February 27, 2009

Words & Guitar - Warning: Our band could be your life

Parental advisory warnings vastly underestimate music’s capacity to corrupt our youth.

Where did we get the idea that mere expletives are the elements of music most hazardous to impressionable listeners? As badass as lyrics can be, actual music has a far greater, far more insidious potential for danger than you could ever find in the liner notes.

Take what Mike Watt said about the Sammy Hagar song “Can’t Drive 55:” “You’re such a wild guy, you’ll break the speed limit—how about your tunes, though, buddy?”

Clearly, there’s more to a song than its stated message. Musical style and conventions can be just as hazardous as words—perhaps more so, since Tipper Gore can’t put a sticker on them.

So yes, Mom and Dad, you should keep living in fear of music. But be afraid for the right reasons. Friend to parents that I am, I’ve assembled this helpful guide on how the styles and conventions of different genres rub off on kids and mess them up for life.

Classical music

If you didn’t grow up with the constant one-upmanship of the Chatterjee and Banerjee kids next door, you may be unfamiliar with the rivers of sweat and tears running behind classical music’s staid veneer.

It’s easy to understand what parents see in the genre, though. Not only does classical music lack explicit lyrics in a language kids will understand, but it also bears an inarguable stamp of quality. Everyone’s had centuries to agree that classical music is good, and you can’t disagree without sounding at least a little uncouth.

It’s that perfectionist standard—not the difference between a rondo and a rigaudon—that kids really take home.

It’s not that the magic of Mozart completely passes them by. But for the young classical listener, the goal of music appreciation places a distant second to measuring up at statewide auditions, following the dogma of sheet music, and absorbing the $100 per hour tutorial of a Curtis-trained violin instructor. Everyone’s known the rules of classical music for hundreds of years, and the best a kid can do is follow them to the letter. There’s not even a question of changing the game.

Now, there’s far from anything wrong with making straight As your whole life, going to Harvard, playing the Moonlight Sonata note-perfect—basically, meeting every standard someone could think to put in front of you. But it’s a bit unsettling to see how similarly all the kids I took lessons with in grade school turned out.

I can’t help but wonder whether having centuries-old rules hammered into you as soon as you can hold a bow somehow robs you of your ability to screw up, to question the rules, to be creative—in essence, to build a future for yourself that’s anything but the standard.

Indie rock

Imagine the average kid’s first brush with indie rock. One day, a cool older friend presses the kid to lay off the Goo Goo Dolls for a second and try a little Cat Power or Broken Social Scene. The kid’s nervous—“Am I really cool enough to get these bands?” But after some hesitation, he hits play, and relief quickly takes over. “Gee, this isn’t so hard to like after all.”

Discovering independent music is a rite of passage for most kids, some grand leap toward maturity. But quality and complexity don’t change with the increasingly obscure band names. Architecture in Helsinki sounds every bit as ready to rock a preschool as Hanson does.

Nobody wants to admit that though. It’s so much easier to pretend a gruff voice and less name recognition make The National somehow more interesting than Coldplay—or that a salty coating of tongue-in-cheek lyrics makes twinkle-toes bands like Belle and Sebastian suddenly sexy and dangerous.

As much as I enjoy picking my teeth with the bones of Wilco fans, this isn’t a petty fight. It’s truly scary that people who otherwise seem intelligent are completely unwilling to take risks with what they listen to. Tell me: How is it that people who understand Marx and Foucault can’t appreciate music above a fourth grade level? Why does music only marginally less radio-friendly than Fall Out Boy come with all the trappings of good taste?

Now look, indieboppers—there’s nothing wrong with being afraid to grow up, or not knowing how to do it. But this dishonesty is unconscionable. Stop pretending you’ve achieved sophistication and do the courageous thing: Throw out the going standard of what’s awesome and admit you have no idea what the hell to think.

Guns ‘n’ Roses

Enough said. Ugh.


One of the last remaining habitats for punk kids is the basement of Philadelphia’s First Unitarian Church. Half the entertainment value of a typical all-ages show comes from watching the venue’s regular crew of Mohawk-wearing sixth graders slam dance and stage-dive like nobody’s business. At a Liars show a few years ago, a kid of about 12 got up on stage and asked Angus Andrew if he could sit at the extra kit. For the last few songs, the band had an unforgettable second drummer.

For most people, it’s enough to buy the tickets, stand in the crowd, finish their beer, and go home. These pint-sized punks were different. They’d internalized the genre’s DIY ethos, and they had the energy to apply that ethos to their surroundings and create something totally their own.

There’s another side to punk that I feel like I’ve latched onto—its distaste for excess. Far-fetched as it may sound, I suspect that my preferences for minimal production values lend themselves to sleeping minimal hours, getting away with minimal studying, and maintaining a minimal social circle.

Or maybe I’m oversimplifying things. After all, punk is an interactive endeavor, a call and response between kids and the environment they want to change. But what if your environment is, say, a 218-year old university—a place that, as desperately as it needs changing, has flaws too overwhelming and too entrenched for any one person to realistically contemplate tearing down?

Maybe instead of being outwardly punk, you become inwardly conservative. You can’t change your surroundings, so you steel yourself, trying to take as little from them as possible. You hope you can hold off your surroundings long enough to keep them from changing you.