Such was the most recent stroke of good news in the potent, enduring tale of the Rockabye Baby series, which for 11 years and 78 albums has tried to mitigate one of the worst parts of being a parent – the music – with lullabied instrumental covers of songs from, you know, real bands.
The Beyoncé version is the latest in a list that includes Prince, the Beatles, Springsteen, the Pixies, David Bowie, Eminem, the Cure, Guns N’ Roses, Rush, Kanye West, Radiohead, Adele, Cyndi Lauper, Tool and Iron Maiden.
In its field, the Rockabye Baby series has carved out a “Weird Al”-esque dominance: 1.6 million units sold, 1.8 million single-track downloads and 130 million streams, although, to be fair, some of those might be from parents who have nodded off. Rockabye’s wares – branded by a decade-old design template and teddy bear mascot – are prominent in boutiques and baby shops nationwide in the US.
Steven Tyler and Joe Elliott wrote liner notes for their bands’ versions; Elton John and Metallica’s Kirk Hammett have gushed to the media.
“The obvious audience is the parent-slash-music-fan who has a sense of irony,” says Lisa Roth, executive producer of the series. “The musical palette is for the baby, but the packaging and homage to the artist is for the adults.”
The Beyoncé instalment, produced and performed by Andrew Bissell, includes definitive marimba-and-glockenspiel versions of Hold Up, Sorry, Drunk in Love and other songs that would get pretty much anyone fired from a day care. That said, it’s fairly shocking how well the melody of Single Ladies translates to bells and a xylophone.
“When you’re a parent, there’s a part of you that gets put on the back burner,” she says. “I like to think we’re a little bridge between the person you were pre-baby and the person you think you have to become post-baby.”
The Beyoncé lullaby record wasn’t pegged to her pregnancy – Roth found out about it on Instagram, like all of us. And Beyoncé would have received attention anyway. “It was just super-with-a-cherry-on-top lucky,” Roth says.
“So much of the kid-friendly music out there is super commercial and painfully grating,” says Robin Hilton of NPR’s “All Songs Considered”. “But these tinkling little instrumentals are oddly comforting. A large part of the appeal is the simple novelty of it all. But these are also really deftly arranged. They also tap into the kinds of bands parents today would have listened to growing up, so there’s a real nostalgia factor.”
There’s also the factor of being spectacularly marketed. The series is part of the CMH Label Group, the 45-year-old bluegrass-and-roots indie that houses the Vitamin String Quartet and the Pickin’ On series.
Roth didn’t grow up an especially lively rock fan, skewing more to the 1960s Motown and Stax sounds. But when she launched Rockabye Baby in 2006, she knew the metal angle would draw eyeballs.The branding was a coup. Almost all Rockabye Baby releases sport the same design, typography and colour palette.
They also are lousy with puns – the Beyoncé edition depicts the mascot-teddy in a black Formation hat drawn low. This is a standing gag and part of Rockabye Baby’s branding – the Bob Marley edition is a parody of the Burnin cover and David Bowie’s bears an Aladdin Sane lightning bolt.
Aside from Bissell, who also worked on Blur, Bon Jovi and the Police, the producers charged with finding the infant-appropriate melodies lurking beneath Kanye West’s Gold Digger include Steven Boone and Leo Flynn, who have been with the series since its conception. “In the transformation process, if something strikes me as funny, I know we’re getting somewhere,” Flynn says.
It takes about a year to get what Roth calls the “perfect clunk and tinkle” – the Goldilocks zone between rock rebellion and night-night calm. “We don’t take making lullabies lightly around here,” she says.
The process begins with dismantling the original track in search of its intention. “Then it’s: ‘How do I get that intention across in little short, plucky notes?’ It’s a lot of musical information to crunch,” says Flynn, who adds that his initial attempts on tracks by Queen and Kanye West came off as too aggressive and too noisy, with too many things hitting at once. So the process became more about taking away. “You’re trying to tone down the number of things going on, while trying to preserve the identifying parts,” he says.
Flynn’s hardest project was – wait for it – Van Halen, which Roth, sister of the band’s original vocalist David Lee Roth, waited awhile before attempting. The problem for Flynn was the best part of Van Halen – two searing focal points that demand your attention. “The guitar is very much the feature,” he says, “but the vocals are the protagonist of the story, so your ear naturally goes to those.”
If the music gets too heavy – a constant concern when dealing with Iron Maiden – they’ll throw in an ambient sound effect – a blowing breeze, a chirping frog. “Even though we’re in the bowels of a heavy, dark song,” Flynn says, “it reminds us that we’re in this lullaby world.”
Which leads to the question: Are there bands that can’t be lullabied?
“Never,” Roth says. “You would think a band like Black Sabbath that’s all minor chords, or somebody like Kanye, who sometimes raps with the melody missing, would be a challenge, and they were. But that’s the art of it .”