Parental Guidance

Classical music commandeered my childhood. Bach's fugues wallpapered our living room. Beethoven symphonies rattled through the door of my bedroom, where I mounted an all-hours rock radio counterattack. But my Madonna, my Duran Duran, my INXS, my (full disclosure) Whitney Houston proved no match for Schubert's sonatas and Mozart's warbling operas. Not when the radio station hadn't budged from WRR since the Reagan era. Though my parents grew up listening to the doo-wop and bubblegum pop of the early '60s, popular music ended for them when John and Paul first passed the opium pipe. After that, it all got so... weird.

That may make my parents unusual candidates to discuss the merits of this year's hit singles. They remain blissfully, willfully ignorant of the tunes drubbed into today's youths by an increasingly monotonous radio culture, which, in my mind at least, makes them rather ideal candidates. When I asked them which artists were currently popular on the radio, my dad's response--given immediately and with great confidence--said it all: "Justin Timberland."

So last week, we sat down at the dinner table with a handful of hits from 2003, which I selected based on variety, popularity and my spending limit at Virgin records. I instructed my parents to listen carefully and take notes. Then--for once--I chose the music.

50 Cent
In Da Club

Dad: Well, that was hard to understand. The beat was relatively simple and basically repeated itself. I would categorize it as limited. It had some swearing, so I wouldn't recommend it to pre-teenagers.

Mom: I liked the percussiveness until it got monotonous. Sonata form is A, B and then A and then maybe B, B. Themes come and go. But this never changed. A, A, A. In psychology, we call that "perseverating."

Dallas Observer: Would you like this particular artist more if I told you he'd been shot?

Dad: After he sang this song?

The White Stripes
Seven Nation Army

Mom: I liked this better. It had variety--in sound, in dynamic. He went into a falsetto at one point, which was interesting. He caught my ear when he said, "Everybody has a story," and I thought, you could really do something with this. But I had no idea what he did with it, because it got loud, and I couldn't understand what he was saying.

Dad: I had difficulty following the story line, but the music was much more developed and expansive. There was a certain pleasantness to it.

Hey Ya

Dad: This sounds like something out of the '60s to me, like the Beatles.

Mom: Yeah, my first reaction was that I could hear the Beatles' influence. I liked the little xylophone they played. There's a classical musician named Anton Bruckner, and he writes things that start great and you think they're going somewhere, but then they never deliver. I felt like these guys didn't really go anywhere.

Dallas Observer: I'm noticing a trend. You keep saying these songs are repetitive, but pop songs are repetitive by nature. I worry that you might be imposing a classical standard.

Mom: I don't want them to be classical. In my day, the songs repeated. There was verse one, two and three. I'm just looking for something to hold onto.

Dad: I'm just looking for anything to say.

Justin Timberlake
Cry Me a River

Mom: I wanted to like it because there was music there. But I couldn't get anything from it. I wonder if I listened to this song more, would I like it better?

Dad: I think this was probably the most entertaining song we've listened to so far. That may have something to do with the fact that I know who he is, because I saw him on Saturday Night Live.

Mom: You know, "Cry Me a River" is a song from our day.

Dad: That was a Johnny Ray song. No, wait. He sang "Cry." He didn't sing "Cry Me a River."

Mom: Well, someone did. [Editor's note: Julie London]

Clay Aiken
This Is the Night

Dad: Excellent voice, good writing. You could follow the song. It wasn't really a rock 'n' roll song. It was more of a ballad.

Mom: Is this Clay from American Idol? Oh, I like his personality. Well, I would say I liked this song the best. I mean, it had piano! Well, keyboard. I liked his voice timbre. I liked the lyrics that he sang. I wondered: Is he singing to an older generation? It had echoes of that Officer and a Gentleman song.

Dallas Observer: "Up Where We Belong?"

Dad: With Joe Cocker.

Mom: Right! It had that soaring quality.

Ruben Studdard
Flying Without Wings

Mom: It didn't capture me like the earlier one. He had a raspy voice, which probably appeals to some people, but I liked Clay's voice much better. It was a little like trying to start fire with green wood.

Dad: I thought he had a very good voice. The words were understandable. The only difference between this song and the other one was that the other song was better. This song wasn't as good as the other. Basically they're both comparable singers. What's that other guy's name, Clay Atkins? Sounds like a country-and-western guy.

Mom: You're thinking of Troy Aikman.

Dad: Oh, right.

Missy Elliott
Work It

Dad: There was a lot of rhythmic banging that was distracting and not very pleasing to my ear.

Dallas Observer: Have you heard much rap?

Dad: I probably heard as much rap as I ever have watching 8 Mile. I liked the movie, but I didn't like the rap. It's not something I enjoy.

Mom: I didn't think much of the music at first. It sounded like a spaceship trying to launch. But then I started to like the humor. I picked up on a couple of lyrics toward the end. She's funny.

The Strokes

Mom: This song left me in the dust. I could not hear the words for the music. I couldn't tell what he was saying. It had some interesting instrumentation, but it left me in the dust. I couldn't catch it.

Dad: This, to me, was traditional rock 'n' roll. This could have been from the late '60s or '70s. It was hard to understand, but I enjoyed listening to the music, and I didn't really worry about listening to the words, which is how I typically listened to songs growing up.

Lose Yourself

Mom: I wouldn't want to be stuck on the elevator with this, but it was a little better than the other raps. Some rap sounds so angry, and I really do get offended when all I hear is swear words. I noticed that you turned off--what was it called?--"In Da Club" after the second m-f. I don't mind cussing that much, but I don't think you need to be immortalizing it on vinyl, or whatever that material is. That's a little overbearing.

Dad: I'm looking over my overall ratings, and I see that all three rap songs are at the bottom. That may be cultural or generational. It may even be racial. It also probably indicates a lack of exposure on my part. To me, rap is all about lyrics, because the beats are so simplistic, but when I can't even understand what's being said...When I was growing up, the music was really the key, and the lyrics were secondary.

So there you go. Secretly, I had hoped my parents would spark to the complex instrumentation of The White Stripes, or acquiesce to OutKast's irrepressible oomph. But no. Their tastes were more mundane, more vanilla, more parental. They had a hands-down favorite, and his name was Clay Aiken.

"I actually liked it," said my mother. "I mean, I liked it."

"I would listen to that," my father said.

Oh, well. Now, at least, I know what to get my father for Christmas.

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Sarah Hepola