My son and I were driving home from school the other day when Gayle came on the radio singing “ABCDE forget you”.
She doesn’t say “forget,” my son informed me. And she doesn’t say “broken down car”. And she doesn’t say “things you call art”.
“Wait,” he said. “I’ll play you the real one.”
I imagined the Kidz Bop writers’ heads exploding.
I also imagined myself around my son’s age, trying to figure out why my mom didn’t want me to listen to Madonna sing “Like a Virgin.” (I had no idea what a virgin was, beyond a vague idea that it had something to do with baby Jesus and Christmas.)
Parents have been outraged by their children’s music for ages. The same year my mother changed Madonna’s station, Tipper Gore’s Parents Music Resource Center released their “Filthy Fifteen” list, with songs (including Madonna’s) they wanted banned from radio. Senate hearings followed. Parenting advice labels have sprung up. The hands were twisted.
And it was all two decades after “Puff, the Magic Dragon” had parents tugging at their fainting couches and three decades after Elvis’ hips sent the wrong kind of shivers down parents’ spines.
My friend and podcast partner John Duffy tells a story about his brother who had to bring a Partridge Family album into their house lest it be confiscated by their pop-hating parents.
I think we are finally moving away from that era. And frankly? Not a moment too soon.
Of course there are exceptions, and of course there will always be families in which certain artists, lyrics, musical genres are forbidden (read: Children must enjoy it in secret).
But what I’m noticing more and more – with my own kids, their friends, my friends, families reacting to music being played in public, families learning TikTok dances together (I’ve watched a lot of grandmothers do the dances Cardi B “Up” ) – it’s the kids and their parents who put so much of their lives on the same soundtrack.
Music, instead of being something to hide or be ashamed of – or something to shame someone into loving them – is something to be shared. Something to enjoy together or roll your eyes together or discuss together.
I think that’s partly why my son likes to tell me when the songs we hear on the radio aren’t the “real ones”.
“I don’t know a better way to connect with your kids than to listen to their music, really listen, without judgment,” Duffy, who is also a family therapist, told me when I mentioned my musical thoughts to her. “If you ask them what draws them to a particular song, sound or lyric, I guess you’ll learn something about the depth, the thoughtfulness of your child, their inner world that you otherwise find difficult to access. “
That was definitely the case last spring when my son showed me Lil Nas X’s video for “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” which features the singer doing a stripper poll in hell and giving Satan a lap dance. (My mom thought the “Footloose” soundtrack was controversial.)
The Lil Nas X video led to such a fascinating discussion about gay pride and Christianity and refusing to conform and social media trolls and to Duffy’s point I really don’t know how we would have arrived at these topics so transparently if they weren’t handed to us on a (slightly self-explanatory) platter.
I appreciate being let into my children’s world, even when I’m a little surprised at what’s going on there.
“By showing you understand — again without judgment — you deepen your connection to your child,” Duffy said. “It’s the kind of connection that is invaluable and can pay dividends when you need it.”
I also think it’s worth noting that a relaxation of musical mores does not coincide with the fall of civilization.
The teenage birth rate has been falling in the United States since 1991 and hit an all-time high in 2019, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Teenagers are waiting longer to initiate their first sexual encounter, and the percentage of young people who have sex in high school has been declining for decades.
Drug and alcohol use among American teens fell by a record amount in 2021, according to an annual National Institute on Drug Abuse survey that began in 1975. And the percentage of teens who said they had “already tried to smoke cigarettes” fell from 70 to 24 between 1991 and 2019, and the percentage of adolescents who reported currently using cigarettes fell from 27.5 in 1991 to 6 in 2019.
None of this means that children are not in difficulty or that they are no longer finding less useful ways to deal with these difficulties. We have placed an almost intolerable load on their young shoulders, and now a pandemic to boot.
An antidote to all of this, however, for all of us, is connection. And music can be that connector. It can open up some pretty tough times and open some really important windows into what our kids are hearing, feeling, fearing, loving.
It’s a gift when they let us in.
Heidi Stevens is a columnist at the Tribune News Service. You can reach her at [email protected], find her on Twitter @heidistevens13 or join her Facebook group Heidi Stevens’ Balancing Act.
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