In his exceptionally interesting and occasionally pseudoscientific* book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell devotes a large chunk of text to analyzing what makes a children’s television show “sticky” -- as in, what kids would pay the most attention to despite the constant threat of shiny objects and low-level attempts to accidentally injure themselves. Gladwell compared Sesame Street and Blue’s Clues, and found that, while Sesame Street had segments that varied greatly in their ability to grab a kid’s attention, Blue’s Clues would captivate children for the duration of the show.
*Dude LOVES anecdotes as an explanatory device for overarching social phenomena. I would have liked to have seen more hard data. But then again, I like to see hard data about baseball games, so maybe I just really like hard data.
This tells us two very important things:
1) Children and pre-teens in general are idiots and don’t know what’s good for them.
2) What if Sesame Street isn’t actually an educational television show?
I don’t need to belabor the first point overly much -- it’s well-know and beyond dispute that kids make terrible decisions all the time. As I’m writing this, there are at least three trending topics* on Twitter related to Justin Bieber, and I can’t believe that more than 25% of people referencing these topics are doing so for irritatingly ironic or creepily predatory purposes. That leaves millions and millions of idiot children who channel the bulk of their creative energies into a suicide vortex of praise for a personally harmless but culturally devastating teenage pop star. These are not people whom we should allow to make their own decisions about what is and isn’t good for them, you know? Blue's Clues is a charming show and no doubt created some fabulous memories for its massive audience, but it's sad fare compared to Sesame Street.
*Let’s talk a little bit about trending topics. I am not a Twitter superstar by any means, but I drop in now and again to attempt to craft the One Perfect Tweet that will be the start of a massive trending topic juggernaut, thereby gaining me millions of followers and making me absurdly wealthy (this is how it works, right?) It hasn’t happened yet, because the non-Bieber and non-breaking news trending topics are the result of millions of dupes retweeting the incredibly banal observations from either fake accounts of famous comedians or incredibly skilled marketing types. For crying out fucking loud, people, a tweet consisting of “BEFORE TALKING: please connect the TONGUE to the BRAIN.” from Twitter user “TheRandomWords” is not worth several hundred retweets. It’s something you would find in a god damned Garfield strip from 1985. YOU WOULD NOT BELIEVE HOW MUCH I HATE YOU ALL FOR DOING THIS. STOP IT.
The second point is probably an unintended consequence -- I have no doubt that the original intent of Sesame Street was to educate, and if my knowledge of how to count to ten in Spanish (although I can only do it to a beat that Sesame Street drummed into my head years ago) is any measuring stick, it succeeded on some level. Still, I can’t help but feel that Sesame Street, in its heyday, was most effective as a vehicle for letting kids know what was and wasn’t cool.
Let’s take the intro to this collection, which features Stevie Wonder singing the Sesame Street song into some kind of Frampton-esque vocoder while his band and backup singers rock out awesomely behind him. Check out the kid bopping his head to the beat about a minute or so into the clip. He might never have heard Stevie Wonder before in his life, but he’s getting to hear him in the familiar and comforting context of the Sesame Street set. Heck, Stevie likely just finished having an extended conversation with Grover about music. He’s been cleared. The red-shirted, floppy-haired kid might not have discovered Stevie Wonder for several more years, but now? He’s hooked. Sesame Street put this kid ahead of the musical curve.
You have to spend an inordinate amount of time combing through Sesame Street’s extensive list of guests stars to find someone who truly sucks. They let John Mayer on the show once, so that's one, but it’s a small debit against the likes of Jackie Robinson, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and Buzz Aldrin. You'll find no one as egregiously terrible as a Donald Trump or Nickelback standing next to Big Bird. The casting bookers on Sesame Street have impeccable taste, both in music (as you'll no doubt find out from our fine selection above) and in a kind of grand sense of who a well-rounded kid would need to get a head start on familiarizing themselves with.
I don't want to make it sound like Sesame Street was snobby about its guest list -- there's no hipsterish sensibility to its choices. Oscar the Grouch isn't going to pop up and pronounce Merle Haggard to be "too mainstream", so listen to some Johnny Cash -- he'll just banter with Cash before Cash sings songs about heartache and/or the alphabet. It's all about revealing to you the best things contemporary culture had to offer. Sesame Street bestows the ultimate artistic gift to each successive generation: it ignors what kids want and gives them what they need.