“Daddy, why do you only listen to singers with allergies?”
My 6-year-old son Charlie posed this question about midway through “Over Everything,” the new single from indie rock darlings Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile. It was not the reaction I’d been anticipating. I’d carefully curated the playlist for our 20-minute commute to school, and I was pretty confident that I’d nailed the perfect mix of adult eclectic and kid-friendly. Apparently not.
“I like his voice,” I said, defending Vile’s nasal drawl. “And I don’t only listen to singers with allergies. What does that even mean?”
“That stuff you were playing the other day,” Charlie said, shuddering from the memory. “With the guy with all the phlegm.”
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He meant The National, whose new album Sleep Well Beast is on constant repeat on my iPod. For Charlie, their songs are like being punched in the ears. “Every singer you like either has hay fever or just needs to blow their nose,” he said, rejecting (with extreme prejudice) the songs I was convinced would blow his mind. “Can we listen to Kidz Bop now?”
Many years ago, back in 2004, when I was still childless, I listened to a comedy record by another (at the time) childless man, Patton Oswalt, and gleefully agreed with his description of responsible parenting. “I’m going to be the most boring, hateful father on the planet,” he said. “I’m going to do what fathers should do.” He wouldn’t bully his future son or daughter into listening to the same music that had shaped his worldview. Instead, he would pretend to be a “boring, square asshole parent.” As far as his offspring was concerned, his favorite album would be Phil Collins No Jacket Required. And when they’d sneer at his crappy taste in music, Oswalt would “smile quietly to myself. Because I’ve saved the future by having a cool kid that hates me. That’s your duty! Never forget it!”
It seemed like a perfect template for responsible fatherhood at the time. I promised myself that if or when I ever became a dad, I’d embody the Oswalt vision of parental selflessness. But it’s easy to be selfless when you can blast the Pixies in your car without some tiny version of you in the back seat shouting “Boooo-ring!” Being an endlessly patient dad isn’t a big deal when it only exists as a fantasy in your head. But when it’s a reality, and your kid is an actual human being with his own thoughts and opinions and preferences, and he wants to hear “The Gummy Bear Song” over and over and over and over and over again — until lines like “Beba bi duba duba yum yum/ Three times you can bite me” become indistinguishable from your own memories — it can take every ounce of willpower not to shut him down the way Jack Black did to that middle-aged dad in High Fidelity.
I’m probably overly-sensitive about it because I’m a journalist who sometimes gets paid to have strong opinions about music. Music isn’t just something I care passionately about, it’s what Daddy does for a living. I’m not so deluded to think Charlie wishes we could replace his usual bedtime stories with a dramatic reading of my Tom Waits concert review for Rolling Stone, but I at least want him to care about the things I care about a little.
I know that Oswalt was talking about the long game. It’s not about instant results, it’s about giving them freedom to make their own musical discoveries and mistakes. Nobody comes out of the womb loving Radiohead and electric period Miles Davis. But I at least want to see progress. Charlie’s handwriting gets a little better every day, his palate becomes more adventurous, his taste in books has evolved from The Juggling Pug to Harry Potter. But musically, it seems like Charlie has only regressed. When he was two, all he wanted to hear was Elvis Costello and Talking Heads. He’d thrash around his playroom, kicking blocks as though they were skinhead skulls, maniacally dancing to Jim Carroll singing about dead junkies. But at six, he won’t listen to anything that isn’t Kidz Bop, the cleaned-up versions of pop hits that’s billed as “the most popular and most recognized music product in the U.S. for kids age 4-11.” Have you ever heard a more depressing description of anything ever? Even the creators won’t call it music; it’s a “music product.”
There’s precious little research on whether kids benefit from being forced to listen to their parents’ music. There’s plenty of research on how listening to music can make them smarter and develop a better grasp of grammar and become generally more well-rounded people, but few specifics on which music genres are intrinsically better. A 2014 study from the University of London’s Institute of Education, for example, found that kids who listen to a lot of classical music grow up to have better concentration and self-discipline. But what about other music?
“It’s not really an either/or kind of thing,” Steven Schlozman, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, assured me. “Kids will, by definition, discover their own stuff. They’ll do that through friends, through media, and most importantly, through their own personal tastes.” But, that doesn’t mean they’re not watching and listening to us, Schlozman says, and secretly tapping their foot in time. “With time, they’ll come up with a mixture — their stuff and yours, and by the time they’re 17 or 18, they’ll be introducing you to bands that you didn’t even know you’d like.”
In theory, I completely agreed with Schlozman. At least, I did until I talked to Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy. He successfully raised two intelligent, musically-literate boys, Sammy and Spencer — now in their late teens and 20s, respectively — and during the daily commutes to and from daycare, and then preschool, and then actual school, Jeff picked the music. And their shared car stereo never blared songs about gummy bears. “There were a lot of Captain Beefheart records because it was nonsensical and funny and weird,” Tweedy tells me. “It was like kid’s music to me. Pretty soon they would start asking for it. Songs like ‘Electricity,’ they wanted to hear it over and over.”
Spencer, now 21, agrees with this account. “My earliest memory is of him playing Captain Beefheart on the way to preschool,” he says. “I haven’t listened to it in a while, but I’m sure the next time I hear ‘Electricity,’ it’s going to give me warm and fuzzy preschool feelings.”
I made a bold move during a recent school trip. I turned off the songs my son thinks are amazing and played some Captain Beefheart instead. Charlie was not amused.
“This song is making me not want you to be my daddy anymore,” Charlie said, his body convulsing like he was fighting off food poisoning.
“C’mon,” I pleaded with him, “just give it a chance.”
“No!” he barked at me. This from a guy who had tried spinach and kale cheese balls at his mother’s request. He hated those too, but he’d given it an honest try. Captain Beefheart was asking for too much.
For the past month, my son and I have battled over the radio. Every day when I drive him to first grade, and again when I pick him up, we scream at each other about what music should be scoring our father-son moments. Sometimes he’ll consent to let me play song or two, but never without complaint. I try to stomach what he considers music, but I keep imagining Jeff Tweedy, glancing in his rearview mirror at the two wide-eyed boys in his backseat and asking, “Who wants some Japanese noise rock?” and they both cheer, and I feel robbed. Why can’t that be me? Why can’t I be my son’s musical lighthouse, guiding him away from the rocks?
It’s not that my son needs to share my musical tastes. He really doesn’t. I don’t care if he never sees the beauty in a Mountain Goats song, or thinks The Magnetic Fields are excruciating — Jesus, I guess I really do listen to a lot of singers with nasal issues — but I want him to at least try harder. These watered-down pop songs he’s so drawn to, even if they put the dirty words back in, they aren’t good for you. They’re not good for your brain and they’re not good for your soul. It’s like pizza. Everybody agrees that pizza is delicious, but it’s junk food. There’s no nourishment. Pizza shouldn’t be your favorite food. Charlie doesn’t have to like the same foods that I do. He doesn’t have to get excited about sushi. I just need him to try things outside his comfort zone. Letting him be okay with the musical equivalent of pizza and chicken nuggets feels like lazy parenting.
The other day, as I was flipping through satellite radio channels during our school commute and looking for common ground, Charlie shouted at me to stop. “I want to hear this!” he demanded. It was Chance the Rapper’s “All We Got.”
“You know this song?” I asked.
“Yeaaah,” he said, flashing me a big, shit-eating grin as his head slowly bobbed along to the music. Then he stopped and glared at me. “Do you?”
I hesitated for a moment, but I knew what I had to do. “Never heard of him,” I said grumpily.
We listened to the rest of the song in silence — Charlie almost leaping out of his car seat with rhythmic joy, me biting my lip to keep from singing along. I don’t know where he heard about Chance first, but it wasn’t from me, and I sure as hell wasn’t the reason he loves it so much.
The secret to being your kid’s music mentor, then, might be somewhere between Jeff Tweedy and Patton Oswalt. I can’t ever pretend to be a Phil Collins fan. Charlie knows too much about my musical tastes already. But I can get better at knowing when to shut the hell up and let him own something that isn’t covered in dad’s fingerprints.