Thursday, September 30, 2010

Music and meaning

I read this article on NPR’s website this morning, and was initially curious, then disappointed, and then compelled to write. A father seeks to give his daughter the albums that “get you through adolescence.” Upon skimming the list, and even upon finding many musicians I loved, I wondered—where are the women? Like Susan Douglas writes in ’95, in Where the Girls Are: “I’m a fan of all these guys, but I can’t help noticing that no comparable celebratory tributes have been made to Laura Nyro, Joni Mitchell, or Aretha Franklin (6).” And in my head, I added more to this list, bringing my list into the immediate present with Anaïs Mitchell, who I just saw live in Turners Falls last week. But something else was bothering me.

It’s just like adults, self-centered adults, to assume that we can impose on our children the same realities, the same experience, the same loves just by giving them the same albums that meant so much to us. Our love for our music is bound to time, and place and experience. Nothing can reproduce the feeling I had, riding around in Aileen’s first beat-up car, with Country Joe and the Fish blasting. At once I felt free and rebellious, and at the same time I squirmed, wondering whether someone in conservative Eastern Tennessee would get belligerent about Vietnam, and pick a fight with us. Nothing can reproduce the feeling of listening to John Coltrane’s Stellar Regions for the first time in the middle of the night in a dorm room on the South Side of Chicago. And even though I don’t care about these guys anymore, the songs of Blur, Oasis, and Weezer that my friends put on my mix tapes will still resonate, even when these songs feel hopelessly dated.

The fact is, kids have to find music on their own. I’m not saying that the daughter in question won’t cherish these albums—but that it can’t be forced. The moment dictates the feeling. I’ve known this for a long time, as an historian. I’ve long been an amateur historian, in the true sense: I do it for love. I go to the places my mother and father lived—look at their apartments, their houses their schools. I drive into the Bronx looking for the boulevard my mother walked up, holding her grandfather’s hand. The street is working-class, seedy and lovely, as it must have been then too.

I have in my hand an album of hers: The Cardinal (film by Otto Preminger, score by Jerome Moross). From inside the album, a piece of math homework falls out, done for a class at a Catholic school in Salt Lake City. The music, of course, is wonderful. But this is not an album of my adolescence. Even though I love the music, the feelings it evokes are wistful. Why? Because for me, it evokes a time that I know about, but never experienced. A wish, perhaps, that I could know how my mother felt on the edge of the West, in a sleepy city, in the middle of a decade where, everywhere else, the world was on fire. But I can’t know these things—not even when I listen to her old Rod McKuen or Glenn Yarborough records. No matter how much we love the past (our own, or someone else’s), we are each required to live our lives in the present, never knowing what’s coming next.


Joe said...

I feel like it's probably the most common failure of parenthood to want to convey what you enjoyed as a kid, assuming they will also enjoy them. It's really not any different from a non-parental relationship in that sense; after all, what is social networking, blogging, youtubing, etc., other than posting what we like/think/enjoy and thinking other people will also? How many people tell you "Oh, this book was amazing, you really MUST read it"?

I think that we all make the mistake you refer to - assuming that people with different experiences will have the same emotional reaction to a work - because fundamentally we are fairly self-centered beings in that sense. It's quite hard to understand that different people have different reactions/experiences to yourself, after all, at a deep level. As a parent it's doubly hard, because your kids ARE like you in a lot of ways - you see it every day, in how they react to things, how they look, talk, often what they're good at - it's just like you when you were a kid! So of course you should give them the same music, books, etc. that you enjoyed, completely forgetting that you enjoyed them because of the process of discovery, or your particular mood at the time you first heard that song.

Music, more than anything else, has that emotional bond - a bond that parents should share with their children, but as history, not as future. I hope that when I have children, I treat that aspect of my life like a Studs essay - telling them what I enjoyed and why, listening to the music and explaining my life through it, but without the expectation that they take it up as their own.

Miriam said...

Oh, you're definitely right! ... we all hope other people (kids or not) will discover and love the things that we love! I just had a sort of funny reaction to it, this morning--maybe because it was a very Boomer-centric list :)

I'm glad you read and comment sometimes, because unlike other social-networking, this one is pretty much done in a complete vacuum! Hopefully talk to you soon!