In Music We Trust

Teaching my kids to be American — with pop songs

We were all enjoying the same thing for once: me, my two kids, and my wife listening to music, loud on a Sunday morning in our Mexico City living room, swapping between songs on a new playlist and music videos. Dora the Explorer was dead to us, and least for the day. Our world was free of demands for candy, at least for the hour. All we had was music, a pool of sound that was gloriously not the kiddie kind. The mix I had just spent an hour making with Balthazar, 4, and Amelia, 3, started out with “Runaways” by the Killers. That was followed by 16 other irresistible tunes, a mix of rock, pop and soul, which I also burned to a CD so we could share the joyful noise while stuck in traffic.

Not that we got very far into the selection. The second song — “Ho Hey,” by the Lumineers — became the family favorite right away. It had shouting and a cheery chorus, which pleased the kids, but around the 17th time I hit repeat, my wife and I had slipped just as deeply into that wonderful place with music, where time collapses and you’re everything you ever were and wanted to be. “This song, it reminds me of home, of the U.S.” said Diana, my wife, looking strangely emotional as the kids jumped around like rabbits. “It’s so American.”

That’s when our son, Balthazar, suddenly stopped dancing. He looked confused. “Dada,” he said, “what’s the U.S.?”

“The United States,” I said. But his blank stare told me that wasn’t really what he was asking. I considered grabbing the globe in his room. Instead I told him the U.S. was where we were all born, but that also seemed inadequate. What he wanted to know and what I longed to explain was what the country of his birth represents; why his mother got a little teary talking about it; why his parents feel so strongly about the place in a way he and his sister may never share if we keep living abroad.

Many expat and immigrant parents struggle with this. How do you hold onto your culture? How do you explain to kids what it means to be American, Mexican, Italian and Chinese? We all know the transfer of some knowledge happens organically, with shared language, food, and with visits back to relatives, but like most outsider parents, especially American parents, I wanted more. I wanted my kids to understand our culture, flaws and all, the idea of the country we called home. What I wasn’t so sure of was how to compress such it all into a form that would connect with my kids.

A few days later at a bar here in Mexico City I asked a few American friends — all parents who had lived all over the world and across the United States — how they would answer my son’s question. “It’s a place of youth, possibility, energy,” one mother said. Other familiar characteristics popped up: optimistic and confident, carefree, aspirational, fair.

Some of the parents said they went out of their way to make sure their children spent enough time in the United States to soak in “Americanness,” and according to one father of four from Texas, some American values seeped in by osmosis. The same children who told him to speed through red lights in lawless Mexico insisted on stopping at the first sign of yellow in Houston.

Still, it was pretty clear that our views were colored by living in developing countries where getting stuck in place was far more common, economically, on the roads, and in government offices. Outside the U.S.A. we could see the country in comparison. We had less trouble appreciating America’s relative advantages and overlooking the nation’s ugly partisanship and aggressive spying; its slip away from equal opportunity and its paranoid parenting that aims to baby-proof normal life. What we ended up describing, I suddenly realized, was the America of our pop music. “I belong with you, you belong with me, in my sweet heart” — the chorus of “Ho Hey,” that was us, able to love with abandon and longing because of the distance; able to experience patriotism in the special way that a great song produces.

The United States, at its best, is what we listen to when we have a choice. Even more than our eyes, our ears pull in the first lessons of culture. Sure, TV and movies shape our national self-image (Indiana Jones, you will always be my ideal American) but music is different. It’s so primal, it can be heard in the womb. Among all the various kinds of adult culture, it speaks to us first and in ways that are not entirely conscious.

I still remember being around 4 or 5 sitting on the floor of our tiny uninsulated cottage in Montauk at the beginning of a cold winter, flipping through my Dad’s record collection. He was working as a massage therapist at Gurney’s Inn at the time and my mother was already just an occasionally recurring character in my life. I don’t remember a single toy from back then but the albums I will never forget. I used to sit for hours playing with the faces and hairstyles on “Some Girls,” by the Rolling Stones, or just staring at the drum kit and the deep, dark road of Jackson Browne’s “Running on Empty.” Always, I was listening. I played the records through enormous headphones that made my neck sore from the weight.

That’s me around age three or four

I didn’t really grasp the attraction of certain songs until I saw what my kids were drawn to — music with motion; songs that build in momentum, or with big, shout-inducing choruses; songs that take you far and let you yell along the way. What our music tells us is that in addition to all the utopianism that we assign to the United States, there is an even more elemental urge that lies just beneath, like lava. It’s the desire for movement — the need to just GO. It’s what pushed the pilgrims to cross the Atlantic. It’s what opened up the West, and while the tendency to jump first and also led to American disasters in Vietnam and Iraq, only a country eager for travel and detours could have created jazz improvisation, or so many blues and rock songs about the road.

This U.S. of the let’s-go-for-it variety is the America I want my kids to grasp, drawbacks and all. Somewhere deep in their souls, I want them to know what I know about how music and possibility come together; the feeling of that hot Texas breeze blowing in the windows of the borrowed Chevy Suburban I drove cross country with three friends and hundreds of CDs, always played full blast to be heard over the wind. Or that achingly sad song by Bob Dylan or Nina Simone that somehow cheers you up and helps you think. Or the exuberant Beyonce track Diana listened to in Blackhawk helicopters when we covered the war together in Iraq.

Now, I think I know the answer to Balthazar’s question: the United States is like us and like its music — restless and unsatisfied except when active. When he gets older, maybe I will also tell him it’s a messy ensemble always a short trip away from genius or a deadly crash.

But of course the music is already teaching him what he needs to know. There’s an energy to the The Killers and other bands that work so well for him and his sister. Though I play everything from Dr. Dre and Beyoncé to Woody Guthrie and Journey they are already like musical drug addicts; visceral and needy, they pick what they like and stick to it. One of the first songs Balthazar and Amelia got hooked on, I didn’t even choose. “Make You Crazy,” by Brett Dennen. It was on a CD from an annual Christmas music exchange that we do with some friends, and when sung repeatedly at full volume by two toddlers in the back seat of a small sedan, the chorus—“it’s enough to make you go crazy” — is 100 percent accurate. Sort of. Truth is, I kind of enjoyed it.

That was really the opening number of a musical adventure that initially had nothing to do with bigger ideas. It was just fun, beginning in the car, in Mexico City traffic and on a six-hour road trip to Oaxaca. Then the music spread out to every corner of our apartment. Not surprisingly, I became one of those parents who happily handed over old iPods and headphones to the preschoolers, and even put speakers in their shared bedroom so they could listen to music (far louder than I’d expected) before falling asleep. I made playlists that mixed up songs I knew they liked like Springsteen’s “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” with songs I predicted they would enjoy (“Sweet Caroline” by Neil Diamond; “Hey Ya” by Outkast). And then I stood back and listened.

Sometimes their tastes were predictable (They Might Be Giants, Lady Gaga) but often, the kids surprised me. They would reject a song, then return to it. They would remember lyrics to songs I didn’t even think they noticed. God knows I never expected to hear my daughter, at two-and-a-half, singing “We Belong Together,” by Mariah Carey.

I also noticed at one point that a lot of the songs we listened to were dark or depressing. Even something like “Trapped” by Bruce Springsteen, despite its raucous build, did not exactly describe a blissful state of mind. But apparently, downers are often what many of us hold onto. My former editor at Rolling Stone recently told me his two-year-old son often requests “the sad song” — Bon Iver’s “Towers.” An Italian friend here in Mexico said that for her too, the doleful songs of home are what bring her back in time and place.

“One song I happened to hear on a Mexican radio just a few weeks ago was the Spanish version of a very popular Italian cult song by Lucio Dalla, an Italian singer who unexpectedly died just recently,” she told me. “Dalla’s early songs are the songs of my late childhood and adolescence. For me, they represent the essence of being Italian because they are full of poetry and nostalgia. They are not positive, happy and superficial songs. The convey suffering and passion.”

And perhaps the potential to overcome. I’ve always thought that buried in the blues, of any country, is the promise that change is gonna come. For kids, that is perhaps the draw, the longing for something new. Or maybe it’s just the intensity of the feeling itself. As the Lumineers sing in “Stubborn Love,” “It’s better to feel pain that nothing at all / the opposite of love’s indifference.”

Mostly though, for my kids and many of us adults, there’s no time for deeper meanings. Music just is. A successful pop song is a subway train that whisks us away. It is that rare experience both intensely local, and boundary-less, as Balthazar discovered during a prevoius visit to New York. He had already fallen in love with the city, calling the Empire State building as “the biggest house ever.” But it was quite a shock when he heard one of his favorite songs playing in a cramped grocery store. He was pulling at my arm for a while before I paid him any attention. “Dada, dad, it’s my song,” he said. “Listen.”

I strained my ears, but all I picked over the chatter of loud Americans and check out counters was a tinny hum and a touch of guitar. Maybe it was the Lumineers. Maybe the Killers. It didn’t matter. Eventually I figured out what I wanted to tell him. “The song comes from here,” I said. “This is the United States.”

A postscript: The kids are a little older now (Balthazar, 5; Amelia, 4) but still very into music. With another road trip coming up, we’re looking for suggestions. Got a song your kids loves? Tweet me: @damiencave

Follow Damien Cave on Twitter @damiencave.
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