Ben Greenman is a New Yorker writer and the author of several acclaimed books of fiction and the New York Times-bestselling Mo Meta Blues, written with Questlove. He lives in Brooklyn.
When my kids were little, I wanted them to listen to music. I assume that every parent does, in the same way every parent wants his or her children to feel curiosity and lust or acquire skepticism or learn to discern the shapes of ideas against the murk of everything else. The trick, though, is to introduce kids to music without inflicting your taste upon them. I was telling this to a friend the other day and she jumped right on board. "Because they'll rebel, right?" she said. But that hasn't been my experience. Rather, it's been something else: passive acceptance.
That danger was apparent early. The kids laughed like crazy the first time they heard Spike Jones's "Wanna Buy a Bunny?" and they danced like maniacs the first time they heard "1999." They asked for those songs before bed, and in time asked, too, for the Ramones and Parliament and Mary Margaret O'Hara and Janet Jackson. I got them iPods of their own. But after six months or so, I noticed that they were listening to the same songs over and over again: excellent songs by excellent artists, but still a limited (and limiting) set. They weren't really exploring—and to be fair, how could they? And so the kids grew into all this music without ever growing out of it.
On the face of it, listening to your parents’ music is acceptable, and probably unavoidable. I started the same way, playing their records without permission, memorizing all the Paul Simon and Beatles I could get my hands on. But pretty soon after that, I found a weird late-night psychedelic radio show, and a few years later, I was a record-store regular. What satisfies that urge now? Spotify has too many options, to the point where it might as well have none at all. Amazon sells records, but the absence of physical contact with an artifact makes it all very abstract. How do you browse? How do you stumble upon?
As it turned out, the answer lay with my younger son, who is greedy. One afternoon, he was out walking with my wife, and he noticed a box of dollar LPs at a stoop sale. He started going through the records hungrily, taking anything that he recognized (Michael Jackson) and some things he didn't (a Boston record, because he liked the cover: and who doesn't?). For months after that, both kids made us stop in the street whenever they saw records laid out on blankets. They bought records by Perez Prado and Nina Simone and Julian Cope and Loverboy. They organized the albums, studied the cover art. What they didn't do much of, strangely, was listen to them. Rather, the records served as triggers, or order forms: once they saw a Nina Simone record in real life, they asked me to load Nina Simone onto the iPod for them. It was roundabout, but it counted as discovery.
In the last six months or so, I have noticed a turn in both kids. The older one has drilled deeper into the artists he already knows and loves: it’s not “Start Me Up,” but “I Am Waiting.” The younger one has decided that he likes the poppiest pop songs: Bruno Mars and Katy Perry and Imagine Dragons and Rihanna and Miley Cyrus. For the most part, they've stopped asking me for recommendations, and now and again I'll hear music coming out of their rooms that I don't immediately recognize. That seems like a victory.