Je ne veux pas travailler; je ne veux pas dejeuner;
je veux seullement oublier, y puis, je fume.
– Pink Martini
I bought a concert souvenir for my children a few weeks ago: a little plastic music box that plays smart global-cocktail band Pink Martini's song "Sympathique." As I wind it, I sing along, listening to the steel comb trip over the cylinder pins. Translated, the chorus goes, "I don't want to work; I don't want to eat lunch; I only want to forget, and so I smoke." It's a great kids' song.
As a former young adult, I hope my children might rediscover it in the ennui of that stage. As their mother, I also hope they'll choose to pick out the tune on a piano instead of take up a cigarette. For now, we may or may not discuss the virtues and pitfalls of working, lunching, forgetting and smoking. Music doesn't need to be instructional. The Pink Martini concert, for example, was simply an occasion to listen to an excellent band and wear a tulle skirt and red lipstick.
Still, as I play the music box, I think how helpful some lyrics are to me as a parent. A good beat, a catchy tune, and a simple message can go leagues farther than parental nudging or, God forbid, a lecture.
From toddlerhood, singing The Rolling Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want" has sounded so much better than endlessly repeating, "No." It opens a crucial split second of space in the child's confused reaction to a mom-sung shutdown—and it offers promising resolution with, "but if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need." As Theo, 10, and Sylvia, 7, get older, that lyrical dichotomy prompts discussion about wants versus needs.
The Coup's "Wear Clean Draws" debuted in our house with "big kid" underwear and is still going strong. Boots Riley's wisdom for his young daughter sends up feminism, hygiene fundamentals and old-school personal integrity: "Handshakes are promises / Lies can spoil it / Words should be bond and seal / Wash you hands after using the toilet / Brush after every meal / And also / Wear clean draws / Every day…" The kids and I sing it together in the car, and I do the chorus in solo falsetto on those school mornings when a certain pair of boxer briefs looks rather too familiar.
Sometimes, we go country. Tight narrative arcs and forced rhyme mean we can sing along to our own emotional heartstrings the first time we hear a song. In the case of Diamond Rio's "Meet in the Middle," we get top-shelf cautionary examples of the mullet and a catchy prompt for compromise: "I start walkin' your way; you start walkin' mine. / We meet in the middle 'neath that old Georgia pine (pi-y-i-ne). / We gain a lot of ground 'cuz we both give a little: / Ain't no road too long when we meet in the middle." It's another combo deal: marriage therapy and sibling dispute resolution.
The Lion King's "Circle of Life" is an educational ringer, sure; but who can summon up that kind of choral power when you just happen upon a mantis kill?
An easier sing-along is Harry Nillson's "Think About Your Troubles." Its blend of brooding contemplation, food chains and nutrient reuptake creates a sort of Emo water cycle. From "You can take your teardrops / And drop them in a teacup," we follow the tears to the ocean, where they're "eaten by some fishes / Who were eaten by some fishes / And swallowed by a whale / Who grew so old / He decomposed." After some jazzy, melancholy "ooh-doo-doo"s, decomposed whale elements come back through the faucets to our teapots—but not without requisite filtration. This is a modern water cycle, after all.
Income inequality is part of life in Santa Fe, where elementary private-schoolers peer-shame miscreants by telling them they'll be sent to public school if they don't shape up, and I overhear the boys I'm driving to fencing class talk about this sleeping guy at the park who woke to get food from the garbage can and then went back to sleep under a different tree. Sly and the Family Stone's "Everyday People" is as timely as ever: "I am no better and neither are you …/ You love me, you hate me, you know me and then / You can't figure out the bag I'm in."
Those bags we put each other in are alive and well no matter where we stand. Parenting presents the opportunity to call ourselves out on that, so we don't hand down bigotry along with everything else.
Owning our own beliefs in the face of disagreement can be hard, and it's easier to parent in a bubble of sameness. Even with the cascade of opinion-teeming current events, it's much easier to fling criticism from one safe vantage or another than to prompt dialogue by taking an uncomfortable stance—or knee, as the case may be. The late Tom Petty (whose "Last Dance With Mary Jane" is a song-discussion we'll have later) reminds us, "there ain't no easy way out." In raising kids to be critical, compassionate thinkers, dialogue is where it's at—and it's not easy.
A former preschool-mate of Theo's recently kneeled during her school recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. The teacher, reportedly, was greatly displeased and reprimanded the entire class. In response, the grade-schooler's parents went to the principal with a copy of the 1943 West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette decision, in which the Supreme Court held that students could not be forced to say the Pledge in school. Meanwhile, the 11-year-old initiated a discussion with her teacher. She explained her protest of racial inequality in the US, and her teacher explained her devotion to the flag. I doubt either was swayed, but they had a meaningful conversation—one that wouldn't have happened without the openness and conviction of a child. As I tell my own kids about this, I play them Petty's "I Won't Back Down," and I imagine an MTV montage of the classroom scene playing out while Tom Petty floats in the screen's upper right. "Gonna stand my ground / And I won't back down," he sings, playing guitar in the school auditorium while the American flag stands behind him.
So there's idealism and free speech, and there's aging. There are definitely times I want to yell-sing "I Don't Want to Grow Up" along with my kids and The Ramones—because, hell, yeah, I "don't want my hair to fall out/I don't want to be filled with doubt." But here we are, bald and self-doubting and trying to guide small humans into this world. Guiding and loving these small humans is more privilege than it is challenge. I walk a wire between the wonder of the people my children are becoming, the preciousness of the babies they were (O, Facebook memories!) and the taut awareness of how quickly time passes.
I'm also just really trying to figure out how to get everyone out of bed on school mornings. Songs work better than haranguing. Who knew!? So, a 7 am fade-up: "All I need, all all I need… / Is you / smiling … / All I need, all all I need / is life, love / with you." Thanks, AWOL Nation: You make waking up sweeter. You, too, Lou Reed, setting up the prospect, "Oh, it's such a perfect day / I'm glad I spent it with you." Love songs assume new dimensions with kids—and days begin and end better with a little less nag and a lot more love.
Love songs also focus me on being present for and with them. Giving children the structure of loving support and latitude to discover their own paths is no small order. And in a world where fear and looking backward seem to direct so many people's decisions, I want my kids to learn to see—and imagine—beyond such traps.
It's worth paying attention when David Bowie channels Heraclitus and stutters the only constant: "Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes." I particularly love the line, "turn and face the strange," because complexity is part of our lives and holds so many facets of beauty. How we orient ourselves and our children to this is a daily question.
Along with Bowie, Prince reminds me that this question—like the best questions and inspired parenting—is open-ended. His "Starfish and Coffee" is fun and wise: "If you set your mind free, baby / Maybe you'll understand." My kids and I love the song's silliness, as did the Muppets of my childhood when Prince appeared on the show. "Starfish and coffee / Maple syrup and jam / Butterscotch clouds, a tangerine, / And a side order of ham." The magical lunchbox of Cynthia Rose is a menu we can delight in and belt out together. If it prompts danceable free-thinking, all the better; and maybe we'll take some purple paisley parenting credit.
For now, it keeps our imaginations in tune, and that—along with family sing-and-dance parties (and clean draws)—is music to my ears.