“I feel like you have more freedom in kids’ music than music for grown-ups,” says Justin Roberts. “Anything goes when you’re writing songs for kids, there’s no rules for how it has to fit together.” This philosophy has made Roberts “one of the ‘all-stars’ of the indie family-music scene,” according to his promotional materials, and today it helps him fill a good portion of Millennium Park’s Pritzker Pavilion with kids, families and what appears to be childless adults. During the course of an hour-long set, Roberts plays a lively selection of songs mostly from his last three albums, although the songs themselves are only a part of the performance. Before almost every song, Roberts teaches his enthused audience a new dance move, illustrative motion or short refrain to deploy at an appropriate time during the song. For the “meltdown dance,” to accompany the song “Meltdown,” the kids stretch their fingers out and wave their arms while yelling. For the blame-shifting “My Brother Did It,” audience members point accusingly at their neighbors. Given Roberts’ dedicated fanbase among parents and the difficulty of getting young children to perform any given task, it’s possible as many adults as kids are waving their arms and pointing.
Roberts’ unusual brand of kid-targeted indie pop—“kindie,” as he’s called it—has won him a degree of success he never found during his years in “grown-up” bands. A native Iowan, Roberts was first introduced to punk through cornfield concerts. The mid-nineties found him in Minneapolis, playing with a band called Pimentos for Gus by night and teaching at a Montessori preschool by day. One day Roberts played one of his songs for the kids, and to his surprise it was a hit. “It’s a ballad and nothing repeats,” he says. “It’s kind of the opposite of what people would tell you kids want to hear, but the kids kept asking for it.” Roberts released his first kids’ CD, “Great Big Sun,” in 1998. In keeping with his roots, the album was released on Roberts’s own label, Carpet Square Records, which is based in Evanston.
If you block out the vocals, the songs Roberts plays at the Pritzker Pavilion could pass for adult music. “Maybe the Monster,” a song that suggests the monster under the bed may be afraid of you too, has echoes of R.E.M. “Hey Hippopotamus” sounds a bit like Paul Simon. The title track of Roberts’ most recent album, “Pop Fly,” is ska-tinged and instantly catchy. As for the lyrics, they address a host of youngster-relevant topics without needless complexity, and song titles are almost always guessable from the chorus. This formula has made Roberts something of a sensation for kids and their parents, who appreciate his lack of condescension. Roberts explains, “If I try to make a song that I like myself and feel good about, not even test-marketing it on kids…they’re willing to take in a lot more than one might expect.” (Sam Feldman)