Dances with Monty

Songs from the Science Frontier

Annelies Knight & Amy Charles 18 January 2011

Upbeat: Monty Harper (photo by Tony Thompson)

Monty is occasionally trippy, unafraid to rhyme 'herbivore' with 'sample core', and equally unafraid to let the kids know it’s awesome to get a fat check from the National Science Foundation

Fact: Oklahoman singer-songwriter Monty Harper is the Randy Newman of PNAS. His new album, Songs from the Science Frontier, may be marketed to the under-12 set, but it’s for kids the way Sesame Street was before it got gentrified by the ed-psych types who love up words like “metrics”. Monty is occasionally trippy, unafraid to rhyme “herbivore” with “sample core”, and equally unafraid to let the kids know it’s awesome to get a fat check from the National Science Foundation. The reality-based subversion and undiluted joy in science is belied by Monty’s wheatbelt-naif look on the CD cover, but don’t let the dino-shaped silly bands fool you. This is smart stuff.

I had a listen before I inflicted it on the official nepotastic reviewer, my daughter Annelies Knight, second-grader. I listened while drinking a cheap Bordeaux, always a fine way to review an album, and wound up belting out: “Go, superscientist, go! Break that code! Go, superscientist, go! Change – the – world!” It’s anthemic, I tell you. After a second glass, I found it harder to sing along with some witty lines about Pseudomonas aeruginosa and biofilms, and grew doubtful. If after a mere two glasses I had trouble with the long-caption lyrics about the failure of bat bones to fossilize well and the resulting search for species differentiation in DNA, not to mention the Nick-Kristof-length saga of the US Dept of Agriculture’s wheat-seed gene bank’s triumphs, how would a second-grader fare? Would she declare it boring?

The verdict: No. On the contrary, she loved it. Why? “Because it’s really catchy, it’s really fun to dance to, and (are all these songs true?) all the songs are true.” Even better, Annelies insisted on listening to, and dancing interpretatively to, the entire album three nights in a row, by which time she had most of the lyrics down pat. (I’m in the process of bribing her so she’ll let me post video clips of her dancing Bratz-style with molecular models to Folding@home’s new theme song, “What is the Shape of the Molecule?”)

That doesn’t mean Monty’s performing instant educational magic. When quizzed, for instance, Annelies figured it was important to know the shapes of molecules because they’re very small and hard to catch, despite Monty’s function-follows-form explanation. Did Annelies care that she didn’t understand much of what Monty was singing about? No. Frankly, I didn’t care, either. These are songs that will lie dormant in the kids’ heads till they hit the subject matter in high school or undergrad science classes. At that point the science will skip any textbook tedium: it’ll be lively, part of a half-forgotten favorite tune about a real and acutely described scientific world.

The album’s a little mol-bio heavy; two songs are general cheers for science (“Science Frontier” and “Born to do Science”), one’s archaeology (“Acrocanthosaurus”), and “It’s Not Fair” is a novel approach to describing how science is done; its setup, involving a psychologist experimenting on her teenager, is guaranteed to leave Institutional Review Board members queasy. “Wind Energy” is a cannily repetitive description of – what else – generating electricity with the help of Our Friend the Sun, and five of the remaining eight are fine-grained tales of the grooviness of fooling with DNA and understanding protein functions. I find it hard to complain, though, considering that I’m showering to that Bond theme waiting to happen, “My Molecular Eye” (sung by a phototaxic bacterium).

Monty owes a considerable musical debt to They Might Be Giants, though there’s plenty of Coke-and-a-smile 1970s folk influence, too. But enough from me: let’s hear what the kid had to say:

Which songs do you like best?

All the songs! Do I have to choose? Then “It’s Not Fair”, which is really fun to dance to and you can be the mom and I’m the kid, and “Born to Do Science.” If you have two people, one can be the baby throwing the cup and the other person can be the dad.

Who should listen to this CD?

Kids that really like to dance. It doesn’t matter if they like science, but probably they should be older than five. Otherwise they won’t know every single word of every single song.

What if the parents don’t know the words either?

They should get a book about science. Unless the kids know, and then the kids can tell them. But most kids wouldn’t know this stuff till they were ten or eleven. [Note: The CD comes with explanatory material, but a book can’t hurt.]

Is it a good CD for a classroom?

If it’s got lots of space for kids to dance. [A theme emerges.]

Tell me what you think of these songs:

“Microbe Hunter”: It’s fun to be a dead bacterium.

“Batman”: If you like bats you’ll really like this song because you can pretend to be a bat.

“My Molecular Eye”: Most people wouldn’t know bacteria can tell where they’re going by the light and the darkness.

“Ain’t It Beautiful”: Really good. It’s about plants and how they got so they didn’t get eaten.

How would it be if Monty Harper came to your school?

(With huge eyes) I would love it!

There you have it, folks. If you hurry, you can beat NPR’s Science Friday to the punch.