January 30, 2011

Soundtrack 2 My (Pre-Adolescent) Life

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Remember those parents who never failed to tune the car radio to Z100? Who enthusiastically purchased Jingle Ball tickets for the family? Who could tell Clarkson from Carrie, Britney from Beyonce, and knew that 50 Cent was not just a type of coin? I do very well, actually. This is because neither of my parents were one of them.

If you do not recall these Z100-listening parents, it is probably because you had them. As a result, you never dealt with or maybe never even noticed the discrepancy between parents. To this day, I don’t know what my friends were thinking when they rode in the car with either of my parents.  Did they not notice a difference in the ambiance? Did they feel confused? Shocked? Lucky? Such car rides were a subject of some kind of pervasive, emotionally-straining adolescent concern.

My mom usually had the radio tuned to WQXR, a station that plays Mozart, Beethoven and maybe a little Dvorak once in a while to mix it up. My dad listened to Talking Heads (songs like “Creatures of Love” were slightly embarrassing to say the least: “I’ve seen sex and I think it’s alright”) and Bob Dylan (I distinctly remember my sister’s complaint of “Daddy, this is boring”). In response to any type of protest, my mom would respond, “Since I’m driving, I get to pick the music. When you drive, you can pick.” My dad would threaten heinous torture, responding to our protests by saying, “At least I don’t sing when your friends are in the car. Do you think I should sing next time your friends are with us?”

While the first concert most girls my age ever attended featured The Spice Girls or The Backstreet Boys, my first concert showcased the talents of the folk trio Peter, Paul, and Mary. My sister was disappointed that they didn’t perform her favorite, “Lemon Tree.”

It’s funny how people often say that when you’re an adult, you’ll understand your parents much better than you understood them as a kid. I don’t think that you necessarily understand your parents better when you’re an adult yourself (this is assuming, of course, that I consider myself an adult, which I don’t).  I think it’s simply that the quirks your parents had — the unique things they did — simply merge together to become who you are as an adult, all without your permission. Though I probably have a wider selection of music than most of my friends, Talking Heads and Mozart make more frequent appearances on my iPod than Akon does. It has become a struggle for me to know the names of artists behind current radio hits. This is just who I am, and I have to think that I never learned to be especially aware of current music culture because my parents were never ones who needed to be at the forefront of popular culture.

My parents’ music tastes have become a part of me in many, more significant ways. My mom’s love of classical music translated into my love of playing the piano and the violin from elementary through high school. Though I have only briefly been involved with these instruments at Cornell, I will always have at hand the opportunity to escape into the classical music my mother surrounded me with. I will also always have fond memories of playing music for my grandparents. My grandmother would deem me a prodigy and tell me that whatever I played for her was absolutely beautiful, while my grandfather, ever the critic, would ask me whether I had really been practicing recently, inducing the deep, nauseating guilt that comes with disappointing your loved ones.

And what about my Van Morrison-loving, Grateful Dead-idolizing dad? Well, I quickly accepted his music as my own as soon as I was at that age when having that generic poster of Bob Dylan in your room was cool. Oh, and, however improbably, I will always have a soft spot for Jimmy Buffett, if only for the lesson I learned as a child from the children’s book he co-wrote with his daughter, Jolly Mon Sing. The book tells the tale of a man who uses his musical gifts to befriend a dolphin and become king. It’s a story that anyone who has felt that music has saved them, in one way of another, will love. And such nostalgia is not merely mental. Recently, a few friends were recounting a time when they were in New York City around Madison Square Garden and all of a sudden they saw all of these old people wearing Hawaiian shirts coming from the Jimmy Buffett concert.  “Oh yeah,” I said, “I was there.”

So if you haven’t accepted the music taste of the person who drove you around all those years, give it a second chance. Whether you were subjected to classical music, rap, country, or something worse (polka-metal?), I am sure that there is something meaningful to be gleaned from the soundtrack to your childhood. And if you show the slightest interest, you might be rewarded with reciprocation. Unlikely as it seems, my parents have made some real progress in catching onto some modern music. Today, my dad would consider himself a Coldplay fan and someone who is at least tangentially familiar with bands like The New Pornographers and Ted Leo and the Pharmacists. And my mom? Well, every once in a while I’ll hear O.A.R. coming from her computer, and sometimes I swear I catch her jamming out to a Kanye song or two.

Original Author: Suzanne Baumgarten