becomes an indictment from those innocence. Even kids, XTC tell us, can see how wrong things are.
9. Not sure I really need to say much here. We all know this one. Where XTC and Talk Talk indict the church, Pink Floyd indict the education system, leaving children as mindless automatons, chanting like zombies, “We don’t need no education.”
10. Like many songs on the list, the children here are innocents who should know nothing of nuclear war, and yet the way they sing the lyrics makes clear that, unfortunately, they definitely, definitely do. Bonus points to Yo La Tengo, for getting children to sing “fuck.” They want to shock us right up front, so they know we’re paying attention to their urgent message. At the same time, they expect us to understand, on some level, that children singing “fuck” is not our biggest problem. It’s the fact that they understand nuclear war so well that should frighten us.
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