SteelyKid, Space-Babies, and Transformative Music

As previously mentioned, SteelyKid has started to get into pop music. In addition to the songs in that post, she's very fond of Katy Perry's "Roar," like every other pre-teen girl in the country, and also this Taylor Swift song:

I've seen a bunch of people rave about this, but honestly, I found it pretty forgettable until I read Jim Henley's Twitter exegesis in which he shows that the song is really about the tryst with an alien that left Swift with a faceless hybrid infant. That is, a blank space-baby. Now I can't get the idiot song out of my head.

Anyway, a week or two ago, I actually went onto Amazon and bought a bunch of the tracks that she sings along with in the car-- "Centuries," "Roar," "Blank Space," "Shake It Off,""Lips Are Movin'," "Happy," "Let It Go," "Everything Is Awesome," a few others. We loaded them onto her tablet, and she immediately curled up on the couch with headphones, and started playing them over and over to learn the words, singing along.

I posted the obligatory grumpy-dad tweet about buying these tracks, but really, I don't mind. For one thing, her singing along is novel enough to be cute, and has produced some brilliant mondegreens-- at one point, I swear she sang "'Cause I love the players, and You! Love! Croquet!," and I almost put the car in a ditch laughing.

Beyond that, though, a lot of these songs are actually pretty good. I'm still not a huge fan of "Blank Space," but other than the cringe-worthy break, "Shake It Off" is pretty good. And the chorus of "Lips Are Movin'" is basically a Motown song-- not their very best, maybe Holland, Dozier, and Holland with a hangover and a tight deadline, but it's pretty good pop songcraft. I will continue to try to steer her away from the crappy and creepy stuff (*cough* Pitbull *cough*), but I'm pretty okay with most of what's on the Top 40 station at the moment.

The main reason I'm kind of happy about this, though, is that the singing along with headphones is such a classic proto-pop-music-nerd thing to do. It's the music fan equivalent of watching her toddle across the room the first time. And as a giant pop-music nerd myself-- I still do the thing where I sit in the car in the driveway waiting for a really good song to finish-- I find it heartwarming to see.

I especially enjoyed it when, on the same car ride as the "rattlesnake painting" conversation, she explained to me that she sings along with the songs even when she doesn't know the words, because she likes the way the music makes her feel. Yes, honey, that's it exactly. Welcome to my world.

I bring this up not only because the goddamn space-baby song came up on shuffle play again, and now I'll be earwormed with it all morning, but because in another, un-linkable , corner of my social-media universe, a friend who is prone to such things made another dismissive post about pop-rock music. This one was about how when he hears people talk about a great song or album he always expects it to be a brilliant and transformative thing, but it just sounds like every other pop song to him.

And, you know, that's pretty much my reaction to classical music-- people rave about the timeless brilliance of whatever, and I do my best to listen politely, but really, it all makes me want to pull out my phone and check Twitter. For that matter, as much as people talk about jazz as a religious experience, it's never done all that much for me-- I played in the jazz band in high school, so I can appreciate the technical artistry of it, but it's just not my thing.

And yet, I'll sit transfixed by crappy cell-phone video to find the awesomeness of a new-to-me song by my favorite rock band:

(Seriously, that's awesome, and makes me wish I lived in a place where I could see more of their live shows...)

And, the thing is, all of those things are transformative in their own way, for different people. Some people find transcendence in Beethoven, I prefer loud guitars and sharp lyrics.

Which is another piece of why I get torqued up about lousy defenses of "the humanities," that fall back on an elite consensus about what's Important. Because if you want to claim a universal human impulse toward art, that's fine, but insisting on the universal appeal of particular works is a bad place to go.

As I said last week, I remain uncertain about what I'd actually like to see as a defense of "the humanities," but I suspect it starts with something like this. Not with name-checking to flatter the presumed taste of an elite audience (which is not necessarily universally shared), but speaking to the human impulse to find transformative experiences in all kinds of places. Because in the end, transformative art is wherever you find it. Sometimes, that's in a concert hall with a symphony orchestra, sometimes it's on the couch with headphones and a song about a space-baby.

So, while I'm happy that for the moment SteelyKid's nascent musical taste fits reasonably comfortably within the bounds of what I like, I guess the really important thing here is that she's finding significance in music of whatever type. Because in the end, it's that process of finding and feeling that makes a more complete person. And I'll try to keep that in mind even when she enters a rebellious teenage phase and gets really into Italian opera.

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Well said :) If it's of any comfort, I never really had a music rebellion phase as teenager. Instead I've had a phase in which I listened through my mother's ABBA records (and left them badly scratched, shame on me). That was briefly before CDs took off. Wondering now where my records went. I hear they're making a comeback.

Swift is ok, which is to say not as bad as other stuff, Goulding for example. I find it Swift's stuff well done but also kind of uninspired. It all looks, sounds, and feels like loads and loads of money went into it, it's almost disgustingly smooth. Look at that video! She's wearing like two dozen different dresses, each of which is an amazing piece of artwork. I find that more stunning than the song ;)

Our girls don't understand pop music yet, and I don't mean they don't understand the lyrics, but that it just seems to complex for them. They're still hearing children's songs and folk songs, much of which they learn in kindergarten. It's funny that, as you say, they will repeat the lyrics as they hear them, sometimes wrong in funny ways. Many of the German folk songs are anything but cheery if you understand what they are about, sometimes I'm glad they do not understand what they sing. The amazing thing is though that they learn the lyrics equally quickly in other languages. I suppose if you don't understand it either way, it doesn't make much of a difference if it's French, German, English or Latin. Do your kids hear songs in other languages?

We don't get a lot of foreign-language music here. My one definite experience with SteelyKid encountering music in another language was when she was singing "Gangnam Style" a couple of summers ago, and I decided to show her the video. After a few seconds of the first verse, she turned to me and said "But... but... he's singing in Spanish!" Because when you're three, all foreign languages are Spanish.

(We also had to explain to her one time that bringing her origami book to school was fine, but that her friend D. was unlikely to be able to read the Japanese writing, because D.'s family is from China...)

Ha. We several American-German kids in Kindergarten (there used to be US Army in the area), then there's a boy who came speaking only French, and our first Nanny was Spanish. You're right that for the kids is all more or less the same. The one exception is Swedish. They know Swedish is a thing because we have picture books and they can "see" it, basically.

They're offering English courses starting at age 4, but the kids said they don't want to go, and I figured not much point pushing them. They'll learn it early enough.

Here's some things that are presently popular in Germany (the last one has English lyrics, with a somewhat strange accent though)

And then there are some groups making a business out of mixing German with English, eg this one

If that sounds kind of familiar, I think it's stolen from here

Music is definitely a personal thing, and people will invariably disagree about what constitutes great music. In my case, I understand the historical importance of both Mozart and the Rolling Stones, but while there are a few songs from each that I like, I find that most of their music doesn't make the connection for me. There are other classical composers, and other rock/popular music performers, that I prefer. I actually know somebody who will only with great reluctance hear a performance of a piece written after 1850, a view I find as limiting as those who prefer "both kinds of music: country and Western".

‘Cause I love the players, and You! Love! Croquet!

I'm not connected well with current popular music, so I have no idea what song produced that result, but I agree that it's a brilliant mondegreen. Alas, it's harder to do that when you are an adult listening to a song in your native language, but for an illustration of what Latin can do, look on Youtube for various versions of Carl Orff's epic "Oh Four Tuna" (which I'm not linking to because most of them are NSFW).

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 04 Mar 2015 #permalink

Ahhh ... music. The joys of singing along to a Philip Glass piece.

Definitely well argued. As an adolescent I ultimately find myself being drawn into the latest pop music, whether it is Pitbull, Taylor Swift, Sia and all the other artists available out there all building their empires. Music has a unique way of emphasising the emotions you are feeling at that specific point in time, but it also has the strange ability to make you feel sad when you hear that melancholic beat or overjoyed when that rhythmic backtrack begins to get your entire body dancing. I believe music has decreased depression in individuals, especially teenagers as it has the ability to comfort a person when they are feeling low and it also has the ability to block out all one's troubles as they sing along to that wonderful four minute song before they hit the repeat button and sing the song even better that they did the first time. In contrast to this I also find that certain music containing fowl language has the ability to persuade individuals that swearing is not a bad thing and if it is done while you sing your favourite song, it is acceptable, however in my opinion swearing should not be considered acceptable in and context or use of those words. Ultimately I believe that it is music that makes the world go round, thus people young and old must embrace the beat and move their feet to live a better and happier life.