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Indie Rockers Find New Fans in the Preschool Set

This weekend I watched Feist’s “1234” video at least 15 times.

My two-and-a-half-year-old niece is obsessed. As soon as I arrived at my brother’s house in Louisville on Friday, Rilla requested we play “the blue dress song.” I figured she was referring to some Disney princess tune with talking birds, but she quickly put me in my place. “Feist,” she said, the duh implicit.

The video took a minute to load on my brother’s ancient iMac, causing Rilla to thoughtfully announce, “It’s buffering” (no joke). But as soon as the gentle guitar strumming began, Rilla was off, matching Feist move for move and word for word, spinning around the living room with a giant grin stretched between her dimpled cheeks. After a while, I was invited to join her. We even bowed at the end of the performance, just like Feist.

“Again?” Rilla asked, as soon as the video went black.

How could I say no?

Feist appeared on Sesame Street back in August, tweaking the lyrics to her breakthrough single about love gone sour to instead focus on the joys of counting (“one, two, three, four monsters walking across the floor / I love counting, counting to the number four”). Other than the fact that it features chickens and penguins, the Sesame Street clip looks surprisingly similar to the video directed by Patrick Daughters.

The funny thing is, Rilla prefers the regular, VH1-ready video to the Elmo-approved version. It’s the song, not the fuzzy monsters, that has her glued to the screen. I always assumed Sesame Street had guest stars like Feist to appease parents who were stuck watching daytime TV with their little ones, but that’s definitely not the case. They’re doing this for the kids.

Besides teaching tots how to count, spell and use the potty, Sesame Street is apparently teaching them good music taste. Now that’s difficult. As any new, style-minded parent is quickly horrified to discover, kids possess what Project Runway judges would call “a taste level” rivaled only by the likes of Liberace, Donatella Versace, and Vegas-era Elvis.

If you let a three-year-old girl choose her own outfit, she’ll no doubt pick something pink and puffy and covered in glitter. Her room would be decorated with pastel floral wallpaper, neon orange curtains, and a purple polka-dot bedspread. She’d eat Kraft macaroni for every meal and blast Raffi through the crappy speakers that came with the family computer (a PC, no doubt).

But Sesame Street is set on changing that. Over the years, the show has introduced impressionable viewers to Johnny Cash, Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, Dizzy Gillespie, R.E.M, and Norah Jones. (Of course, the Spin Doctors also made an appearance, but I doubt even Chris Barron remembers that.)

These performances are a success because they don’t pander to their underage audience. When Feist was on, she performed like she would for any show. This was also, famously, the reason Steve Burns was so successful at connecting with Kids on Nickelodeon’s Blue’s Clues — he didn’t talk down to them and he wasn’t over-animated in some condescending, cartoonish kid-show host way. He treated them like peers. And kids respond to that.

Other shows have tried to capitalize on the proven Sesame Street formula. Nick Jr.’s Yo Gabba Gabba! — a tripped out mix of Teletubbies, PeeWee’s Playhouse, and The Ed Sullivan Show — premiered last year and has since featured rad indie-rock groups like the Ting Tings, the Shins, and the Little Ones. Biz Markie even made a recent appearance. Cool, right? No! I love me some Biz, but I’m now concerned that the sight of the bullfrog-faced 44-year-old teaching toddlers to beatbox (by smacking his adam’s apple as he says his name) will go down as the next generation’s Bozo the Clown, Howdy Doody, or other life-long traumatizing image from childhood media. But Biz aside, kids (and their teenage babysitters) seem to responding positively to the show. They released a Yo Gabba Gabba! album this week and the iTunes music store is filled with gushing four- and five-star reviews proclaiming it “awshumm” and “ra-ra-ra-radical.”

I don’t know how Rilla feels about it — she’s never seen it. Right now, she only has time for Feist. My brother finally broke down and bought Feist’s 2007 album The Reminder. Rilla’s new favorite song is “Sea Lion Woman,” which was originally popularized by Nina Simone. Nina Simone!I’m fully expecting Rilla to be into Bessie Smith, the Soft Boys, and Neu! before she turns three.

Watch: Feist – “1234” (Sesame Street version)