I finally put together a playlist on my Zune for the kids. It’s all the songs they say they really like when I listen to my playlists. It’s unsurprising to me that my kids like pop. Pop music is catchy as all hell, it’s got decent singers, and mostly you can understand the lyrics. They both like Lady Gaga, Paramore, Aly and AJ, and Pink. K likes Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus. M likes Jay Sean. I threw in a few additional things I thought they would like. Blondie’s “One Way or Another.” Muse’s “Uprising.” The Ting Tings’ “That’s Not My Name.” Songs that have a driving beat, a really good hook, and a recognizable melody. Songs to hum later.
What this means, of course, is that now I am explaining what all these songs are about.
My kids want to know why the singers sound certain ways. Why they sound angry, why they sound sad. M correctly noted that Rihanna’s song, “Umbrella,” sounds very sad despite being about loving someone and being with them. More than anything else, though, they want to know what the song is about. What’s the story, what’s the point?
It’s about thinking you are so amazingly attractive that girls want to have sex with you even though they don’t know you. (“Good Girls Go Bad,” Cobra Starship.)
It’s about loving someone, yet being incredibly unhappy that they live far away, and thinking they are behaving in ways you don’t like. (“Love Long Distance,” Gossip.)
It’s about being in a relationship that makes you not a very good person, not very happy, but not breaking up the relationship. (“Bad Romance,” Lady GaGa.)
Its about being so unhappy and angry that you want to fight everyone. (“So What,” Pink.)
It’s about feeling really good about yourself and wanting to show off for someone, hoping they will have sex with you. (“Dance Wiv Me,” Dizzee Rascal.)
It’s about wanting to date someone so much that every crazy idea sounds good, as long as you’re with that person. (“Love Story,” Taylor Swift.)
I could go on.
Most of the songs are about wanting to date someone, wanting to have sex with someone, being mad at someone you care about, feeling like awesomesauce and wanting to impress the object of your attraction, or drugs and alcohol. Some few songs are political or protest songs. These themes get combined and recombined endlessly. Pop music is called trite for this reason. But . . . but why shouldn’t my kids listen to this? Pop music holds concerns they share, it holds the concerns they are growing into. It describes in a visceral way the joy of being happy and young and knowing you are worthy. It describes the pain of being told you are not. Pop music discusses love, foolhardiness, anger, resentment. It discusses both bad decisions and great risks.
Pop music is frequently derided as having simple lyrics, and lacking in depth or complexity of language. And it does — if one is a reasonably educated adult with a lot of experience with lyrics. But the language used in music is a language of metaphor, allusion, and pun. It’s a language built in cultural reference after cultural reference. It’s a language of slang, a language of cliche. Listening to pop music is like being Picard talking to Dathon in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Darmok.” You have to already know what the singer is referring to to understand what they mean.
Let’s take “Check Yes Juliet,” by We the Kings, as one example.
Check yes Juliet
Are you with me
Rain is falling down on the sidewalk
I won’t go until you come outside
Check yes Juliet kill the limbo
I’ll keep throwing rocks at your window
There’s no turning back for us tonight
Lace up your shoes
Here’s how we do
Run baby run
Don’t ever look back
They’ll tear us apart if you give them the chance
Don’t sell your heart, say we’re not meant to be
Run baby run, forever will be
You and me
Questions my kids asked: Why is he telling her to run? What’s limbo? Why is he throwing rocks? Who is tearing them apart? Why won’t he go?
Luckily, my kids are familiar with the story of Romeo and Juliet. So I started there. “The song is comparing the love between the singer and the girl he likes to the love of Romeo and Juliet. In both the song and the story, the lovers’ families don’t want them to date, so they run away together.” That’s a start, but then I had to explain the custom/cliche of throwing pebbles at a window to get someone’s attention. I explained limbo, mentioning that it was originally the name of an imaginary place where the ghosts of dead people wait forever without knowing what will happen, so “limbo” these days just means a ton of waiting uncertainly.
That was one song. I’m getting through the three-to-four minute songs in about eight minutes each. But I don’t really mind. It’s all homeschooling, all teaching the kids how the world works. If they get their start in conducting literary textual analysis by talking about Lady Gaga on the way to and from circus class, I will be the last person to object.