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Did Music Kill The Conversation?

Sunday, 6 October 2013

The other day at lunch, a coworker bragged of a family rule he made regarding travel in cars. His rule was simple: if more than one person was in the car, the radio is off and technology is forbidden. If you’re in the car alone, then music is fine, but if even one other person is with you, music did more harm than good. Music and phones create distance and kill conversation.

I’m rarely too eager to judge the rules and regulations of another man’s household, and I respect the ideology and motivation behind this dad's rule. When it comes to smart phones and video games creating a gap between people in shared physical space, the research would without question support his approach.

But where I must differ with him, and differ strongly, is when he includes music as a barrier to family relationships or friendships, be it in a car or in any other shared physical space. In my own parenting, sharing a musical experience with my daughters more often than not brings us closer.

Music is that rare space where the adult isn’t always the expert, where the kid might know just as much, sometimes more, about the musician, the song, the video, whatever. Especially for adolescents, music is a sort of magic key that allows them a passage for introspection, that lets them work through their own emotions. So often, they simply don’t have words for how they’re feeling. It’s all so freakishly new, or so mutated from their childhood feelings thanks to the torments of puberty and the ever-complicating social world of friends and relationships.

Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins relays a common angsty teen experience in the Rush documentary Beyond the Lighted Stage where he sits his mother down to listen to “Entre Nous” and encourages her to read along with the lyrics. The song, he explains, has given him insight into their strained and awkward parent-child relationship.

Another classic example is the deleted scene from Almost Famous where main character William and his friend sit their parents down to share with them a song. “This song… will change your life,” he says, with conviction. Except apparently “Stairway to Heaven” doesn’t quite have that effect on Ms. Miller. The scene is agonizing, and I can’t help but feel that I never want to be that parent.

In my mind, the flaws in Corgan's tale and in Almost Famous are found primarily in the moms. They have awkward and intelligent sons attempting to reach out, to share something of what’s going on in their heads and hearts, breaking that stereotype of the unresponsive or non-communicative child, and the parent isn’t willing to work hard enough to understand, is hardly willing to even try.

Some of the most memorable moments in my life are in cars with friends where nothing is said, where the experience is based entirely on the music drowning out all else.

Returning to UNC with a friend where we played The Black Crowes’ Southern Harmony and Musical Companion in its entirety followed by PUMP by Aerosmith. Windows down. Air guitars and air drums in full effect. Palms pounding or strumming the wheel. Notes bellowed out of tune. Lyrics sometimes misinterpreted.

Driving to New Orleans with three friends who introduced me to Patty Griffin’s Living With Ghosts, enraptured by the notion that four guys, bound for a dudes' weekend in a wild city, would savor the shared experience of listening to a sole female voice trilling over a solitary acoustic guitar.

Listening to music often allows parents to broach subjects that might otherwise lie dormant, waiting for an excuse or an opportunity.

On one trip home, Sara Bareilles’ “Chasing the Sun” came on, and it started a conversation about death and dying and the disturbing misuse of the phrase "YOLO." On a longer trip, my eldest shared her self-made soundtrack for the Divergent series, where I was forced to try and appreciate the One Direction song “They Don’t Know About Us,” among other choices.

Is the shared experience of music between parents and children essential? Of course not. But our opportunities to bridge that moat, to connect in any meaningful way possible with our progeny, are not as bountiful or ceaseless as we might like to think.

In fairness, I would be wise to spend more time on longer trips enforcing such a rule. It's too easy and not particularly a family-building exercise when all three kids are watching different movies or listening to different things on their iPods. The wiser approach, to me, should be about intentionality rather than an absolute, knowing when and how to let music be a part of the shared experience rather than shutting that door completely.

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