IASPM-US/POP Conference Preview: Kathryn Ostrofsky

by justindburton on March 14, 2012

In the coming weeks, we will be previewing several papers that will be read at the 2012 IASPM-US/POP Conference in New York. This preview is courtesy of Kathryn Ostrofsky, whose paper “Taking Sesame to the Streets: Young Children’s Interactions with Pop Music in the Urban Classrooms of 1970s New York” is scheduled for the NYC Boombox session, 11:15-12:45 on Friday, March 23 in KC 803.

Sesame Street‘s pop music is about as representative of all of American music, as indicative of the northern urban musical experience, as demonstrative of the sonic diversity of New York City, as any single institution’s music production ever has been.  But besides reflecting the New York music scene, Sesame Street music also became part of that scene — in thousands of living rooms, in classrooms and playgrounds, and even in discos.  The Children’s Television Workshop, the non-profit organization that produced Sesame Street, conducted extensive social science research to improve the educational efficacy of the show, promoted the show’s integration into the activities of classrooms and community groups, and supplemented its broadcast efforts with record albums and educational materials.  The Workshop also maintained a high media profile to explain its intents and tout its successes, to inform parents and educators, and to attract potential funding sources.  Little did they know that their meticulous research, production, and promotional records would give scholars unique access into the relationship of music’s producers and consumers in relation to two often overlooked areas — television sound, and children’s musical experiences.  This paper will examine the different ways that Sesame Street‘s producers, composers, and researchers hoped its music would function, and the ways that preschool and adult audiences actually responded to and interacted with the music.

Sesame Street‘s signature sound, created by Joe Raposo, the show’s first musical director and most prolific composer, combined the aesthetics of soul and vaudeville. With its variety show “magazine format,” where each episode was comprised of several dozen stand-alone segments, Sesame Street did not have a single, homogenous sound.  While soul and vaudeville sounds provided the fabric that tied together the show’s overall aesthetic, strands of other musical styles including folk, jazz, Latin, Broadway, and even Madison Avenue-inspired jingles — were interwoven through the program.  Many television critics and educators found Sesame Street‘s sound startlingly contemporary, and worried that it overstimulated the senses, caused hyperactivity, and was too sophisticated for such a young audience.[1. D. Glass, S. Cohen, and J. L. Singer, “Urban Din Fogs the Brain.” Psychology Today (May 1973): 94-99; John Holt, “Big Bird Meet Dick and Jane: A Critique of Sesame Street.” Atlantic (May 1971): 72-78.] In 1971 Raposo dismissed suggestions that Sesame Street “should curb the spontaneity and joy of blues and rock and instead return to ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb,'” noting that what most of those critics “don’t realize or don’t want to realize is that the lamb left the nursery the day they brought the TV set in. Children are now exposed to and learn to love every conceivable style of music through commercials mostly, and I frankly don’t think that’s so bad.”[2. Herbert Hadad, “Joe Raposo.” [1971], p. 8-9. Children’s Television Workshop Archives, National Public Broadcasting Archives, University of Maryland [hereafter CTW Archives]. Box 31, folder 23.]

High media literacy levels, which Raposo’s statement suggests occur even in the youngest viewers, constituted a trend that Sesame Street‘s creators perceived more broadly than just with regard to musical taste. Sesame Street entered a music and media climate in which the role of audio and audiovisual media in the lives of all Americans, including children, was rapidly expanding.  The Children’s Television Workshop set out to produce a show entertaining enough to compete for children’s attention with commercial, general-audience television that was already capturing the eyes and ears of the nation’s preschoolers.  Sesame Street strove to be professional, truthful, and respectful to children.  In the words of Joe Raposo, “we don’t play down to kids. We just have a very short audience.”[3. Quoted in Gikow, 40 Years of Life on the Street, 214.] Sesame Street’s music played well to a taller audience, too: a handful of their songs managed to climb the Billboard charts. “Bein’ Green,” was covered by Ray Charles and Van Morrison.[4. “Bein’ Green” appeared on: Ray Charles, Renaissance (1975); Van Morrison, Hard Nose the Highway (1973); and Frank Sinatra, Sinatra & Company (1970).] The Carpenters’ version of “Sing” reached #3 on the Billboard charts in 1973.  “Rubber Duckie” became a hit in it’s original version, which spent nine weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1970, peaking at #16.[5. Billboard, 26 September 1970, p. 76; Billboard, 10 October 1970, p. 90.]

Despite its recording industry successes, the show’s widest reaching and most frequent airplay, predictably, was through the medium of television.  By the end of 1972, Nielsen estimated that Sesame Street‘s sounds (and their accompanying visuals) were reaching almost nine million children under age six, and maintained a viewership of over 90% of America’s preschool population throughout the 1970s.[6. Gerald Lesser, Children and Television: Lessons From Sesame Street (New York: Random House, 1974), p. 206.] For Sesame Street, entertaining that wide audience was simply the prerequisite for teaching them.  Operating under the assumption that children had to be watching the show to learn from it, the Workshop justified its extensive popular music use by pointing to music’s ability to attract and hold viewers.  Popular music’s attention-sustaining and educational potential was actually a central founding principle of Sesame Street: it was the observation that toddlers could recite advertising jingles that led to Joan Ganz Cooney’s and Lloyd Morrisett’s initial idea to create a show that employed television to teach.[7. Joan Ganz Cooney, Archive of American Television interview.]

Once on the air, Sesame Street, with its clear educational goals and the varied production techniques of different individual segments, proved to be eminently suitable material for psychological and educational studies on young viewers, to assess the specific qualities or attributes that were responsible for the most effective sustained attention and learning.  Independent researchers in psychology, education, and communications have relied heavily on Sesame Street segments for decades of experiments that have forced television producers to change many of their assumptions about the way children watch and listen.[8. See in particular L. F. Alwitt, D. R. Anderson, E. P. Lorch, and S. R. Levin, “Preschool Children’s Visual Attention to Attributes of Television,” Human Communication Research 7 (1980), p. 52-57; author interview with Daniel R. Anderson, 42 June 2011.] Meanwhile, the Children’s Television Workshop operated its own research department to test the specific efficacy of each segment of each episode of Sesame Street.  In 1974, they set up an observation lab that was essentially run like a preschool, with groups of six or seven children gathering two or three times per week to watch the show and do related activities.  The children were observed and quizzed; their attention, interaction, and comprehension were recorded; and the results were sent to the production department with suggestions on which segments to drop and which to use more frequently.  Although through most of the institutional discourse of Sesame Street’s non-musical staff, music vaguely serves to entertain and to carry verbal messages, it is not explicitly explored further.[9. Quoted in Richard M. Polsky, Getting to Sesame Street: Origins of the Children’s Television Workshop (New York: Praeger, 1974), p. 18.]

Sesame Street frequently modeled children’s interaction with music through singing and dancing along.  A performer himself could engender cultural pride in young viewers, as was the case with Jose Feliciano, who sang the Puerto Rican children’s song “Arroz con Leche,” or Stevie Wonder, who Sesame Street producer Robert Cunniff called “an inner-city hero [who] is recognizable to” the show’s audience.[10. “Rock Singing Star Stevie Wonder Makes Debut on ‘Sesame Street,'” Press Release, 21 March 1973. CTW Archives, Box 31, folder 27.] However, the multiracial groups of children often seen on Sesame Street dancing and moving as live audiences to pop performances, provided young television viewers with models for ways they, too, could engage with the music entering their homes.  As actor Loretta Long recalls, these dances were not planned or staged: Sesame Street‘s director put kids on the set and shot their improvised reactions the music. [11. Author interview with Loretta Long, 7 February 2011.] Paul Simon’s performance, for example, prompted the children to dance and clap along, and inspired one girl to improvise lyrics during the instrumental breaks.


Children viewing the show in Sesame Street‘s research laboratory were also observed dancing to these pop performances.[12. Sesame Street Research to Sesame Street Writers, Producers. Memorandum. “Bilingual Study,” 9 October 1974.  CTW Archives, Box 34, folder 28.] To the research staff, children’s dancing to Paul Simon would be classified as a motor response that indicated a high level of attention to the show.  When children sang the alphabet along with Ray Charles, researchers marked a verbal response that signified comprehension of the educational content.  When researchers made any specific mention of music, it was usually about how pace or visual excitement affected attention, such as noting that certain songs seem to keep children’s attention despite being frequently repeated on the show.[13. Sesame Street Research, “Responses of Children….261-274,” p. 22.] The focus of the reports is not surprising, given the researchers’ backgrounds in the social sciences rather than the arts, and given the object of their studies: to advise production staff on how to make the show more educationally effective.  However, despite their non-musical focus, their data and observations contain a wealth of information on children’s reactions to (and interactions with) popular music.  Children’s verbal responses include commenting on the musicians and singing along, and their motor responses include dancing, clapping, rocking back and forth, conducting and playing air guitar.  In the research lab, when one child got up to dance to Stevie Wonder, the other children in the group joined her. The researchers focused on these children’s attention to (or distraction from) the television, but musically, their observation suggests that the young audience conceived of popular music as a social and participatory activity.

Children danced to Sesame Street music not only in research labs, but also in preschool classrooms and even discos; and they listened to Sesame Street music not only through television, but also through record albums.  The Children’s Television Workshop released fifty-one different record albums in the 1970s, as part of an effort to extend the reach of Sesame Street‘s educational goals and to raise funds to continue production of the show.  Many of these albums found their way into classrooms.  For example, composers Joe Raposo and Jeff Moss attended a concert at P.S.-9 in Bedford Stuyvesant, in which fifth graders sang and choreographed all the songs from Sesame Street‘s first album.

Popular music has played many roles on Sesame Street, some intended by the producers, others unexpected, unexplored, or unnoticed consequences. Sesame Street‘s music captured children’s attention and inspired their participation — through singing, dancing, and learning.  It gave parents and children an opportunity to share cultural experiences.  But the extensive video, audio, and archival records Sesame Street has created over the past four decades allow scholars a look at the ways popular music has been experienced through an often overlooked medium, and by an often overlooked audience — yet a medium and an audience that are both quite central to American culture.

Kathryn A. Ostrofsky is a Ph.D. candidate in History at the University of Pennsylvania, studying media and music in 20th century American culture. She is working on a dissertation tentatively entitled “Everybody’s Song: Sesame Street Music and the History of Familiarity and Participation in 20th Century Popular Culture.”

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