Censoring children’s playlists not as effective as talking

Austin American-Statesman

Listening to songs by artists like Rihanna and Kanye West might have Susan Lahey’s children wondering what Mom thinks, but listening together often prompts a discussion, which is good.

I love road trips with my kids. We talk, having lots of time to explore the how and why questions life seldom affords time for. We listen to books on tape. And we take turns picking songs from our iPods. I want, on these road trips, to be open and nonjudgmental about my kids’ music. I was a teen once. I remember my father passing by my room, sticking his head in, and with a look of horror asking, “Don’t you have any happy music?”

Their music tells me who they are and what’s going on inside them. At least, that’s how I was thinking when we started our recent trip to Lubbock. But slowly it dawned on me that I was feeling really angry — homicidal, actually — and it seemed to be connected to the music.

Song after song exalted the shape of some female’s backside. Song after song glorified selfishness, betrayal, sex, money, power, more sex. It didn’t hit me at first. I loved the rhythm, the creative instrumentation, the blending of musical cultures to create a new texture. But in between and over top of all that was “I only cheated on you once, why are you being so mean to me … I love you baby ’cuz you got so much money … you make me love you when you move like that.”

I am picking, I confess, on hip-hop. But hip-hop is hardly the only culprit. I remember losing it during one kid’s Taylor Swift phase when I heard the song “The Way I Loved You,” a whiny ode to the psycho-abusive, hormone-and-stupidity fueled romp of the love addict. I exploded into a tirade. Thank you, Taylor, but I’ve been in those relationships. And now that I’ve had therapy, I understand that they’re just angst feeding on drama to generate adrenaline, all of which would be better served by an afternoon of rock climbing or mountain biking. And by the way, stay away from my kids.

My oldest, who is 19, looked at me like I was wearing a tin foil hat and brandishing a knife: “Mom,” he said, “it’s just a song.”

But I know better. It’s no more “just a song” than hot dogs and Twinkies are “just food.” Once in a while, you can eat a hot dog and Twinkie (or a cupcake, which I prefer) and it will taste really good and the stew of animal parts and additives will not hurt you, much. But if you eat hot dogs and Twinkies every day for about a week, you will get sick from giving your body nothing but bad food.

And that’s how I feel about a lot of music.

Music, if it’s worth anything at all, influences how its listeners feel and think. The beat, the instrumentation chosen, the lyrics all combine to communicate something.

That’s art. A song is a reflection of someone’s inner or outer reality. It might reflect a state of mind or a culture, but it’s supposed to draw you into the world of the artist. And sometimes, the world of the artist isn’t someplace I want my kids to hang out.

But I can’t tell them what to listen to.

I mean, I could. I could forbid things and check their iPods and smack them on the heads if a stray naughty lyric escaped them. But that would only force them underground, which is the last thing I want.

Instead, I just insist that if I hear any of this stuff that upsets me so much, I get an opportunity to tell them why it bothers me. I ask them to assess the song with me. What does it say about love? Power? Trust? Money? The value of a human being? Does the artist have something to say or is it all self-glorification? And really, do you believe you can listen to this song over and over until it’s running through your head during idle moments and still not be influenced by it?

I begin sort of desperate and confrontational and slowly settle down until I can see that they have that trapped look again: The one that says “Dear God, what if she never stops talking and I am stuck here, defending Kanye West until I die of malnutrition?”

When I see the look, I force myself to shut up.

They still listen to stuff that drives me crazy. But maybe they think about it.

They don’t make me listen to it anymore.

And the road trip continues.