UW graduate student finds that the TV show has become part of a universal children's culture
Thursday, December 16, 2004
By TRAVIS HAY
SPECIAL TO THE POST-INTELLIGENCER
"Sunny day, sweepin' the clouds away. On my way to where the air is sweet. Can you tell me how to get -- how to get to Sesame Street?" It's a song millions have grown up with and remember, remaining virtually unchanged in "Sesame Street's" 35 years of production.
And as the TV show spreads songs such as "Rubber Ducky" and "C is for Cookie" across the world, it influences children's pop culture everywhere it goes, according to preliminary research by a University of Washington doctoral student.
Andrea Emberly, a 28-year-old Ph.D. candidate in ethnomusicology, is examining how "Sesame Street" has gone from a gateway to education to a street in the global village. She is studying how international productions of the show have helped create a universal children's culture, delving into new academic territory in the process.
Emberly finds the program combines elements of children's daily experiences, such as music, play and education, to relate children's experiences to one another and to draw them together.
"It's this idea that this program can somehow go across borders and go into different communities and cultures and be applicable based on the premise that children need to be entertained and educated. " 'Sesame Street' combines these two things," she said.
Getting in touch with Takalani
"Andrea is breaking ground in the realm of children's education and music," said Patricia Campbell, a professor of music at the UW and a member of the doctoral committee who has helped Emberly fine-tune her research. "She is one of a small number of people exploring music and its meaning in children's lives."
The research has landed Emberly a chance to study the program abroad. When Sesame Workshop heard about her studies after she spoke at a conference in Florida earlier this year, it contacted her. Sesame Workshop is the non-profit educational organization behind "Sesame Street." Emberly then asked permission to conduct research in South Africa.
She was put in touch with "Takalani Sesame," the South African version of "Sesame Street." Next year, she will travel to South Africa to study the program's production and to conduct research she hopes will help substantiate her theory.
Emberly will be in South Africa for 20 months and will work with the producers, composers and creators of "Takalani Sesame."
The show made headlines a few years ago when it featured an HIV-positive Muppet named Kami. Along with promoting South African culture, one of the program's primary goals is to inform children about HIV and AIDS, which is where Kami fits in.
"It's a little bit of a wacky project. It's not your typical 'I'm going to India to study North Indian sitar music.' It's a little out there," said Emberly.
Muppets equal Madonna
Emberly's interest in the connection between children's programming and music started when she took a course about globalization and popular music. During the class, she thought about popular music for children and began to study "Sesame Street" because it combines music and education.
"Television is popular music for children. People everywhere know pop stars like Madonna, whereas children everywhere know these 'Sesame Street' characters as pop music stars," she said.
The first episode of "Sesame Street" aired in 1969. Three years later, the first international version was produced. Today, internationally co-produced versions of "Sesame Street" air in 120 countries.
Each international version of the show has an underlying educational curriculum specific to its country's culture. For example, the Egyptian version, "Alam Simsim," teaches parents and children about family health, hygiene and nutrition. Since it began airing in 2000, the show has produced 170 30-minute episodes and is broadcast in 22 countries in the region.
When "Sesame Street" first hit the U.S. airwaves 35 years ago, it had no competition. Today it competes against popular kids shows such as "Dora the Explorer" and "Blue's Clues." While the competition is stiff, "Sesame Street" has managed to win 91 Emmys and, according to PBS, more than 8 million people in the States tune into "Sesame Street" weekly.
Emberly has been researching the show for nearly two years and her work so far is summed up in a 12-page paper titled "Can You Tell Me How To Get to Sesame Street?" She presents the paper at conferences nationwide and recently spoke at Experience Music Project's Pop Conference.
Warren Zanes, vice president of education at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, sat in awe as he watched a clip of happy monsters singing with R.E.M. during Emberly's EMP presentation.
"What you typically get at conferences on pop music are presentations on performers," said Zanes. "What her research does is that it shows us music is everywhere and she chose a unique way to present it with 'Sesame Street.'"
C is for consumerism?
Along with singing Muppets and monsters that have become pop-culture fixtures, such as Elmo, Big Bird and Cookie Monster, "Sesame Street" often parodies popular TV shows then adds a moral at the end of each vignette.
On "Sesame Street," television therapist Dr. Phil is parodied as a touchy-feely puppet named Dr. Feel who teaches children how to express their emotions. The puppet treatment of "Joe Millionaire" is "Joe Hundred Guy," a character who teaches kids to count by tens.
Television stars aren't the only ones who mingle with the show's puppets and monsters. In addition to R.E.M., popular musicians ranging from 'N Sync to Norah Jones have made appearances, all promoting an educational message through their music.
Jones performed a version of her song "Don't Know Why" titled "I Don't Know Why Y Didn't Come." At the end of the sketch, she spells words such as yellow, yogurt and yodel with the help of Elmo, teaching a lesson about the pronunciation of letter sounds.
However, the program's blending of pop culture and children's television has been criticized as a means to prepare its audience to be consumers of popular culture, not to educate it. Emberly addresses this in her research.
"You think of 'Sesame Street' as this sacred thing that you revere in your head and you watch as a child," said Emberly. "For most people watching 'Sesame Street' was a happy part of their lives, but then you turn around and look at it as a product that is being sold and it makes things a little depressing."
"It's more than just a product that is being sold," said Emberly. "That is definitely a part of it, but I would never just say the program is just there to promote consumer culture. I love it too much to say that."
When she returns from South Africa, Emberly will finish her doctoral work and start exploring ways to work with children and music.
"To think that I could write my dissertation on 'Sesame Street' didn't even cross my mind for a second," said Emberly. "But it's turned out to be a very fruitful avenue for understanding children, music in children's lives, media and popular music for children."
Kami: A bright yellow HIV-positive Muppet on "Takalani Sesame" in South Africa who teaches AIDS awareness.
Hu Hu Zhu: A blue opera-loving pig who teaches children about the arts on China's "Zhima Jie."
Haneen: A playful orange and pink monster with a vibrant personality who teaches tolerance on "Sesame Stories," shown in Israel, Palestine and Jordan.
Abelardo: Big Bird's cousin, with green feathers instead of yellow, who lives south of the border on "Plaza SÃ©samo."
Samsom: A big, brown, curious bear who loves to mambo on "Sesamstrasse" in Germany.
Rumpel: Oscar the Grouch's green cousin on "Sesamstrasse" lives in a barrel instead of a trash can and spends his time with his best friend Gustav, who is a caterpillar.
Zeliboba: A multicolored Muppet, who always wears a neck tie, was inspired by the tree spirits of Russian folklore. Zeliboba and his buddies on "Ulitsa Sezam" in Russia encourage optimism, nutrition and health.
Louis: This French Canadian sea otter promotes Canadian culture and the French language on "Sesame Park."
Pino: Another one of Big Bird's cousins, Pino is a blue bird who lives on "Sesamstraat" in the Netherlands. His catch phrase is "echt waar" (really?) and he helps children with socio-emotional development.
Travis Hay is a freelance journalist in Seattle. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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