The Wiggles’ story plays like a classic rock-and-roll chronicle: In Australia in the early 1990s, a group of friends get together at college and form a band. They record a self-financed album that gains them a steadily growing cult following. Within a few years they’re a sensation at home, racking up platinum album sales and winning industry awards, but the challenge of breaking America beckons. They manage to do it the old-fashioned way, through humiliating promotional appearances and grueling tours of the heartland, usually in support of a bigger act. Word of mouth spreads, though, and they are picked up by a major American label. Within a year, they’re headlining arenas and appearing on the Today show.
But one crucial element separates the Wiggles’ story from that of, say, INXS, who came over from down under in the 1980s: The Wiggles’ devoted fanbase consists of preschool children and the “bigger act” in question is Barney the Dinosaur. Since the band’s TV show was picked up by the Disney Channel in early 2002, the Aussie quartet has become the world’s most successful children’s act. Even before that, one of its videos could be found in an astonishing 40 percent of Australian households. Yet four years ago, the band—Greg Page, Anthony Field, Murray Cook, and Jeff Fatt (a fifth Wiggle left after one album)—were virtually unknown to Americans without a toddler at home. That changed when they made national news in 2004, when they were named the highest-grossing Australian entertainers of the year. That means they outearned Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman without ever having to throw a public hissy fit or marry Tom Cruise.
The Wiggles’ setup: Four guys, whose ages range from early 30s to early 50s, wear color-coded uniforms right out of Star Trek and sing, dance, and generally act silly. Their four sidekicks are all any kid could ask for: A chummy dog; a matronly, rose-loving dinosaur; a pirate (played by the ever-mugging Paul Paddick); and an octopus. Okay, maybe the octopus is a bit of stretch, but these guys are Australian. And in a perpetual cycle of branding, roughly half the songs they sing are about themselves or their sidekicks.
At my first Wiggles live show, with my two-year-old son, I began to wonder, Why is this band so freakin’ successful? A fair amount of the band’s success must stem from the fact that they try to engage parents almost as much as kids. Search the web and you’ll see parodies, parent-run fan sites and Wiggles blogs. And for all that can be annoying about them, you haven’t felt the full impact of parenthood until you’ve found yourself rocking out to “Hey, Hey, Hey, We’re All Pirate Dancing” in the car—alone.
How do they hold on to moms and dad’s attention? Well, the Wiggles write good songs, and not just in terms of today’s kids music, which mostly runs from Disney schlock to readymade Casio keyboard tripe. Put some alternate lyrics to the Wiggles’ best tunes, tone down some of the arrangements and you’d have the indie-pop buzz sensation of the year. In fact, Field and Fatt had a handful of Australian chart hits in the 1980s as members of pop-rock band the Cockroaches.
While the Wiggles’ songs take on everything from Polish polkas to country swing to surf music, the band’s primary models are the classics: Elvis, the Beatles, and early R&B. “Toot Toot Chugga Chugga Big Red Car” starts with a Hammond lick that’s invigorating, energizing and life-affirming. The chorus comes in straight away, gets into your head forces and you to sing along, but manages not to be grating; each verse introduces a band member in two-chord, head-bopping fashion; and the whole thing buzzes by in under two minutes, as do most Wiggles songs. The laid back, groovy “Monkey Dance” works harmony to sugary perfection while doling out simple dance commands and reassuring you that “It’s all right”. Both of these employ the colorful mariachi horns that the band uses so well to add color and a slightly offbeat touch. And “Fruit Salad” nails new wave, with a nerdy yet strangely funky bassline and detached, almost robotic singing. Page’s voice isn’t fancy, but it’s strong, adaptable and, crucially for parents like me who spend several hours a day hearing it, highly listenable. Sure, with several hundred songs penned, about every third one is just plain irritating. But then comes a song like “Hat On My Head”, with a simple lyric like “Hat on my head / It’s rainy today / I’ll be okay”, that’s genuinely affecting.
The Wiggles have a surprising amount of musical credibility. The late, ex-Crowded House drummer Paul Hester played on one of their albums and appeared as a chef in the accompanying video. They brought in Tim Finn to help with a reverent cover of Split Enz’s classic “Six Months in a Leaky Boat”, and they’ve also had collaborators as varied as the late Australian country legend Slim Dusty and ex-CCR leader John Fogerty. More important, they write much of their own material and play instruments on most of their albums.
The Wiggles replicate their sincere, straightforward approach to music in their overall attitude to children, which neither children nor parents fail to notice. Page, Field, and Cook have degrees in early childhood development and have said they were taught never to condescend to children. And they don’t. They have plenty of fun and do plenty of silly things, but it always seems as though they’re really enjoying it, even in the videos. There’s never that tongue-in-cheek, on-the-sly nod to parents that says, “Yeah, we know this is stupid and ridiculous, but we have bills to pay too.” In the videos and TV shows, you get the same feeling you get watching the Beatles movies—the guys are simply being themselves to an exaggerated degree.
As for the Wiggles’ live show? Well, my wife, our son, and I drove the nearly three hours from Madison, Wisconsin, to Allstate Arena outside Chicago for the first of three weekend shows. Inside the arena, Wiggles TV shows played before the show started, and our son was dancing and singing with toddler-like abandon. Then the lights went down, the opening lick of “Toot Toot Chugga Chugga…” played, the guys drove onstage in their trademark big red car, and our son… cried. “Can’t like it…,” he said, “Get in the car.” And he wasn’t talking about the big red one. The lights, crowd noise, camera flashes and loud music freaked him out. My wife and I decided that we had paid too much for tickets (at $35 apiece) to walk out, and fashioned some makeshift earplugs.
The Wiggles’ live show basically replicated of one of the TV episodes—the four guys sang, hopped around and danced while flanked by Dorothy the Dinosaur, Henry the Octopus, Wags the Dog and a half-dozen dancers with song-appropriate costumes. Page, Field, and Cook all played live guitar at some point, while Fatt contributed keyboard. With their headset mikes, they looked like four guys who never realized it really isn’t cool to dress up like Lieutenant Uhura for Halloween. But at least they sang live, no small feat with all the movement.
The set list included a satisfying mix of old favorites and tracks off the last few videos/albums, highlighted by Paddick’s Captain Feathersword. Clowning, dancing, exhorting the crowd with his trademark exclamations of “Ahoy me hearties”, he showed why he is the Wiggles’ secret weapon. Parents love him more than the kids do for his almost Pythonesque abandon, nowhere more apparent than when he quacked out hilarious Mick Jagger, James Hetfield, and Enrique Iglesias impressions. Everyone on stage seemed to be enjoying themselves, with Paddick and Fatt both busting up a few times. Only a stupid dancing “fish” and the equally stupid “Swim Like a Fish” interrupted the fun. By the end of the 80-minute set, even our son was grooving along.
As the Wiggles’ empire grows to include the likes of a “Wiggles’ World” wing at Australia’s Dreamworld theme park, and public scrutiny increases, not everything is as rosy as Dorothy the Dinosaur’s garden. As with a lot of bands discovered mid-career, the Wiggles have passed their musical peak; most of their classics are pre-Disney. Tellingly, for their first post-breakthrough American release they chose a reissue of 1994’s Yummy Yummy (which has since gone gold). The newest TV episodes find them yielding screen time to their sidekicks, cartoon facsimiles and, worse, horrible “Little Wiggles” versions of themselves played by child actors. And parents have slammed their latest video, Sailing Around the World for being a crass phone-in. But even if it seems that the guys are suddenly too rich to have to care, their genius can’t be denied—that won’t ever change the fact that “Fruit Salad” rocks.