Roberta Flack and Michael Jackson, performing the song "When We Grow Up" from the 1974 TV special of "Free to Be... You and Me."
As the adage goes, "a lady never reveals her age." But then again, terms like "lady" aren't really all that welcome in the world of Free To Be… You And Me, so I'm just going to come out and say it: I'm 26 years old. I was born 14 years after the 1972 release of the feminist children's album that we've been talking about all week on Soundcheck. As a result, I had never even heard of Free To Be until a few weeks ago.
From what I remember, my favorite children's music pretty much avoided the issue of gender entirely, singing instead about animals. There was Raffi's "Baby Beluga," a song about an adventuresome whale that's never identified as a boy or girl, and Red Grammer's non-gendered cows and ducks and coyotes that all had a "Place In The Choir." My favorite cassette tape included a song about a stereotypically male farmer who had 500 sheep, but it was in French. And since I didn’t speak French, well, I had no idea what was going on.
However, as a little girl who was raised in a non-feminist household -- and who gravitated naturally toward the girliest of the girly things in life -- I also listened to plenty of Disney music, with all of its poofy dress-wearing princesses and heteronormative values. But despite a lack of childhood exposure to message-driven music like that on the album Free To Be… You And Me, it was always very clear to me that I could grow up to be anything: a doctor, a lawyer, a musician, whatever. And I also knew that it was really fun to play California Barbie Hot Dog Stand (yes, you read that right) with the little boy from down the street practically every afternoon. He seemed to think it was fine and dandy too.
When I did finally get around to listening to Free To Be just a couple of weeks ago, I was initially struck by how much the sound reminded me of the music from Sesame Street. That makes sense, because the album was produced by Carole Hart -- who, along with her husband Bruce Hart, worked on Sesame Street -- and some of its composers, like Stephen Lawrence, also worked on the show.
I was also quickly impressed by how the album balanced silliness with forthrightness, something that was perhaps lacking in my own animal-heavy childhood music experience. (Seriously, what's up with that?) The spoken word track "Boy Meets Girl," in which two babies (played by Marlo Thomas and Mel Brooks) meet in a hospital nursery and discuss whether they might be boys or girls, is hilarious. But it's also a very direct look at male/female stereotypes. I can't recall anything quite like it from my own childhood.
A couple of tracks did show their age during my first-time listen, such as Carol Channing's "Housework," a song that attempts to open children's eyes to the wily ways of advertising and to get little boys to chip in around the house. "Remember, nobody smiles doing housework but those ladies you see on TV," Channing says. "Your mommy hates housework, your daddy hates housework, I hate housework too." This elicited a raised eyebrow out of me. First of all, don't tell me what my mommy hates, Carol Channing. And secondly, a lot of people clean houses for a living -- what about them? When producer Carole Hart reflected back on the album earlier this week on Soundcheck, she also brought up this track. "Some people took it as denigrating housework," Hart told us. "In retrospect, we probably wouldn’t have done it."
I also laughed out loud during my first listen to "Parents Are People,' where Harry Belafonte and Marlo Thomas list all of the things that mommies and daddies can be, but point out that mothers "can't be grandfathers. Or daddies.” Tell that to Thomas Beatie, the transgendered Oregon man who gave birth to a little girl in 2008. Unusual, perhaps, but not impossible.
As I kept listening to the album, I thought about how I could have benefited from a song like "When We Grow Up." As our contributor Faith Salie pointed out during our series, she never quite bought into the “I don’t care if I’m pretty at all” line – I doubt that I would have either. But when Diana Ross sang the next lines, "I like what I look like" and "We don't have to change at all," that certainly hit home for me.
Like most women and men that I know, I didn’t always like the way I looked when I was growing up. It's something that I still struggle with today. Although some aspects of the non-sexist, tolerant utopia that Free To Be… You And Me created proved to be somewhat unrealistic, who knows? Maybe hearing that positive message going 'round and 'round on the turntable could have put a dent in some of that self-loathing.
One thing's for sure, I'm glad that even at the ripe old age of 26, I got to hear this album. And I'm determined that my children will listen to it, even if it's in chorus with animal noises and Disney songs.
Prior to joining Soundcheck in early 2011, Katie was an associate producer at Martha Stewart Living Radio on Sirius XM - where, by the way, she learned how to make a mean roast chicken. She has also worked for Marketplace, Jazz at Lincoln Center Radio and The State of Things with Frank Stasio on North Carolina Public Radio.