Forty years ago, Marlo Thomas assembled a gang of big-name musical and comedic talent — Mel Brooks and Diana Ross and Alan Alda and more. The goal? To create a children's album befitting second-wave feminism, an album that would break down sexist norms and teach children that they could express their gender — and themselves — however they pleased. The result, Free to Be ... You and Me, did just what it set out to do — the album eventually went gold, spawning a best-selling book and a TV special. Boys learned that "It's All Right to Cry," and girls learned that they could grow up to be both mommies and doctors — if that's what they wanted, of course.
Rob Kutner, Peabody- and Emmy-winning writer for Conan and The Daily Show, has released a new comedy album paying tribute to Free to Be ... You and Me, in honor of the original's 40th anniversary. The project, a collaboration with Stephen Levinson and Joel Moss Levinson, features the talents of Andy Richter, Lizzy Caplan, Fred Willard, Wyatt Cenac, Samantha Bee and others. It's titled It's Okay to Do Stuff, and it's a good bit less idealistic — and a good bit more irreverent — than the original.
This song, from Go-Go's member Jane Wiedlin, gives the album its title. (It also contains a twinkle of profanity, so play it advisedly.)
In "Divorce Makes A Family Twice As Big," the cheery singing of one mommy and daddy devolves into an argument about who's most to blame in the disintegration of their marriage. "Wally Wants a Real Doll" sends up the gender-progressive 1972 song "William Wants a Doll" — only this time, the doll in question has a more sexual nature. And "Swallow Your Dreams" sharply spoofs the difficulty of following your dreams in a post-crash economy: "So reach for the stars and be all you can be/ But maybe also think about a back-up degree."
Kutner says Free to Be ... You and Me was deeply ingrained in his childhood listening, and he lovingly blames it for making him the "crazy, obnoxious free-thinker who wrote these songs." But, in light of the current political and economic climate, he recognizes the difficulty of maintaining the fierce idealism that Marlo Thomas and her gang brought to the world.
"I'm the father of a four-year-old girl," Kutner wrote in an e-mail. "I struggle to get her to listen to the gender-enlightened 'William Wants a Doll' while she's steadily getting sucked in by the Disney-Industrial-Princess complex."
So could an album like Free to Be ... You and Me, with its brazen shattering of gender norms, be made today? Kutner isn't sure. He says it would likely be politicized, with the project's message becoming much more controversial and attracting the same objections that are frequently encountered by entertainment aimed at children that some believe to be offensive or inadequately value-driven.
But, in some ways, the original album is now more relevant than ever, when issues of gender identity and construction still loom at the forefront of discussion. Taylor Swift doesn't call herself a feminist and immediately becomes the target of criticism. Ann Romney is attacked for never working, and women leap to defend motherhood as a professional endeavor. And remember last year's J. Crew catalog, featuring a boy with painted pink toenails? Marlo Thomas would surely have something to say to those who criticized the ad.
Kutner doesn't tackle these issues in his short, 11-and-a-half-minute album — but that's not what he's setting out to do. ("If I emailed people and asked them to take part in a social critique, I'd get sent into more spam filters than a chunk of pig neckbone," he says.) It's Okay to Do Stuff is first and foremost meant to be funny — and it is, most of the time. Here, the earnestness of Free to Be is replaced with satire, but irony is the ethos of our age, remember? What we're left with instead are a few minutes of humor, and, perhaps, an invitation to revisit the lessons of the original album.