Parental Guidance

Rating the year's hits with Mom and Dad

Last year around Christmas, my parents and I sat down with a few glasses of wine and a stack of the year's most popular music. The idea was to see what impression these songs would make on my folks--die-hard classical music fans who get all their pop culture from Good Morning America. Their verdict was predictable, if a tad disappointing: Clay Aiken? Love it. Eminem and 50 Cent? Forget it.

I hadn't expected converts. Still, I felt a bolt of pride when my father announced, after reading that the White Stripes' Jack White had beaten up the Von Bondies' Jason Stollsteimer, "Hey, that's the guy from the band whose one song you played us that time." My parents had never been so with-it.

So I was eager to sit down with them again and continue their education. Before we began, I asked what they remembered from the year before, to which they both responded by examining the hardwood floor.

Alicia Keys and Josh Groban won over Mr. and Mrs. Hepola, but Snoop Dogg and Slipknot did not. Perhaps this can be attributed to their "gritchy" mood.
Alicia Keys and Josh Groban won over Mr. and Mrs. Hepola, but Snoop Dogg and Slipknot did not. Perhaps this can be attributed to their "gritchy" mood.

Finally, my father broke the silence. "Should we let the dog outside?"

Like the lessons they gave me in Beethoven and Bach, it didn't stick. And yet they were still eager to please. When I asked them who they thought was the year's top-selling artist, they struggled for the answer.

"I would guess Britney Spears," my mother said.

My father crunched his forehead. "I don't know. Yanni?"

¨Yeah!,¨ UsherMy parents appreciatively bob their heads as the music plays. Last year, it became clear that one of their biggest struggles is not so much enduring the songs but having something incisive to say about them. To their ears, most of this sounds the same--too loud, hard to understand, even incomprehensible. My father will begin almost every critique with a statement about whether or not the song was pleasant.

"Well, it was pleasant to listen to," says my dad when I turn off the song. I think that to him this is code for "It didn't hurt." He continues, "I would say that it's not something you'd listen to at home. It seems directly related to bopping."

Wait a minute. "Did you just say bopping?" I ask.

"Or dancing." He shrugs. "Whatever."

Our analysis of Usher seems to have come to an end. My mother tells me, "You know, your father and I recently watched ballroom dancing on Channel 13, so we know a lot of new steps. We can 'shake' and 'hesitate.'"

And no: I don't know what "shake" or "hesitate" means either.

¨If I Ain´t Got You,¨ Alicia KeysTo my mother, childhood piano lessons were something she always wanted but never got, a privilege she planned to lavish on her kids. This was not an opinion shared by my brother and me, who treated practice and recitals with an enthusiasm usually reserved for liver and onions. Eventually, we switched up; my mother started playing piano, which she adores, and my brother and I graduated to other hobbies, like playing video games and messing up our rooms.

So although my father deems Alicia Keys "pleasant," my mother waxes rhapsodic.

"Of course, I love that it started out with piano!" she says. "When she started singing, I thought, what a combination! Because she simply is gorgeous, and she's so gifted musically--that's a stunning combination. It was also a rather sultry song. I like Alicia Keys," she finishes, almost surprising herself. "I mean, I actually like her."

¨Pieces of Me,¨ Ashlee SimpsonIn addition to Good Morning America, my parents are also exposed to some pop music on Saturday Night Live, so they're familiar with the Ashlee Simpson lip-synching debacle. My father likes the song and compliments Simpson's "raspy, sexy voice," but my mother has no patience for catchy bubblegum pop.

"I thought it was vapid and uninteresting," she says.

"Anything else?" I ask.

She scans her notes. "Well, I wrote those two things down immediately, and later I thought, 'Oh, this is really uninteresting'--but I'd already written that."

¨Duality,¨ SlipknotAs a teen, my older brother subscribed to Circus magazine and owned every Judas Priest cassette ever made. This was just before the Tipper Gore-led PMRC blowup of the early '80s, which suddenly turned every metalhead into a suspected felon. I placed Slipknot in the playlist purely for shock value; part of me has always wondered if they knew what their son was listening to. But rather than being offended, my parents are intrigued. They patiently nod through the crunching guitars. My mother compares the hushed, spoken lyrics and backward tracks to "Revolution 9" on The White Album. My father says it reminds him of Jesus Christ Superstar.

"Did you bring any Pantera?" my father asks. He's very curious about Dimebag.

¨Redneck Woman,¨ Gretchen WilsonI've written before about warming to the basic humor and glee of Gretchen Wilson's breakout hit. My parents, however, are not impressed.

"It just seemed like so many other country songs," my father says.

"It didn't do much for me," says my mom.

"Depending on what she looks like, I might like it more," my dad says.

I shoot my mom an exasperated look, expecting her to say something, but she throws up her arms.

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