My sons love pop music. Despite literally raising them on Bob Dylan, Dan Bern and The International Jewish Banking Conspiracy, They Might Be Giants, Israeli extravaganza David Broza, and Peter, Paul, and Mary, my 5- and 8-year-olds like gyrating in their car seats to Pink, Katy Perry, Macklemore, Drake, and–yes–Miley Cyrus.
I didn’t used to play any music in the car for the first years of my older son’s life. I was that hippy who believed that my son’s interactions should be with voices and conversation only. It worked with #1, but once #2 came along, #1 was almost 3 and was already used to hearing music by then. Also, #2 screamed bloody murder in the car for literally two full years, and sometimes music helped drown out his screaming. Or at least provided some illusion of drowning it out. (Ugh, those years sucked big time.)
Anyway. I played CDs for my sons initially but at some point the radio became introduced (should I blame my ex? OK! Just kidding, Mike. Sort of.). And that was the end of the innocence. Pop music is like the best candy ever. It’s generally mindless. It has no nutritional value. But it tastes so good. Like really delicious. Yummy. So yeah, I get it. I like pop music, too.
The issue is that pop music is/has become, in some cases, kind of racy. I am generally admittedly a socially conservative fuddy-duddy even though I am a complete bleeding heart liberal politically.
Here are some examples of some of the lyrics that concern me. See if you can guess the artist who sings songs with these lyrics.
1. That magic in your pants is making me blush.
2. My friends are in the bathroom getting higher than the Empire State.
3. Everyone in line in the bathroom, trying to get a line in the bathroom.
4. Face down, booty up. That’s the way we like to–what? I’m slicker than an oil spill. She say she won’t, but I bet she will.
5. So what we get drunk? So what we smoke weed? …We roll one, smoke one, when you live like this you’re supposed to party.
6. Buns out, wiener.
Yeah. I think that’s enough for now. Everyone OK? Yeah, it’s kind of hot in here, I know.
Here are the three outstanding concerns I have:
I don’t want my sons to dislike/dread being in the car with me if I limit pop music because of racy lyrics. Especially after a divorce, it’s important to me that my children like me and don’t constantly tell me why their dad is better, cooler, more fun, cleaner, or more cuddly. I don’t want my sons to see my car as the boring car. Or me as the boring parent. I tend to be pretty strict anyway, and I don’t know that I need more evidence for my strictness right now.
I don’t want my sons singing about magic in pants and smoking weed and booties up. Period. Right? The notion that those lyrics “go right over their heads” is actually not accurate and I don’t buy that. Words have meaning. I don’t know why Juicy J (the rapper in the Katy Perry song) wants to “put her in a coma” and I don’t want my 5- or 8-year-old asking me why either. Adult themes, especially sexual ones, don’t belong in my sons’ mouths. I’m pretty sure about that.
Everything is relative. Einstein was right, and saying that is not just a conversation ender (although if you use that phrase in any conversation you will magically see it end; it’s kind of amazing!). Meaning and value varies depending on audience, perspective, intention, and context. Totally. 100%. I get that.
For example, Dan Bern sings about damning Hitler’s soul to hell in his version of Woody Guthrie’s historical folk song, “The Biggest Thing Man Has Ever Done” and I have written here before about how I presented that notion of Hitler to my sons when they were very young. Neko Case, one of my favorite artists, just came out with an amazing album, “The Worse Things Are, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You.” It has some difficult songs about her extremely difficult childhood. She uses a few very specific prickly words in a few songs and I typically skip the song with the prickliest words, but there is one song called “Man” which is not prickly except for a few words in the bridge. And it’s not gratuitous, and I make sure to tell my sons that we do not use those words at all and that she had a very sad childhood and wrote to get those feelings out because she is an artist and sometimes artists do that. But I make sure to be very specific about how language matters and how prickly words are always prickly. My sons happen to be extraordinarily reasonable (I don’t say this to brag, it’s more a feature of their genetic make-up and their extremely reasonable father’s temperament). This seems to make sense to them.
So where does this leave us? I like pop music like I like candy: sometimes, not all the time, and with an awareness that you can’t live on it. So I mix it up. I try to play pop radio for my sons even before they ask for it, so they can see I dole out candy willingly and we don’t always need to whine to Mama about it. And I make sure to remind them playfully that I work hard so that I can make money and that I bought my Audi and get to decide when I want to listen to Neko Case and we will work it all out. If all else fails, I put on Michael Jackson because that makes everyone happy, since my sons love Michael Jackson more than any current Top 40 pop music.
Also, I love to sing in the car. And when I sing, I mean I sing. Like really sing. Like I’m on stage. Like I AM Neko Case. My boys think it’s funny, and they also know that sometimes Mama cries when she sings in the car. Even some pop music can make me cry. Notables: Taylor Swift’s “Mean,” Passenger’s “Let Her Go,” and Jason Mraz’ “I Won’t Give Up.”
What I really hope is that my sons look back on their years of Mama singing her heart out as we drove places and know that an artist’s soul can create memories and feelings and depth and sometimes they come out of an Audi stereo and sometimes they come out of a tired overwhelmed mama who feels like she is spinning every plate in the house all of the time.
Those memories and feelings and depth can be expressed and experienced with pop music but it mostly happens for me with other music. And we need both. We also need everything in moderation. Because you know what?
It’s all relative.
For those playing along, the answers to the lyrics quiz above are: Ke$ha (who makes me feel like an old person); Fun!; Miley Cyrus; Pitbull/Ke$ha; Wiz Khalifa/Snoop Dogg; Nikki Minaj.