“That’s such a fascinating thing, the adult interpretation of the kid’s world. A world artificially sweetened for kids, full of things kids were supposed to like and want. The shows tried to tell kids that life could be fun and exciting, but the unconscious message was that the adult world is strange, twisted, perverse, threatening, sinister.” – Robert Crumb, 2005
This is a personally spiritual mix I have been working on for a month or so. It’s intended to be a meditation on the simplicity, artifice, perversity, wonder, and uncanny feelings elicited by sampling and FM synthesis aimed at U.S. children during the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s.
The ur-texts here are the vaguely ominous musical trappings of kid’s commercials, the bumpers on networks like Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network, and educational children’s games on Windows ’95 like Thinkin’ Things and KidPix [especially the cgi-hellscapes of Kid Pix]. The sounds that form the aesthetic backbone of this mix are the presets on FM synthesizers like the Yamaha DX-7 and the Casio CZ101, simple MIDI sounds with sequencing, and perhaps most importantly, sampling on keyboards like the E-MU Systems Emulator, the Ensoniq Mirage, the Akai S1000, and the Fairlight CMI. Though the musical selection culls from the 80s and 90s, I don’t intend it to be historiographic. Songs were gathered from numerous different countries, and the mix attempts to evoke the emotional baggage of commercial children’s music from this historical moment indirectly.
If past children’s media was disturbing because of how its artificiality barely masked the sleazy, commodified, and dark world of the adults who made it, the musical trends of sampling and FM synthesis in music for kids of the mid 80s and early 90s added an extra layer of unease to the equation.
Early computer generated imagery is analogous to samplers and FM synthesis, not only because they simultaneously developed in the mid-1980s and became ubiquitous in the early 1990s. They can also all elicit feelings of the uncanny in the Freudian sense. This is because early cgi, sampling, and some types of frequency modulation synthesis all attempt to approximate a world of human, natural, or acoustic effects, but become almost eerie and jarring because of their artifice. For example, here’s a wonderful clip of Herbie Hancock on his Fairlight CMI making a young Tatiana Ali feel both amused and uncomfortable by playing samples of her own voice on Sesame Street in 1983. The producers somehow thought kids would love hearing distorted parodies of their own voices! But alas, they look horrified at the 3:03 minute mark.
But the elephant in the room is Mark Mothersbaugh’s masterful Fairlight score for Rugrats and his contributions to Pee-wee’s Playhouse. Rugrats’ music and early content had an overriding ethos that exemplified the R.Crumb quote above, and in part guided the curation of this mix. Aside from the show’s alienating wide-angle shots and nightmarish surrealism, my favorite point was how it often contrasted the artificially simple world of children with the bizzare, corporate, and soulless world of the adults who perpetuate it. Mothersbaugh’s deceptively simple soundtrack was the aesthetic glue of the show and its appeal. With its synth pads made out of arpeggiated mouth-noises, ominous ambience, and plastic samples of acoustic instruments, it both captured and amplified the discomfort and contrived innocence of childish things. Mothersbaugh’s arguably more nuanced musical series Musik for Insomniaks (1983 and 1988 ), which landed him the job composing the Rugrats score, is featured in the mix as aesthetic bookends.
Though it’s my first mix, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did making it!
1. Selig die Trauernden, denn sie Werden Getröstet Werden [clip] – Hubert Bognermayer & Harald Zuschrader – 1983
& S. Louise by Carlos Maria Trindade & Nuno Canavarro – 1990
2. Bonzaiko – Mark Mothersbaugh – 1988
3. Ocargit – Claude Larson – 1982
4. Reverie – Roger Baudet – 1983
5. Hal’s Dream – Pyrolator – 1984
6. Indra – Chris Stein – 1987
7. The DIY Machine (1) – Dave Vorhaus – 1985
8. A Virgin & The Pipe-Cut Man – Joe Hisaishi – 1986
9. Orientation – Yoshio Ojima – 1985
10. No, I Deny It – Vito Ricci – 1985
11. Pierre in Mist – Brian Eno – 1992
12. Jazz From Hell – Frank Zappa – 1986
13. Manobras De Maio – Nuno Rebelo – 1989
14. They Drive By Night – David Van Tieghem – 1989
15. HUMAN_STG03_BGA – Osamu Sato – 1998
16. Pornodisko – Felix Kubin – 1998
17. Ooh! – Dead Goldfish Ensemble – 1992
18. Dreamtime & Getting Light – White Noise IV – 1989
19. Crimine – Nuno Canavarro – 1988
20. Chicago Death – Rimarimba – 1987
21. The Dead Goldfish Ensemble – All The Hands – 1987
22. Touch the Sun – Vangelis Katsoulis – 1988
23. Future – David Van Tieghem – 1987
24. Mark Mothersbaugh – Chechi – 1988
25. Sleep – Claire Hamill – 1986
[With elements of Selig die arm sind vor Gott, denn ihrer ist das Himmelreich by Hubert Bognermayer & Harald Zuschrader and HUMAN_STG03_BGA by Osamu Sato]
Cover Art by Me