Bananas are not butch…but they are a bitch

This post isn’t precisely about queer studies, but, to my mind, the crap we shill out to children is pretty queer in itself and deserves occasional examination. Lots of gays and lesbians are parents, and gay parenting seems to be having its moment. Just this summer the Supreme Court voted down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and the crucial vote in the case belonged to Justice Kennedy. His position seemed to hinge on the potential disenfranchisement of children of lesbians and gays. So to the point: bananas.

The problem with today’s music for children (and here I include everything from Barney to The Wiggles to The Fresh Beat Band) is the total lack of harmonic creativity. Every song is in a major key (usually the peppy keys of C and D) and in 4/4 time — creating a grinding forced merriment. Further, almost all the songs are roughly the same length (2 minutes and 30 seconds — unless they add a 20 second bridge to allow for some extra tiny tot body flailing) and most feature lyrics about bananas, which, as a fruit, aren’t that interesting (I promise to write a corresponding blog post cataloging the inexplicable canon of banana songs). Kumkwats are interesting. Bananas are not.

Let me start by saying that I couldn’t find a single song featuring kumkwats. I scoured the Internet. That’s not to say they don’t exist –for all I know some guy in Vermont is sitting in his basement right now, writing an entire kumkwat opus for banjo and ukelele — but they don’t exist online.

So, onto the banana songs. I have selected ones that seem particularly targeted at children, but there are a few that could be considered adult songs as well (here I’d include “The Banana Boat Song”).

“I Like to Eat Apples and Bananas”
source unknown
This children’s classic is made up of just the words in the song title, sung over and over again but with changing vowel combinations. Apples and bananas turns into oopples and banoonoos or eeples and baneenees from verse to verse. I suppose there is some educational value to thinking about the interchange of vowel sounds, and saying “baneenees” is whimsical in a three-year-old Gymboree kind of way. But the song relies on one of the traits I find most objectionable in music for young people: incessant repetition. True, at this age children learn through repetition, their memory functions are not yet fully developed and repetition is a key tool to their learning, but there is the simple repetition of a chorus (such as occurs in most songs for adults) and then there is the grinding, mind numbing repetition of a song like “I’m Jacob Jingleheimer Schmit” or “I Like to Eat Apples and Bananas.” Too much of a good thing.

“Hot Potato” The Wiggles
You didn’t think we’d get through the list without at least one Wiggles song, did you? Although the title of the song refers to potatoes (an even LESS interesting food than bananas) the third verse, which kids seem to remember better than any of the others, is just the words “mashed banana, mashed banana” sung over and over again. This song, too, loses points for the infernal repetition which is enough to make your ears bleed. They get a point or two for their Aussy accents, however, singing banana as “banahnah” which is oddly soothing. When kids imitate the accent the repetition is slightly easier to take.

On a side note, The Wiggles have another hit song called “Fruit Salad” that can’t quite make it into the banana song list, but does include the lyrics “the first step: eat up the banana.” The “fruit salad” song has a heavy-handed healthy eating PSA quality and its use of “yummy yummy” between every line is a major drawback. Most children will eat fruit salad without being cajoled. And, in fact, the song may actually undermine its own intentions because any child over 18 months of age recognizes that when adults say something is “yummy yummy,” it usually isn’t. They aren’t falling for that trick. No, that cabbage stew is NOT yummy yummy, nor is that antibiotic medicine I had to take for my ear infection the child thinks. Moreover children soon learn when they are being patronized –as they clearly are in this song– and rightly resent it.

“DAY-O” (aka “The Banana Boat Song”)
Jamaican traditional song popularized by Harry Bellafonte
I like any song routinely sung to children that references working all night on a drink of rum, though a lot of daycare workers leave this verse out. The cultural context of the song –the call and response of Jamaican dock workers completing a night shift stacking bananas that would ultimately be consumed by their colonial over lords– seems to be lost to the encouraging lilt of the calypso beat. There is also something about the exhaustion of working a night shift that sleep deprived parents can relate to when singing this song to children (though, to be clear, I’m not trying to equate common parental tiredness with colonial oppression). As banana songs go, this one is perhaps least irritating. It does feature repetition, but there are verses to break up the monotony. The beat is syncopated such that it avoids the hammering nature of many rhythmically static children’s songs.

“30,000 Pounds of Bananas” Harry Chapin
This is not a kids’ song, but I like it a lot; Harry had it right, if you are going to go with bananas you should really GO with bananas all 30,000 pounds of them. The song features lyrics referring to Scranton, PA (which is, truly, the armpit of the universe) as a “coal-scarred city where children play without despair in back yard slag-piles.” The song is quirky and engaging. If you feel you must sing about bananas to children, learn this song and sing it.

“Smoking Banana Peels”The Dead Milkmen
Also, not a kids song per se and even more fabulous than “30,000 lbs.” This song is perfect for children — allowing them to vacillate between screaming at the top of their lungs and singing “it’s so mellow…” Note: kids might ask tricky questions about the lyrics of this song; my advice, turn it up and drown them out.

“Yes, we have no bananas!” Spike Jones
I had no idea how offensive this song was until I looked up the lyrics so I could write this post. The only part I remembered –and that most people remember, I’m sure– is the “Yes, we have no bananas, we have no bananas today!” part. The lines just before that are:

There is a fruit store on our street
It is run by a Greek
And he keeps good things to eat
but you should hear him speak!
When you ask him anything he never answers no
He just yes-es you to death, and as he takes your dough he says
‘Yes, we have no bananas.’

Whoa is all I can say to that. The song avoids a lot of the traps of bad kids’ music, but is appalling on every other level. Forget you ever knew it.

“Go Bananas” The Learning Station
This song has no redeeming value of any kind. Everything objectionable about children’s music is represented here. That it has 25,000 views on YouTube is a testament to how deranged parents are. Either that or someone has invented a drinking game around this idiotic masterpiece and the 25,000 views came from inebriated frat boys. I really hope so. Want to know how badly it sucks? See for yourself:

Honorable Mentions:

“Banana Split” – The Dickies
“Banana Pancakes” – Jack Johnson
“Banana in Your Fruit Basket” – Bo Carter
“Banana Co” – Radiohead
“Bananas and Blow” – Ween
“Fried Bananas” – Cal Tjader

Why people associate children with bananas I can’t say. Certainly they are mushy and one of the first foods children can eat when their teeth haven’t yet come in, but it goes beyond that. There’s a famous kids’ musician named Shanna Banana, there is an Aussy kids’ show called Banana Pajama, there is Bananarama, there is even that knock knock joke about banana banana banana banana orange (the orange is, in fact, a relief from the evil banana repetition).

Like many people my age, the first time I ever applied a condom to anything it was to a banana. It was in a high school health class. For her part, my mother apparently received a traumatizing sex-ed lesson from her own mother that involved a banana; it put her off both for the rest of her life. Given the phallic nature of bananas –and the number of young people who are sexually abused– it is surprising to me that they have gained such an irrevocable place in the culture of childhood. But that is a discussion for another time.

Today, I invite you to enjoy a kumkwat:

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