How Are the Singing Kids of Newtown Being Exploited?

Why performing "Call Me Maybe" for Ryan Seacrest can help them heal.

So, you know those little kids from Newtown who sang “Over the Rainbow” on Good Morning America? No—not the children who sang with Jennifer Hudson at the Super Bowl, that was the Sandy Hook Chorus. I’m talking about the kids iTunes calls the Children of Newtown, though other sources refer to them as the Newtown Music Project.

Well, this group of 21 kids of various ages, some who went to Sandy Hook Elementary School, are going to be on E!’s Grammy pre-show. Many in the group have performed with Paul Simon and Johnny Winter, as well as Ingrid Michelson, who they recorded “Over the Rainbow” with.

While I would’ve been excited to go to Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth’s house, where “Over the Rainbow” was recorded, I’m sure these kids needed their parents to explain who they were. (Man, did I have a girl crush on Tina Weymouth. I mean, who didn’t?)

Having a single on iTunes is pretty radical and wonderful for these kids, but now American Idol’s Ryan Seacrest and a crew will be flying to Connecticut to interview the children and, get this, have the kids sing “Call Me Maybe” alongside Carly Rae Jepsen.

Haters gotta hate, sure, but as soon as this news was announced people pounced, and accusations of exploitation and worse abounded. The trial by Internet centers on this: Are these exciting opportunities for a community and kids whose lives became a surreal hell, or are these kids being used?

Sabrina Post, who directs the group, said the kids wanted to do something with their talent to honor their friends and neighbors. Tim Hayes, who co-produced their single, says these activities help the community heal.

It’s crucial to note that proceeds from the iTunes download of the single benefit the United Way of Western Connecticut and the Newtown Youth Academy. The nonprofit academy opened free programs to Newtown children after the shooting and hopes to expand free programming. I’d call that use of profits appropriate, and even kind of perfect.

Look, having these kids sing “Over the Rainbow” is emotionally exploitative. The kids were told to sing for their lost community members; they were told to sing like the song was a prayer. But what’s the motivation? To make the kids feel like they can make an impact in a slippery, unsafe world? Why do people do anything when someone dies—bring over casseroles, send the son over to mow the lawn, offer rides—it’s to make themselves feel better, to affirm that actions do matter, to get back some sense of control. We do something because we have to; it feels better than doing nothing.

Also announced this week was French filmmaker Jonathan Bucari’s plans to make a TV movie based around the December 14th Sandy Hook shooting.

Bucari is already in Ridgefield, Connecticut— just 20 miles away from Newtown—to scout locations for his film. First Selectman Rudy Marconi and other town officials are against the movie, but Bucari says the project’s not really about the tragedy; it’s about a teenager with a mental illness and the “ever-growing fear” of his parents in the wake of the December 14th shooting. We can’t call that close enough? How about we target our outrage at that salacious co-opting of a tragedy.

(It’s more than a little creepy to me that Bucari’s only completed credit on IMDB is a 2011 film called The Sacrificial Lamb.)

Do these kids’ singing voices really warrant a Grammy appearance? Of course not. But no one is tuning into the Grammys to see these kids either, so where’s the exploitation? Having lived through a more intimate tragedy with my own children, I believe that these families are jumping at a chance to get these kids outside of themselves a bit, to give them a sense of control back, and maybe just because it will be fun.

Yes, whatever, the lyrics to “Call Me Maybe” seem a bit off for grade-schoolers, but they’re also not Chris Brown-esque; ripped jeans and giving your digits to a boy you just met are not outrageous ideas to put in these kids’ heads. As my friend Charlene says, “It’s the ‘Achy Breaky Heart’ of 2012. People will laugh. That’s a good thing.”

To have something to be excited about and look forward to is a key element in happiness and optimism. If one of these kids’ childhood memories will be this—remembering that awesome time they were on TV with Ryan Seacrest—hand them the mic.