You might not be able to teach your son to love music, Jason Fry writes, but you can still put him on the right paths.
A couple of weeks before Christmas, my nine-year-old son said he wanted an MP3 player. This was a surprise. Joshua had never shown much interest in music, besides occasional junior headbanging for comic effect or asking his grandmother to play Radio Disney in the car. (I know, I know.) When music was playing, he mostly listened for bad words he could repeat under the guise of objecting to having heard them.
Whether he knew it or not, he’d made a cunning request. Like most fathers, I’m inclined to indulgence if I think it will make my kid more like me, and I immediately saw that an MP3 player was a chance to shape my son’s musical education from the beginning.
My own had been haphazard. My father mostly listened to classical, supplemented with a grab bag of albums he’d bought in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I suspect he was infatuated with Grace Slick, as he owned four-and-a-half Jefferson Airplane albums. Besides those, there were three mid-period Beatles records (“Ticket to Ride” was my first favorite song, which isn’t a bad start), “Really Rosie” by Carole King, a forgettable Maria Muldaur album, and some Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway.
One day when I was 13, I decided to spend my lawn-mowing money on a copy of the Kinks LP “Give the People What They Want.” I didn’t know it yet, but I’d fallen deeply and utterly in love with music. Thousands of albums followed, as I discovered and strip-mined genre after genre with the manic OCD of the born collector/enthusiast. Heavy metal led to civic-minded rock a la Springsteen (with a painful-to-recall side of imagined populism), then to the primeval rock and R&B and country that Bruce had mined to wean himself from his Dylan/Van Morrison influences, then to hip-hop (with a painful-to-recall side of imagined social consciousness), and then to alt-rock of every conceivable microtribe and mini-genre.
With Joshua, for better or worse, things would be different. My wife and I bought a gold iPod Shuffle, which I carefully extracted from its Apple package porn and hooked up to my Mac. Surveying its virgin two gigabytes—a literal empty vessel waiting to be filled—I pondered the enormous possibilities, and soon became paralyzed by how to proceed.
I knew there had to be crowd-pleasers on there—kid-friendly pop and some songs he’d overheard that I knew he liked. But while allowing for those, I didn’t want to start my kid with a random assortment of songs. I aspired to nothing less than capturing the whole sweep of rock history. (See OCD above.)
Some concessions had to be made for wifely sensibilities. “Fuck and Run” was out, as was everything involving Ice Cube, despite my argument that innocence had already been lost. (Joshua’s first favorite song was Ben Kweller’s “Wasted & Ready,” which he’d learned phonetically as a three-year-old, enthusiastically assuring us from his car seat that “she is a slut but X thinks it’s sexy.”)
What really worried me was a more basic question: To truly love music, did you have to discover it as part of the normal and natural rebellion and establishment of your own identity? Did you have to be able to claim it as your own? Are things different now that fathers—particularly the Brooklyn variety—are more likely to stay MP3-playing, blog-browsing guys in hoodies than they are to become remote presences in wing-backed chairs?
When I was a kid, I’d played eyebrow-raising songs from “Big Balls” to “Fuck tha Police” for my father, and in retrospect his dismissiveness was exactly what I’d wanted. Could you really love “Add It Up” or “Pablo Picasso” if you learned about them from Dad? Would it be a better strategy to fill Joshua’s iPod with Yes, Billy Joel and Limp Bizkit, in hopes that rebellion would push him in the right direction? (I decided against this, but skipped “Add It Up” and “Pablo Picasso” for now.)
When you’re pondering 60 years of popular music, even 2 GB goes quickly. I decided that the goal couldn’t be a road map of everything, but to mark promising roads for further exploration. Here, some of my own prejudices actually helped. I picked songs, not albums: I far prefer the former to the latter, finding the free flow of influences between artists and styles and songs much more interesting than the supposed storytelling of an LP. And even great albums have their clunkers: Why waste precious megabytes on, say, “Four Sticks” or “I.O.U.”?
After some rough calculations, I decided to skip whole genres. Country got pared down to the essentials, and I tossed out the primal blues that so impressed a generation of guitar-slinging Englishmen. (Honestly, I never found Robert Johnson fun to listen to anyway.)
That was OK—because there was so much else to include. Bands I’d loved so much it hurt: R.E.M., the Replacements, Liz Phair, the Figgs. Carefully chosen selections from rock royalty: the Beatles, the Stones, Marvin Gaye. Stuff that would appeal to early adolescent anger and love of noise: Van Halen, Led Zeppelin, Judas Priest. Stuff that would do the same a bit later: the Clash, the Jam, Nirvana. Great moments from bands with brief resumes: the Mood Swings, the Knack, Monie Love. Primeval building-block stuff: “Bo Diddley,” “Johnny B. Goode,” “The Girl Can’t Help It.” Love songs: “Talk of the Town,” “Romeo and Juliet,” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” Lost-love songs: “Blue Spanish Sky,” “Memphis,” “Yesterday.” (That last one’s not a cliché if you’ve never heard it.) Songs Joshua knew from vacations, so proven favorites would await him: “Lights Out,” “The Frug,” “July 4, 2004.” Songs he’d never heard that I desperately hoped he’d love as much as I did: “Alex Chilton,” “The Waiting,” “Jesus Etc.”
Before I knew it, it was 3:44 in the morning, the Shuffle was almost full, and choosing between “Sir Duke” and “My Cherie Amour” had taken on cosmic significance. My wife, half-asleep, peered questioningly at me on her way to the bathroom. “Music,” I muttered, and she shook her head, knowing perfectly well what had happened.
On Christmas morning, Joshua was genuinely surprised by his little gold Shuffle, and carried it off to master the controls. An hour later, he arrived in the kitchen, headphones deep in ear canals (and I noted approvingly, playing too loud), eyes shut, head bobbing blissfully.
I asked him what he was listening to, and of course he didn’t know—but he fished out an earbud and offered it to me. The answer, I realized in approximately a nanosecond, was “Satisfaction.”
“Satisfaction” lasts 224 seconds but contains an immensity. The mysterious line about the girl on a losing streak. Mick and Keith and every other difficult and essential relationship between lead singer and guitarist. (Page and Plant, Diamond Dave and Eddie, Paul and Bob, Chuck D. and Flavor Flav.) That fuzzy, insistent riff, which came to Keith Richards in a dream and was fortunately captured on a cheap tape recorder instead of being lost. How many rock ‘n’ roll roads started from that one song?
And that’s where the regret came in.
Joshua was innocent. A moment before, he’d had no idea that “Satisfaction” or the Rolling Stones existed. He still had no idea that there was music considered genuine and music considered manufactured, or that liking “California Gurls” implied something very different than liking “September Gurls.” Soon enough he would—because I had knocked the first hole in that wall. (By the way, “The Wall” isn’t on his Shuffle, because Pink Floyd sucks.)
To Joshua, “Satisfaction” was just a good riff, an insistent beat, a well-timed “hey hey hey.” But I knew the other stuff about music would come soon, the other stuff that can still fill me—nearly 30 years after buying that Kinks LP—with love and longing, joy and loneliness.
Joshua will never make mixtapes (I’ll go to my grave with the curious ability to count by 60s up to 2,700—essential for making good use of 45 minutes of cassette tape), but soon enough he’ll be delivering a digital playlist to someone he pined for, silently hoping its messages and themes and implicit pleas are understood, and the songs deemed cool.
Soon enough he’ll go to parties and find himself standing in the corner while the music plays, anxiously scanning the room to see if a beloved song has revealed a kindred soul. He’ll be driving and feel a stab of annoyance when a friend starts jabbering over the best part of a favorite tune, then try not to think less of them for it. He’ll waste time listening to bands he doesn’t like because they’re supposed to be cool, and retreat when alone to bands he knows aren’t cool but likes anyway. He’ll discover how songs become hopelessly tangled up with moments and people and triumphs and regrets. He’ll realize that songs are a secret teen language—shared passwords, objects of contention, and eventually just songs, best enjoyed when not weighted down with too much freight. And, of course, he’ll discover the spooky power of the right song at the right time to transform everything—and the impossibility of recapturing that moment again.
In the kitchen, I realized I’d hurried him down that road, and suddenly wanted to slow him down, hold him back. But he stuck out his hand and I handed back the earbud. He reseated it and bounded away, head bobbing. He probably didn’t hear my verdict on “Satisfaction,” and definitely didn’t grasp my amusement and frustration at how inadequate that verdict was.
“That’s a good song,” I said.
If you’re interested in what Jason put on Joushua’s Shuffle, here’s the full list.
—Photo Orin Zebest/Flickr