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May 17, 2010

Real Wild Child

After we became parents, we kept listening to “our” music with our son around without a second thought. Sure, we worried now and then about “explicit lyrics,” but c’mon, we’d been scoffing at those labels since Tipper Gore introduced them when we were kids! We weren’t going to shelter Dash. 

Time went by, and now Dash could talk and was asking for Iggy Pop by name. Still, we convinced ourselves he wasn’t listening that closely to the lyrics of “Lust for Life” and wouldn’t be asking us what a “flesh machine” was for years yet. Heck, the song was being used on TV commercials for family cruises—it was obvious that only we and Iggy, and perhaps David Bowie, even knew what the lyrics were saying.

By this time, Dash’s favorite album to listen to in the car was by the Pogues (whose very name was only unobjectionable because he didn’t know the language it was objectionable in); his favorite song on the album was the rollicking “Streams of Whiskey.” It only dawned on us gradually that this might get some surprised looks should it come up in preschool. 

So what to do? We didn’t want to suddenly become hyperconservative on the subject, but we also didn’t want Dash’s preschool teachers asking us why he was teaching his classmates the lyrics to Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer.” (Before you call child services: No, we never really let him hear that one.) We figured there were only a few options:

1. We could lie. Dash mangles lyrics regularly, so we could try to convince him that the “flesh machine” Iggy was singing about, a robot! Or, alternatively, that he wasn’t saying “flesh machine” at all, but “flash machine.” (He’s just talking about his camera!) Problem is, these lies would eventually be found out, and there’s going to be enough hell to pay when the Santa Claus chickens come home to roost. (Plus we’d still have “liquor and drugs” and, oh, most of the rest of “Lust of Life” still to explain away. Seriously, how did this song get picked up for those Royal Caribbean ads? Did someone confuse the different meanings of “cruising”?)

2. We could pull the music—the Pogues and Iggy and Parliament/Funkadelic and the rest of them—out of rotation. We didn’t like this one much either. To take the selfish point first, this would mean we could never listen to any of this music ourselves with the kids around. Beyond that, though, we kind of believe in letting our kids hear good music, you know? According to renowned parenting authority Lou Reed, you can hear the music that saves your life at just five years old. (Let’s just ignore Dr. Reed’s attitude toward parents in that song for the moment.)

So we went with a third option: puttering on as we had been, with perhaps a little more attention to the issue. We don’t actively prevent anything objectionable from reaching our children’s ears, but in cases where it’s just as easy to play something without references to heroin, we do that. If they hear something they “shouldn’t” and ask about it, we explain as honestly as we can under the circumstances. 

And since Dash seems to handle hearing a really appalling amount of adult cursing without engaging in nautical language at school himself, we have faith that he’ll know it’s not appropriate to discuss the oeuvre of Prince in that venue, either. Our laissez-faire attitude may yet come back to bite us someday, I suppose, but we’re not that far from the time when we’ll be losing our absolute control over the music Dash hears anyway. (Or so I rationalize.)

We’re also finding, however, that our own terror of awkwardness breeds vigilance. Dash’s current favorite adult song is Pete Townshend’s “Let My Love Open the Door,” off his Empty Glass album. Perhaps he would have preferred the opening track, “Rough Boys,” if I’d let him hear it, but once I started picturing myself trying to explain leather bars, I hit “skip.” 

As in so many facets of parenting, training your kids really means training yourself.

[Photos: Masao Nakagami (McGowan); elekes (Iggy). Both via Wikimedia Commons.]


  1. You know, I've always found it curious that the only objectionable facet of music (for parents) seems to be the lyrics. What happened to the days when specific rhythms were "of the Devil?"

    I think kids are very, very good at distinguishing between words bound up as sound-producing mechanisms in music vs. words spoken outside an artistic (artificial) context as bad language. I'm not sure about adults, though.

  2. I agree--and would even go beyond that: Kids are generally good at distinguishing context for all kinds of language. (Sometimes not the volume of that language, but I'm guessing that's a different part of the brain.)

    As for adults, the whole Iggy-on-the-cruise-line-ads affair has me convinced they don't listen to lyrics at all. (There are endless examples of this: "Born in the USA" being interpreted by many as a rah-rah patriotic song, say, when it's actually pretty angry, dark stuff.) Even the "explicit lyrics" hubbubs are usually situations where the vast majority of parents upset have been told by someone else it's a problem.