When it comes to family democracy, the threat of sedition is never greater than when it is time to decide what music everyone will listen to.
Growing up, my family had a rule: the driver is the DJ. This will make sense to anyone who has gone FourFiveSeconds like Kanye West at every driver using their horns too liberally or had to throw out their Luther Vandross CD, because all that power of love always rendered them teary in the face of uncouth autorickshaws. (Illustrative examples of course. Luther Vandross: pshaw.) The only time Driver-Is-The-DJ fails is when a middle-aged mom is driving and car-seat-grooving to her tunes. Or, as is the focus of this dispatch, she’s grooving to her kids’ tunes.
Our parents’ generation enforced their musical tastes on us. My dad spent years assembling an arsenal of boxes – amplifier, stereo, woofers, speakers, turntable. Theirs was the Golden Age of music, the 70s (though, while my contemporaries’ parents were playing Joni Mitchell and Jimi Hendrix, my dad’s state of the art music system was used to deafen us via The Beatles, Boney M, ABBA and a selection of Country and Western). We knew all the words.
As we grew into our teens, two important things happened. We started driving. And we began to develop our own tastes in music. This was our first stab at being who we wanted to be! And it was time for our parents to rebel.
On our first (and only) road trip, we argued the entire way. My brother, driving us, was going through an unfortunate Eurotrash techno phase. My mother could not abide any of our “noise” and threatened to say the rosary the entire way or play Jim Reeves. I may have invoked a few religious stalwarts myself, averse as I was to my brother’s lobotomusic, Reeves’ mournful storytelling, and the squabbling.
On the trip back, we found neutral territory in ABBA.
Later, at jobs in music television and radio, I grew tolerant of all music genres (except high-pitched Bollywood nightingale-rie, capable of destroying inner puppies). I enjoyed self-indulgent prog-rock, cerebral compositions or abstruse lyrics as much as I loved me a good bassline or a tawdry love ballad. Cool friends would come over and make fun of my dusty "Best of" compilations hidden under the rock n’ roll, but they couldn’t conjure a blush out of me.
So I was not surprised when I found my kids’ music easy to listen to. It helps that pop music seems to go around in circles inspiring websites such as soundsjustlike.com. There’s also evidence of what old Bollywood music producers used to call – *cough* – inspiration, that is, sampling/collaboration, in today’s lingo, with the old guard of my generation. Because it turns out, the '90s’ influence on modern pop was just as Golden Age-y. (We just traded boxes for cables apparently.)
While we applauded One Direction (forgiving them when they lifted a style from another favourite band, Mumford & Sons), listened to the charts, and were sneery about Beliebers (until the respectable new album), something else happened by mistake. Pop music became a way to discuss everything: fashion, body image, projection. It is a great way to discover the ubiquity and insidiousness of sexism in the media.
Watching the American Music Awards with the kids, I pointed out to the girls how all the men were in suits while the women were in “spangly chuddies.” (Late last year, my 10-year-old insisted on wearing a suit to her auntie’s wedding). We debated whether Meghan Trainor’s All About That Bass was perhaps not that body-proud if her mama told her, “Boys like a little more booty to hold at night.” (“Mamas don’t care what random boys think of their girls’ booty, ladies.”) On the other hand, Lorde, with her lack of Photoshop and hair-straighteners, makes us think she is the coolest. (In the politics of feminism and hair, we’re on the side of the au naturale… mostly because it’s convenient.)
Musicians who have had time as television hosts present a particular conundrum. The children have a trusting relationship with them. Both Selena Gomez (Wizards of Waverly Place) and Ariana Grande (Sam & Cat) were adorable on their TV shows, but, as pop singers, are remarkably inappropriate role models for the same age-group. So we discussed "fitting-in" to "get on" versus striving against the tide to bring about change.
Miley Cyrus and Nicki Minaj were voted worst role models for children last year. Yet they and their pop music are not without parental value. Minaj (also guilty of the spangly-chuddie-syndrome) is great: for inspiring conversations about societal pressures to have plastic surgery and about how Baby Got Back does more for fat-bottomed girls than Anaconda. Miley Cyrus, however, inspires more inner conflict. We loved Hannah Montana. We were slightly perturbed by the twerking. But my teen and I had a chat the other day about how – given the kind of pipes, talent and experience she has – Miley may be playing the patriarchy, rather than the other way around. We’re waiting and watching on that one.
A couple of months ago, on a road trip back from Goa, the car was stuffed with three teens, one preteen, Finally5, me, and my husband (the resident music snob), who was driving and DJing. The children happily listened to The Beatles, REM, Arcade Fire, Future Islands, Kanye (clean versions) and more. No squabbling. No invoking the gods. He elicited a cheer from the back seats when he put on some One Direction.
I felt like we had started a revolution. And it was gonna be all right.
This article was first published on The Swaddle.