The Oberlin Review
<< Front page Arts December 15, 2006

Really Rosie is Really “Kind of a Big Deal”

Long before Will Ferrell and Anchorman were a spreading hemorrhage in the mind of the American public, before the supremely awkward yet arrogant “I don’t know how to put this, but I’m kind of a big deal,” also known as the quote that launched a thousand Facebook groups, there was Really Rosie.

“I’m really Rosie / And I’m Rosie Real / You better believe me / I’m a great big deal!” So proclaims the opening title track of the 1975 album; the music was composed by Carole King, and the words and stories taken from the books of children’s author Maurice Sendak.  Most famous for his book Where the Wild Things Are, Sendak topical contributed to Really Rosie from his works The Nutshell Library Collection.

A frequent selling-point for children’s entertainment and praise given by many who’ve lauded Really Rosie is that it is accessible to children, but also enjoyable for parents. While the necessity of this factor is based on children’s tendency to ask for a cassette to be replayed until the tape has all but evaporated, it overlooks an important point.  It is no fortunate coincidence that books and songs that are so popular with children are palatable to adults.  This is the case because good children’s art recognizes their intelligence and imagination and can therefore still stimulate the “let’s pretend” centers of an older brain, if that brain is so inclined.

Some of the songs are didactic but they mask it so well that no adult or child would hold it against them.  The alliterative “Alligators All Around” is a guided tour of the alphabet and its accompanying activities: “J - juggling jellybeans / K - keeping kangaroos / L - looking like lions / M - making macaroni / N - never napping.”  “Chicken Soup With Rice” details the months and the different ways to eat chicken soup with rice in all of them. 

“One Was Johnny” is about a ragtag assortment of animals and a robber who all enter Johnny’s home.  Johnny “lived by himself and liked it like that,” so he counts the unwelcome guests, up to ten, in dismay before  standing on a chair and threatening “Here’s what I’ll do--I’ll start to / Count backwards / And when I am through / If this house isn’t empty, I’ll eat / All of you!”

However, the most memorable lyrical lesson comes from “Pierre.”  The ultimate contrary child, Pierre’s responds to any question or statement by saying “I don’t care,” which is also the song’s refrain.  It takes being eaten by a hungry lion to make him care by the end.  Best of all the book ends without bad blood: “The lion took them home to rest / And stayed on as a weekend guest.”

Beyond Pierre and Johnny, the album’s cast of characters includes Rosie, of course, and her little brother Chicken Soup.  She is the center of her own world, which is ever terraformed by her imaginings.  These fantasies occasionally take cinematic form such as her re-envisioning of her home as a jungle: “In dreams / It seems / I always see / Avenue P / As it ought to be / In a four-star movie / Directed by me / And starring, of course, / Yours truly... [with] Avenue P [as], a jungle town!”  Also, in “The Awful Truth,” she elects the screen role of Dracula’s wife for herself.

The perpetual playtime and creation of the songs is tempered by hints at darker subjects.  This is another part of what makes this album mesh so well with kids.  It addresses things that adults like to pretend children can’t hear or won’t understand.  In “Screaming and Yelling,” Rosie refers to herself as “the enchanted one” and sees it as her responsibility to distract someone, possibly other children, but more likely adults, from all the screaming and yelling they are doing. 

“Such Sufferin’” takes this even further.  The lyrics alone are dark beyond a child’s years but the intonation makes them work.   The opening stanza goes: “What a life it is / The hardships, the tears / The desperate years / Such sufferin’.”   The song seems to be about dealing with sadness despite recognizing what you have.  By the end, if its mood has not improved, the song is at least more fitting: “Foo on such sufferin’ / Poo on such sufferin’ / Oh, nuts to all this sufferin.”

Sendak, in an attempt to summarize Rosie, said she “attempts, through fantasy — to override reality — or, rather, to impose on reality her genius for fantasy — to have things her way — to ignore failure and humiliation by refusing to admit having been involved — by putting a mask on reality — she purposefully disguises ‘the facts’ — but the facts peep through. . . the problem for her is finding a better mask — not seeing or accepting the facts.”  The two traits that stand out most about Rosie, and from the album’s message, are the power of make-believe and belief in oneself.

Musically the album is also very interesting.  By turns jazzy and folky, it tends to have more complex arrangements than King’s previous work.  “The Awful Truth” even has a brief Pink Floyd-like guitar solo at the beginning.  So check out this album because it was ahead of its time; it extolled the virtues of Chicken Soup long before DJ Webstar and Young B, and it is entertaining, without the qualifier of being for children.


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