Across the generations, when music styles are brand new and foreign, there is a tendency for some adults to forbid their kids from listening to songs they don’t understand or cannot explain.
In the following three personal family examples, I discuss music's power in forming emotional attachments and captivating young audiences. Youth will resort to innovative lengths to listen to novel sounds because music is a part of their cultural identity. The article concludes with strategies for understanding, educating, and communicating musical tastes between adults and their kids.
When my Mom, Sheila, was in Grade 9, The Beatles emerged as a radical band of misfits with weird haircuts — guaranteed half brothers of Satan himself. Charles, my Mom’s father, was a staunch English patriarch who dominated and inspired fear in his household. No one was to touch the AM dial on the radio. And under his roof, Sheila was forbidden to speak of such Beatles, let alone play with one in the back garden.
Mom was cunning. If she couldn’t watch the Beatles debut on the Ed Sullivan show, Sheila knew she was about to miss out on a cultural phenomenon. And since Sullivan himself was also spawn of Lucifer in Charles's eyes, Mom had to concoct a devious scheme to get her way. Luck shined upon Sheila that Sunday. She babysat two local children in her small town of Caesarea, Ontario. Mom brought candy and sweets for the kids to bribe them to go to bed early. When the children tucked in, Mom cranked the dial to CBS and at 8:12 p.m. Eastern time, Sunday, February 9, 1964, for North America to meet the mop tops from Liverpool.
At that moment, Sheila Marion Sharpe fell in love with Ringo and her giggling best friend, Marilyn Adams, on the other end of the phone line pined for Paul.
Fast forward to Monday morning at school. Three young women stared at themselves in the washroom mirror. Sheila pulled out a comb from her book bag and brought her hair forward to her eyes, emulating the “mop-top” famous look. Marilyn and the third friend followed suit, giggling back to class. Until Miss Clarke, Science Teacher looked up from her reading glasses and stopped the girls dead in their tracks.
March yourselves right back downstairs and fix that hair. If you don’t start looking normal, I’ll call your parents and you’re going home!
Grampa was confident The Beatles would lead youth astray with their radical hairstyles and hypnotic pop music brand new on the scene. He could not wrap his head around the quadruple's simple lyrics and how young girls became fanatics. What happened to the beautiful, simple ballads of the 1950s? In his mind, Charles was sure The Beatles were pure evil, and no amount of persuasion would change his point of view.
NIN — Nine Inch Nails
Head like a hole
Black as your soul
I’d rather die than give you control.
Bow down before the one you serve
You’re going to get what you deserve.
The chorus of the song blasted through our little wartime house in Port Hope, my brother Dan screaming along with the lyrics. In the early ’90s, anyone cool ran with the plaid-clad, Doc Martin grunge crowd — and idolized Trent Reznor’s dark and tortured industrial rock songs.
Except for Sheila. Yes, enter my Mom once again; this time, the tables turned. She didn’t appreciate this new group NIN — with the last N backward. Perhaps it was a secret code for devil worshipers. Or it may have been the incessant screeching; what happened to the days when people sang songs?
Dan — I’m warning you, if you don’t shut that filth off right now, you can march your ass out of this house for good!
All Sheila wanted was to hear herself think, and all Dan wanted was to rebel, be that angry 90’s guy suffering in teenage angst and a ghetto blaster to prove it.
N.W.A — Niggaz Wit Attitudes
When N.W.A released their debut studio album, Straight Outta Compton, in 1989; I was an awestruck eleven-year-old from the sticks who knew something historical was happening — but not quite sure what. While violence from south-central Los Angeles dominated the news cycle, music responded with fast aggression and anger. The title track F*CK The Police was a theme song for Generation X. I felt powerful listening to the message about rebelling against a corrupt system.
At that juncture, I had to acquire that cassette tape by any means possible despite the illicit advisory stamp granting those eighteen years and above to purchase.
My Dad and I traveled from our rural farm to Pennsylvania and visited a bear hunting friend. While the men were busy, I was taken to the local mall by the hunter’s wife. I possessed fifteen dollars American to purchase something for myself. When I became separated from the hunter’s wife, I eagerly stood by the record shop in anticipation. A young man strolled by, and I asked him if he would please purchase the N.W.A tape for me and told him he could keep the change. The man obliged, and I got my way.
When our short trip to Pennsylvania was over, I clamored into the back bucket seat behind where my Dad drove. Simultaneously, this feature was relatively new in trucks and allowed me to create a warm little nest behind my father. I slid the fresh N.W.A tape into my faux Sony (Pony?) Walkman and cranked up the jams. Before we even got to the state line, my Dad hollered at me —
“Hey, whaddya listening to back there?”
“Oh yeah, then why do I keep hearing effing this and effing that?”
“There was one song, with a few minor swear words like hell and fiddlesticks.”
“Don’t you lie to me!”
I remained silent.
“Gimmie that there tape.”
Once we arrived home, my Dad made me watch him chuck the cassette tape into the woodstove. The plastic melted in a strange green hue, emanating toxic fumes, and I felt a piece of cultural history and importance burning before my eyes.
Sometimes, parents don’t understand their kids' musical choices and want to shield them from imminent destruction. And when force is resorted to rather than collectively discussing and discovering the social, economic, political origins of the music, youth will revolt.
While I am not a parent and certainly cannot advise those who are, I was once a tween who loved N.W.A — and guess what? I still do! My suggestions are from the lens of that kid who was devastated to have the tape taken away. (P.S: Dad, I forgave you decades ago).
Here are five suggestions to mitigate musical differences in taste between family members:
- Acknowledge the song without judgment.
- Ask the individual what they like about the band, song, or singer. How does the music make the listener feel? Find genuine curiosity within yourself.
- Discuss the influences and societal implications of the song. Become educated to make an informed decision if the music does pose a threat.
- Consider your past. What music did your parents prevent you from listening to? Why? Now consider your family member. How is the situation the same or different?
- Are there music choices you can listen to together in the car or house? Or share podcasts discussing the history of music to generate discussion.
(I love the Ongoing History of New Music on Spotify, Apple Music)
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