A collection of kids, pushed by parents or teachers or by their own dreams of pop stardom, aspire to follow in the path of the Jacksons.
Afterschool Special: The 123s Of Kid Soul picks up a decade later where Numero Group’s previous kid soul compilation, Homeschooled: The ABCs Of Kid Soul, left off. The two compilations showcase the influence of the Jacksons on the musical landscape. Numero Group describes the artists featured on Afterschool Special as talent show titans. It’s a comparison that feels apt with the presence of anti-drug anthems ("I Am Free, No Dope for Me"), a children’s choir doing a call and response number ("I'm a Special Kid), or the requisite Jackson 5 imitators ("Every Where You Go"). It’s a fascinating document cut from the similar cloth as the Langley Schools Music Project’s Innocence & Despair, the Shaggs’ Philosophy of the World, or Donnie & Joe Emerson’s Dreamin’ Wild.
In Afterschool Special, one finds the fascinating juxtaposition found in the Langley Schools Music Project of young kids grappling with ideas and emotions that are likely foreign to their experience at that age. And just as with the Langley Schools Music Project, there’s something beautiful about it all, and it lacks the icky, voyeuristic element found in so much outsider music. It forces the listener to grapple with uncomfortable questions regarding exploitation or if the artist is the butt of the joke. There’s certainly an element of the latter in Philosophy of the World as the three Wiggin sisters were pushed into performing music by their father, Austin Wiggin. The kids featured here have a little more polish than the Shaggs and feelings of second-hand embarrassment are few and far between.
Second-hand embarrassment is a fascinating topic where consuming music is concerned, raising questions about agency. If the artist does not seem perturbed, who are we as listeners to decide how they should feel. Per the liner notes, the kids featured here were encouraged, perhaps pushed a little, to pursue music. Perhaps their guardians had dollar signs flash across their eyes following the success of the Jacksons and realizing their own charges had the spark of talent. But it may also be a case of an adult really going to bat for the children in their lives and supporting their interests as best they can. The Emerson brothers’ father Don Emerson, Sr. built his sons a $100,000 recording studio as a way of encouraging their musical interest. It nearly cost the Emerson’s the family farm. Dreamin’ Wild never sold much, but record collector Jack Fletcher stumbled across it in 2008. He fell in love with it and eventually the album was reissued by Light in the Attic Records and the Emerson’s were being covered by the likes of Ariel Pink. It didn’t come when they had hoped, but fame, of a sort, eventually found Donnie and Joe. Like the artists on this compilation, the Emersons were driven by a passion for music and fascination to what they could hear on the radio.
There are moments that border on cringe-inducing, such as the cover of Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”. The Brother’s Rap lack Scott-Heron’s rhythmic sensibility and ease of delivery but their audacity is to be admired and it ends up being quite the charming number. The production on many songs is thin-sounding, but part of the charm of the album is the scaled-down versions of the stuff on the pop charts. The highlight of the album is easily "Runnin' Wild (Ain't Gonna Help You)", which ticks all the right boxes for a pop/soul number and it sounds very much like something the Jacksons would have recorded.
Afterschool Special won’t be your go-to to sate a need for pop-soul, but it’s hard not to fall in love with these kids and their passion for music. “James Brown”, the cut that ends the compilation, is a bio of the musician and from the lyrics and the way the kids sing, you can just tell that’s who they want to grow up to be.