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Voices of the 'Street'

Three-CD set captures 35 years of catchy, upbeat music from 'Sesame Street.'

October 16, 2003|Maria D. Laso | Special to The Times

Sunny, cloud-sweepin' days on Sesame Street, where the air is sweet with magic, are celebrated on "Songs From the Street: 35 Years of Music."

"There is a magic about 'Sesame Street' that endures no matter what your age," says Trisha Yearwood, whose "I'm Talkin' Love" is on the three-CD box set. "I forgot there were people operating those Muppets, and I found myself talking to them."

Clearly, folks behind the "Sesame Street" anniversary project hope former "Street" kids also feel that magic. The digitally remastered collection includes 25 previously unreleased tracks and 12 from long-out-of-print recordings. Marketing targets adults who can count to $49.98.

Although the oldest (1969) tracks are pure Muppet, the collection's allure is star power. The 2002 contributions are brought to you by the number 3: trios Destiny's Child ("A New Way to Walk") and the Dixie Chicks ("Sing").

Booking contemporary artists is a "Street"-wise strategy. "The show has frequently invited musical guests that would appeal to parents," says Heather Hendershot, media studies professor at Queens College, City University of New York, and author of "Saturday Morning Censors: Television Regulation Before the V-Chip."

"Music is the emotional connection of the show," says Tamra Seldin, vice president of marketing for the nonprofit Sesame Workshop. "We've been able to tap into the nostalgia factor by bringing together [people's] favorite characters ... segments [and] music."

Just how popular are the Muppets? People magazine ranks Kermit and his "The Muppet Show" co-star Miss Piggy No. 60 among its 200 greatest pop culture icons.

It's always been easy to get musical artists onto "Sesame Street." What was difficult was reining in a collection that "took on a life of its own" in two years of production, Seldin says.

Although there are now 4,000 shows and counting, it wasn't choosing that took so long. It was paperwork.

"It's not so much that anyone was fighting us, but it was a monumental task to get all the [music and photo] clearances," says David Pierce, executive vice president and general manager of Sony Wonder. "We all wanted it to be so special [in] ideas, packaging and songs."

Pierce says his favorite character lives in a trashcan. "Every time anyone saw me coming down the hall for two years, they knew I was going to ask, 'Where are we at with the box set?' " Was he emulating Oscar the Grouch? Or just being passionate? "We knew it was a great concept, and we wanted to see it happen."

Why the "Street" cred? Since day one, its vision of an integrated society made "Sesame Street" a good addition for performers' resumes. And some who watched as kids grew into stars who wanted to participate.

"Being on 'Sesame Street' was one of the biggest highlights of a career that's had many," says Yearwood, and that includes three Grammys. "Sesame Street" is "symbolically significant because of its urban setting and multiracial cast," says Ben Keppel, associate professor of history at the University of Oklahoma. In 1969, "the city had been the site of much political violence.... 'Sesame Street' provided an alternate vision where real, well-adjusted people lived, worked, played and learned from one another."

Plus, "These were not your mother's puppets," says Robert Thompson, founding director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University in New York. "These CDs reflect that 'Sesame Street' is really a Rosetta stone for reading a childhood."

The concept "was simple, yet it had an edge," Thompson adds. "Even if you were an edgy rock 'n' roller ... 'Sesame Street' ... was a call you took." Nostalgia for the '70s or '80s is often satirical, Thompson says, but affection for "Sesame Street" is genuine.

"Sesame Street" is "up there with any cultural icons you can name, the Disney universe, the [Charles M.] Schulz universe," Thompson says. "People everywhere, of all ages, even if they never had kids or watched it [themselves], know the characters and the concept. What else has been around like that 35 years? 'Meet the Press'? That's about it.

" 'Sesame Street' was urban, hip, gritty. They set out to change every rule in the book, to appeal not just to kids but to parents serving them oatmeal in the morning in two ways. One, the Muppets, a really hip population, had the gonzo street element to them. And secondly, the music, not only the original music but to tie into the contemporary and be like the 'big' boys and girls."

There's plenty for the big kids to like on this multi-genre, multigenerational 2 1/2 hours, because of star turns with celebrities including Cab Calloway ("Hi-De-Ho Man") and Johnny Cash ("Nasty Dan") and groups such as Ladysmith Black Mombazo ("African Alphabet") and 'N Sync ("Believe in Yourself").

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