Taio and Katy at Our House: Parenting in the Top 40

Taio and Katy at Our House: Parenting in the Top 40It’s too quiet around here.  The kids are home from school: my fifth-grader is doing her homework, but where’s her little brother?  The space between 4:00 and dinner is usually filled with seven-year-old requests: can I have a snack, can I have another snack, can I watch TV, can I play computer, well then can you play a game with me?

There’s a muffled yelp of excitement from the direction of David’s bedroom.  The door flies open and he explodes out of it.

“MOMMY!  It’s Dynamite!”  And he disappears again.Following, I find him in full boogie mode next to his radio, on which Taio Cruz is throwing his hands up in the air, going on and on and on.  David gyrates too hard, topples over, jumps up, grins with his whole face.  It’s impossible to stand there with this delighted child and not shake your booty, just a little.

A few months ago David discovered Z100, New York City’s pop radio standby.  It is now the soundtrack to his life.  As we walk to school he’s warbling Katy Perry’s Firework; at bedtime he scorns Dan Zanes and falls asleep to Rihanna’s What’s My Name, except “ooh nana” becomes “ooh mama” as he cuddles next to me.  When we get into the car it’s “can we listen to some Z?”  The child who never wants to be alone now hangs out solo in his room once in a while, listening to music while shooting hoops on his closet-door basket, or lying on his bed and making his stuffed animals dance.

The melodies are repetitive, the lyrics too sappy or too sexy, but David’s not listening to the words.  He likes the beat, the bounce, the way the syncopation livens up his day.  When slow songs pop up he complains: they’re not “rock-y” enough.

The top 40 haunts my dreams these days; I hum the accordion riff from Stereo Love until my husband’s raised eyebrow stops me.  Some of it is painful—can’t Bruno Mars think of a better word than “amazing” to describe his girl?—but I’m not too proud to admit that Ke$ha is good company in the kitchen.  Sure, we make David listen to our music sometimes, but you can’t howl along to Dave Matthews or Ben Harper or Joni Mitchell in quite the same campy, vampy way.  And I’m making up for lost time.

When I was little, my father’s musical preferences ranged from Beethoven to Brubeck, my mother’s from Carole King and Carly Simon to the Great American Songbook.  As the only child in the back of the car, it never occurred to me to try to influence the musical selections.  Their music wasn’t my music, but I hadn’t chosen any of my own. Declaring allegiance to this or that singer, this or that band, seemed impossibly daring.  I remember receiving a gift certificate to Tower Records as a birthday present one year in middle school.  I had no idea what to do with it.  I ended up buying early stand-up sessions by Woody Allen and Bill Cosby.  The new tapes joined the stack of original Broadway cast recordings I received from my aunt every year.  When she gave me “A Chorus Line,” she dubbed it onto a blank cassette, editing out “Tits and Ass.”

What I needed was an older brother, lounging in a messy bedroom and picking out R.E.M. on a battered guitar, letting me tag along to a concert now and then.  What I got, instead, is a son who can’t help bopping when the radio is on.  Sure, his parents flinch when Travie McCoy sings “I wanna be a billionaire, so frickin’ bad,” but the first time it came on in the car it sparked a discussion about materialism and its discontents that lasted most of the way home.  (It also provided an opportunity to clarify that the word “fricking” would not be tolerated under any circumstances.)  Better to confront the ugliness in pop culture and teach our kids to recognize it than pretend it isn’t there.

So when Taio starts to sing at our house, all-family dance marathons erupt spontaneously, the four of us writhing like freaks.  That didn’t happen when I was little, and by the time I reached teenland I was too self-conscious to party with my peers.  David and his sister are not shy about their preferences: Taylor Swift good, Lady Gaga bad, Black Eyed Peas slightly annoying.  The strength of their opinions thrills me, even if I’m not crazy about the music.  These days I throw my hands up in the air sometimes, and dance with them.

Photo by Mark Watmough

Janice P. Nimura is a book critic, essayist, and occasional history teacher. Other essays have appeared in The Morning News, Brain Child Magazine, and in the anthology Only Child: Writers on the Singu ...read more

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