I have long felt that I owe the Rev. Frederick McFeely Rogers an apology for reasons I will explain shortly. Rogers, an ordained Presbyterian minister, did Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood on PBS from 1968 — the year I was born — through 2001. It deservedly won four Emmys and a Peabody Award. He taught us it is good to ask questions and I have been doing that my whole life.
When I saw an opportunity to review an album of covers of Mister Rogers songs, I snapped it up faster than Mister Rogers could take off his sweater at the start of the show. But when Songs From the Neighborhood: The Music of Mister Rogers arrived, I realized there were four problems:
My interest in Mister Rogers never really had anything to do with the music. The musicians covering his songs are not ones I like. Each time I put on either the CD or the accompanying DVD, I fell asleep.
I was always more of a fan of Sesame Street and Electric Company than Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
And yet, I felt guilty. You see, one of my youthful indiscretions involved using cultural landmarks such as this series to make people laugh. And so it was I wrote a story involving Gumby referencing Mister Rogers. The story made people laugh. Laughter was — and still is, I guess — my legal version of crack. Making someone smile or, better yet, laugh or snort would make me feel good all day.
I took from that a lesson: Mister Rogers is easy to make fun of because so many people remember it. When Eddie Murphy did his own jokes about Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, I decided it was no longer cool to mock Mister Rogers. So after doing one more story, in which Libya’s leader, Muammar al-Qaddafi, goes on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and holds characters hostage, I decided it was time to let Mister Rogers do his show in peace.
When Mister Rogers died on Feb. 27, 2003, I felt a strong emotional reaction. It was a mixture of guilt — for my acts of blasphemy over a beloved educator — and awe, as I realized how good he was at what he did and how hard he worked to help educate children. Perhaps my own career change from journalism to teaching was a factor too. If I could touch and positively impact just ten percent of those moved and helped by Mister Rogers, I would be a happy man.
I decided to set my objections aside and vowed to listen to the album five more times and turn in my review by the end of Easter. I wanted to give this album a fair shake and it’s not Mr. Rogers’ fault if I don’t like Jon Seceda, BJ Thomas, and some of the other featured singers. But I still could not get into this album.
The three words that I kept thinking about when listening to this album are these: “Overproduced” and “too slick.” I wanted to expand on that – that was the reason for the delays. But elaboration or a song-by-song review would not really tell you much when, in my case at least, this album just rubs me the wrong way.
Roger’s simple beautiful songs are taken, reworked, processed like cheese and performed in a studio with backing musicians. The resulting songs sound more like cheesy adult contemporary pop I’d hear at a dentist’s office than on his show. That is a shame because the songs themselves, especially the lyrics, are beautiful works.
The lyrics — which are filled with positive messages — are included at the Website for the album. My favorite is “Did You Know?” sung by Crystal Gayle.
You can ask a lot of questions about the world…
And your place in it.
You can ask about people’s feelings;
You can learn the sky’s the limit.
Did you know? Did you know?
Did you know when you wonder you’re learning?
Did you know when you marvel you’re learning…
About all kinds of wonderful,
All kinds of marvelous,
Marvelously wonderful things?
Obviously not everyone is going to agree with my opinion. This album won a Grammy in the Best Musical Album for Children category, so someone clearly liked it. But that is part of the problem, this whole effort seems to be shooting for awards and recognition rather than being about connecting with children.
In short, here is the problem: Just because the music was written by Mister Rogers — a true American hero — does not mean an album featuring his songs is going to be good.
I apologize for making fun of you. I apologize for not liking this album. But if I learned anything from you, it is that it is acceptable to have different opinions. Thank you for all you have taught me and the world. You taught us so many important lessons, from the importance of loving ourselves to the value of learning and standing up for what is right.
I miss you,
1. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (Jon Secada)
2. It’s You I Like (Amy Grant)
3. It’s Such A Good Feeling (B.J. Thomas)
4. Then Your Heart Is Full Of Love (CeCe Winans)
5. What Do You Do? (John Pizzarelli)
6. This Is Just the Day (Maureen McGovern)
7. Sometimes (Bobby Caldwell)
8. Did You Know? (Crystal Gayle)
9. Just For Once (Toni Rose)
10. Let’s Think of Something To Do While We’re Waiting (Ricky Skaggs)
11. Are You Brave? (Donna Summer)
12. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (Roberta Flack)
13. Thank You For Being You (Ensemble)