Kids Listen to the Darndest Things

by Ben Rubenstein

10 March 2009

Like these kids, my enjoyment level has never been as high as it was for the crap I loved when I was 13.
Photo by
Gary Simmons (via Flickr

On Valentine’s Day, I gave my girlfriend one of those cards that plays music when you open it up. The song of choice? “Can’t Fight This Feeling” by REO Speedwagon. Obviously, she loved it. How could she not?

But as the voice of Kevin Cronin (the Barry White of ‘80s rock) streamed from the pink cardboard, I admit that my thoughts weren’t totally centered on romance. I was also thinking about how a certain seventh-grader I’d just met would probably love the song.

Randy was one of several middle-schoolers I taught recently in a workshop class at 826CHI, the Chicago branch of the writing organization founded by author Dave Eggers in San Francisco. Through school visits, tutoring sessions, and volunteer-led workshops, 826 helps students to develop a love for reading, writing, and, of course, moustaches (the Chicago location has a spy theme, while others revolve around things like pirates and superheroes).

The goal of the “Sound Stories” workshop I created with my co-teacher, Emily (another occasional music writer), was simple: to use various songs as writing prompts for students’ short stories. We decided to play the kids a mix of popular songs—Kanye West’s “Love Lockdown” and Paramore’s “Decode” (a/k/a that song from Twilight)—and stuff that we, the snobs in charge, liked a lot more (selections included Radiohead’s “Reckoner” and an El-P instrumental track).

As we sat and listened to each song, we asked the students to consider what thoughts or images the music inspired. What we got, at first, was more akin to critique. Apparently, to a seventh-grader’s ears, Thom Yorke sounds like a whale, or at the very least, a whiny girl; Orchestra Baobab’s “Utrus Horas”, meanwhile, would make great background music for a taco feast where something goes dreadfully wrong (upon finding out that the music was African, and not Mexican, one girl claimed to like it much more).

The students also initially claimed that music needed lyrics to truly have meaning; it was hard to tell what a song could be about, they said, unless given some explicit clues. Yet they were soon filling sheets of paper with random ideas. Ulrich Schnauss’ electronic meanderings inspired many visions of water; El-P’s sonic barrage brought to mind things as diverse as “war” and “Michael Jackson”.

All these responses were enlightening, and definitely entertaining—which is why we ended up spending far too much time on the listening portion and less on the actual writing—but the more interesting part, for me, came in the second session of the class. After getting the “lame” vote on most of the stuff we’d provided, we asked students to bring in some of their own music for our mutual listening pleasure. Based on their stated preferences, I thought I knew what to expect: a healthy dose of Beyoncé, Coldplay, and, strangely, Smash Mouth.

I was wrong. Well, sort of. Randy did bring in his treasured copy of Viva La Vida. But after that had run its course, he jumped onto YouTube to unleash a soundtrack full of surprises. It included Seal’s “Kiss from a Rose”, AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” (yes, he played air guitar), and, just to thoroughly confuse us, the Living Legends’ underground hip-hop single, “Night Prowler”.

If middle school is as I remember it, these off-the-beaten-path listening habits probably don’t bring Randy a lot of love among his peers. But I also didn’t get the sense that he chose his music purely to stand out in the crowd, or to be ironic. The kid just liked what he liked. And while his choices were not necessarily to my tastes, I have to envy that relative lack of a musical conscience. He wasn’t alone, either; another of our students pranced into the second session having changed her favorite song ever from Beyoncé‘s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” to the Watson Twins’ “How Am I to Be” in the span of a week.

These kids can’t be ignorant of the ways that they’ll be labeled based on their affinities. At their age, it’s all about labels. But it’s also about pure enjoyment—something that becomes more and more elusive as the years pass. In the time since seventh grade, I’ve gotten increasingly serious about music; my appreciation of the stuff has risen steadily, but I’d argue that my enjoyment level has never been as high as it was for the crap I loved when I was 13.

It’s tempting to end this column with a cliché: that I left the class having learned more from the students than I taught them. But really, I already knew this stuff. Everyone does. One of the biggest reasons we throw ourselves into music is to try and recapture some small part of our adolescent selves—it’s why Girl Talk has a career. And it’s probably why I wanted to teach the workshop in the first place; writing-prompt exercises were one of my favorite activities in middle-school English class. But as I read the students’ stories at the end of class (topics ranged from homicidal, wheelchair-ridden substitute teachers who couldn’t pronounce their Ws to a tale of mystery involving a time-traveling house), I realized that my creativity level, too, had dropped a bit since those days. I couldn’t come up with anything half as interesting as a seventh-grader. It’s no wonder I spend my time listening to whiny whale songs.

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