Hey, what's that sound: children's choirs and kids singing

By | April 12, 2010


From St Winifred’s School Choir to Hanson, are children’s angelic voices really the most hated sound in pop?

What is it? Children! Singing! Er, obviously. Singing kids have surfaced in one-off singles by many bands since Pink Floyd’s 1979 youth-refusenik anthem Another Brick in the Wall Part II. The next year, St Winifred’s School Choir proved that choirs of little angels could get codgers to prise open their wallets with the Christmas number one smash There’s No One Quite Like Grandma. By 1983 we had the dubious Mini-Pops and the underage frontgirl of Bow Wow Wow appearing nude on her album, and the association of children and pop music was forever muddled with connotations of misplaced sexuality and general wrongness.

Who uses it? Lots of indie bands – from the Smiths to Smog – have propped up playful choruses with howling off-key rugrats, and hip hop’s not adverse to using this trick either. There have been some great non-dodgy kids’ groups: Hanson’s MMMbop is a classic, as is Smoosh’s She Like Electric album, and everyone liked Kriss Kross, right?

Children’s choirs are still big unit-shifters for Christian music, which has partially bled into a fascination by outsider music historians with children’s records. The best-known is the Langley Schools Music Project LP, which places the heavy, heartbroken – sometimes faux-naif – words of Brian Wilson and Karen Carpenter in the mouths of actual-naif 1970s Canadian schoolchildren. The Kids Of Widney High – a music project for severely (usually mentally) disabled teenagers in a Californian school – is even more devastating, but their albums are fantastic. Otis Fodder’s 365 Days Project also unearthed some gems, such as Dondero High School Band’s wall-of-sound take on glam rock, and home-recorded oddities such as The Cheese Band’s brilliant I Like Cheese! We’ve made Spotify playlists of children’s choirs and kids in pop.

How does it work? Massed kids’ singalongs usually just pop up behind the choruses of pop songs, although there are odd instances such as Jens Lekman sampling himself as a child, or Nico giving her kid a song on her album.

Where does it come from? The womb! Or, at least, a place and time before pop became corrupt.

Why is it classic? The crazed exuberance of a bunch of brats high on artificial additives is awesome rocket fuel for pop songs, but some people REALLY HATE the sound of children’s voices. Like, fingernails down the blackboard-hate.

What’s the best-ever children’s choir song? The results of a musicological poll into people’s favourite and least favourite sounds and song themes led artists Vitaly Komar, Alex Melamid and David Soldier to use the data in creating what they hypothesised should be the The Most Unwanted Music. What resulted was a 20-minute bagpipe-powered epic eulogising different public holidays, voiced by a rapping opera diver, and – the most unwanted sound of all – singing children. Thing is … it’s awesome!

Five facts and things

• Interestingly, when Soldier and Melamid turned their attention to what statistically should be The Most Wanted Music – with no children singing – people found the results bland and uninspired.

• Former Senseless Things bassist Morgan Nicholls (now with Gorillaz and Lily Allen) launched his solo career as M Organ with Miss Parker – an amazing song built around his little brother rapping into a dictaphone in the back of a geography class.

• What everyone thinks is a children’s choir on The Rolling Stones’ You Can’t Always Get What You Want is actually grown-up people’s The London Bach Choir.

• Although it’s easy to balk at alleged sex offenders such as Michael Jackson and R Kelly using kids’ choirs on their mawkish hits, Faith No More and Denim getting kids to sing on songs about giving blowjobs (Be Aggressive and Grandad’s False Teeth, respectively) is arguably even more wrong. Great tunes, though.

• Want to talk actual child abuse in pop? For The Kids, from Lou Reed’s darked-out Berlin, producer Bob Ezrin (also responsible for the kiddies on Another Brick in the Wall, God of Thunder by Kiss and Alice Cooper’s School’s Out) allegedly lied to his own children that their mother had died and recorded their tormented wailing as texture for the song.

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