“Alexa,” my oldest calls out, “Play ‘September’ by Earth, Wind, and Fire.” (Alexa is not another child, but merely another tech gadget of ours, a wireless, voice-activated internet speaker, with whom I am on good terms.) I’d like to take credit for introducing this song to my kids, but it more likely came from some dancing kid on a hover board in a YouTube video. All three of my kids will belt out the lyrics and dance, full-out, around the kitchen. “I think this is my favorite song,” my 8 year old declares. I laugh to see them so carefree and enjoying a classic song.
While they sing, my husband points out that, as a kid, he used to think part of the lyrics were “party on…” A real problem for us, back in the day. We sang what the lyrics sounded like, not necessarily what they were. Because, unless we had the album and they chose to print the lyrics on the record jacket (not a given), or we heard from a reliable source (a DJ on the radio), we were left just singing out what we heard, not unlike a party game of “telephone”. Often with embarrassing consequences. Oh yes. The struggle was real.
Not an issue today. Everyone knows all the lyrics to all the songs with a simple internet search. Something our little guy figured out about two years ago. (Those lyrics, by the way, are “bah-de-yah”. Yeah, we looked it up.)
But oh, the luxury of playing a song, any song, whenever you want to. Our kids will also never know the pain, the anticipation of waiting to hear your favorite song on the radio. Usually this happened in the car for me and my brother. We’d finally hear it, that song we’d been waiting for, the song that instantly put a smile in our soul, and got our heads bobbing. Then whenever we’d arrive at our destination, our mom would of course, predictably, and likely oblivious, shut off the car. And the radio. In the middle. Of. The. Song. And we hadn’t heard that song in, like, a week because the DJs and the stars just had not aligned for us. Usually we were just stuck listening to whatever station mom put on because we children were not allowed to “fool around” with the stations while she was driving. If we were lucky, some semi-contemporary, blended station might be on, and we might get to hear part of a Madonna song before she really paid attention to the lyrics and then changed the station anyway. Most of the time we were stuck listening to some Steely Dan, or the B-side of Lionel Ritchie, or Christopher Cross. My own personal torture usually involved being a captive audience to Kenny Rogers. Except for “The Gambler,” that one was okay. I always like the line, “and somewhere in the darkness, the Gambler, he broke even…”
I guess I never realized it back then, but I started receiving an education in music appreciation at a pretty early age. My mom’s radio in the kitchen and my dad’s radio in his basement workshop were always on. Unless we were sleeping. Or Walter Cronkite was on.
My dad loved the oldies, still does. I grew up with a healthy appreciation for Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and The Drifters. I knew most of the lyrics to every popular song by The Temptations and The Four Tops, and I can still hear my dad singing “Poison Ivy” by The Coasters. Right alongside these classics, I knew “O-o-h Child” and “Spirit in the Sky” before Marvel and Guardians of the Galaxy made them cool again. I was immersed in a mix of classic 1970’s pop/rock and Motown- that was the background music of my childhood. So when I hear a remake of “Dock of the Bay” by Michael Bolton, a little part of me dies inside.
It was an understood, unwritten rule, that neither my brother nor I were allowed to change the radio stations in the kitchen or the basement. Unless my parents weren’t home. And then we could turn up the volume and revel in our own choice of music. But we’d better remember to change the station back before they got home, or we’d be in trouble.
My mom’s record player in the living room helped me develop a strong affection for The Eagles and an equal disaffection for Barry Manilow. Although by sheer exposure and a sort of music diffusion, I learned the lyrics to most of both of them. Knowing Barry Manilow lyrics was like a party trick when I was in college-I got a few good laughs out of that.
The best gift I’d ever received as a kid was my own stereo– with a cassette player and a turntable. Oh- the Power- I could listen to whatever I wanted! And so began a push and pull of opposing musical tastes and genres as I grew up: my parents’ steadfast devotion to their classics in the common family areas of the house, versus my desire to listen to more current music of my generation, that my parents had absolutely zero interest in: Prince, Cyndi Lauper, Van Halen. I couldn’t hide in my room forever, as much as I would have liked to at times, and so any family time together was spent listening to their music.
Through my college summers I worked at a small concert theater. Their line-up of artists was similar from year to year. Faithfully, The Temptations and The Four Tops would be there each summer. Listening to those songs was like hearing old friends stop by- I’d smile and sing along, my fellow twenty-something co-workers would look at me and blink. “How do you know all the words to all these songs??”
One day not too long ago, while shopping, my kids heard a snippet of this “catchy tune” over a store’s loudspeakers. When they asked me what it was, I immediately recognized Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke”. I played the whole thing for them when we got home. Ah, the convenience of YouTube. They liked it right away. I’m happy to say they can sing along with Queen, and they know a selection of Prince, Michael Jackson (Jackson 5 and solo), Journey, Billy Joel, Elton John, and a smattering of one-hit wonders of the 1980’s and 90’s. My oldest even started to teach herself to play “Lean on Me” on the piano.
I don’t play a radio constantly in my house (most days I prefer the silence), but as a busy family of 5, we spend a lot of time in the car listening to music. I make it a point to listen to some of the stuff the kids love, I’ve even discovered I actually like a lot of it. I’ll listen to 21 Pilots, right alongside JT and Bruno Mars. But I’m not a Beiber fan, and I really don’t care for Drake. Often they’ll pull up videos of new songs they think I might like and we listen together.
I guess it stands to reason that I want my kids to appreciate lots of different types of music as well. Why? Because I think opening your mind to listen to different types of music is one step away from opening your mind to listening to different opinions. Music is what brings people together, across generations, across the country, even across the world. If you practice keeping an open mind, you’ll hear things – lyrics, tunes- from a someone else’s viewpoint. Maybe you’ll even discover something you like that you never thought you would, or at the very least, you can just acknowledge it and possibly learn to appreciate it. Within the beautiful commonality of music, there are infinite possibilities for experiencing differences. Keep an open mind, be open to curiosity, be open to learning something new.
And although I constantly try to keep up with my kids’ musical preferences and current trends, I’ve never stopped singing along to “Take it Easy” and “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.” And no one better change the station when Mr. Ray Charles sings about his Georgia.