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.
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!,¨ Usher My 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 Keys To 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 Simpson In 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,¨ Slipknot As 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 Wilson I'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.
"What do you want? He's right."
"So," my dad says, "is she cute?"
¨Drop It Like It´s Hot,¨ Snoop Dogg (featuring Pharrell Williams) My father grew up in Detroit and took the bus down Grand Avenue to school, right past Berry Gordy's makeshift Motown studio. I wouldn't say he loved the music, but he certainly has an appreciation. In the last decade, his beloved hometown morphed from the epicenter of soul into a hot spot for garage rock and rap, a genre for which he has little appreciation. Last year, as he listened to 50 Cent and Missy Elliott and Eminem, he struggled to articulate why he didn't like the songs, almost as if he had to apologize. This year it was my mom's turn.
"I don't appreciate the fact..." she starts and then stops. "I wonder if it's a culture gap, if I can't culturally make that leap into rap. I find the words offensive and uncomfortable."
My father recognizes Snoop Dogg from commercials and television appearances, and to him, this song is better, more understandable than others he's heard. But I don't think my parents will ever be able to stomach the coarse street-slang of rap, with all its giddy insults and epithets, and that's OK. In our household, words like "nigga" were the worst kind of slander. Once in seventh grade, when he wouldn't let me borrow money, I very proudly used a new vocabulary word on my father. I called him niggardly. He sent me to my room.
¨You Raise Me Up,¨ Josh Groban On this song--with its symphonic swells and easy listening tempo--my father is firm. "This was my favorite," he says. "It was very pleasant to listen to."
"It wasn't my favorite, but it had a tune and words I could hear, and it was kind of inspirational," my mom says. "That's in sharp contrast to Snoop Dogg, in which I thought, 'Well, what the hell was that?'"
¨A Decade Under the Influence,¨ Taking Back Sunday My mother is a child therapist who always embraced art as a useful emotional outlet. So I'm surprised to hear her critique the emo band of the moment by saying, "It just sounded angry to me. 'To hell with you and all your friends'? I don't find that very appealing."
"But a lot of the operas and classical songs you listen to are angry. Besides, haven't we all felt like saying, 'To hell with you and all your friends'?"
"Absolutely," she says.
"So isn't there a cathartic thing going on?"
"Maybe I just want it said in a classier way."
Oh, to hell with this. I mean: Next!
¨Take Your Mama Out,¨ Scissor Sisters My parents are wearing out by the time we get to the final song. I forget that it's work for them to listen to these things, because their brains are running hard to latch onto something--anything--interesting to note. That's why I wanted to end with something easy and fun, almost a no-brainer, which is exactly what the Scissor Sisters offer.
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"It was pleasant to listen to," my dad says. "But it was no Josh Groban."
Sheesh, parents. Sometimes, you have to agree to disagree.
"With the exception of Josh Groban, the songs I liked the least were in the second half," says my mom, "and I started to think, I'm just in a gritchy mood; I'm not going to like this. But then I warmed up to this song--his voice, the music. So I'm not in a gritchy mood after all."
And no, I don't know what "gritchy" means either.