Parents Just Don't Understand

Eddie Van Halen with son Wolfgang, who likes his dad's music so much, he now plays it.

For every tween who raids his parents' record collection, there are 30 more who can't get in the family car without headphones plugged in to their own tunes.

Want to feel really old? Go to an all-ages concert. I did that last month -- it was a work thing -- and my prostate is already asserting itself. These shows are typically the G-rated movies of the music world; the only adults present are either performing, working, or chaperoning. This one was no different. Upon arrival, my girlfriend and I had to pick our way through a screaming, dancing mass of hoodied high-schoolers just to get to the bar (there was no line, thankfully). I hadn't seen a crowd that into a show since...well, since high school, when I attended a few all-ages punk shows with my straight-edge best friend.

The crowd -- the female part, at least -- got even louder during the next set, which featured a spiky-haired guy and his guitar. The dude could barely get a word out of his mouth before being met with a wave of shrieks. As he did this thing, we noticed that we weren't the only people in the crowd who could rent porn; along the wall on the second floor of the venue, keeping their distance as if they'd been told to do just that, were some parents who'd been roped into driving their kids into the city for the event.

Thanks to the sense of maturity that comes with being surrounded by Jonas Brothers lookalikes, I found myself immediately empathizing with these parents. As they cringed their way through another impossibly upbeat song, I considered what thoughts might be filling their heads. Worries about the next mortgage payment? Maybe. Plans for a weekend trip to the Container Store? Almost definitely. But somewhere in there: "Why does my kid like this crap?"

This is a thought that every parent probably has at one time or another. Because while many traits are easily passed from one generation to the next, the same cannot be said of musical preferences. For every tween who raids his parents' record collection (and I know a few hippie children who did just that), there are 30 more who can't get in the family car without headphones plugged in to their own turns. It's just the natural order of things.

Most parents can't accept such a fate, and employ various strategies to avoid it. For mine, that meant giving me a steady dose of oldies, from Gene Chandler's "Duke of Earl" to the Outsiders' "Time Won't Let Me" (the lyrics of which my dad changed to "Mom Won't Let Me" when it fit the situation -- which was often). The catchy pop songs of yesteryear sounded pretty darn good to this toddler; I was probably as excited as my parents were to see the Beach Boys at my very first concert (though my excitement had as much to do with the guest drummer, John Stamos, as with any of the Wilsons). But that period of inter-generational bonding couldn't last forever; it was only a matter of time before I'd grow up and realize -- thanks in no small part to my peers -- that my parents were not exactly cool, that the music they listened to was relevant only to old(er) people. Then, whatever music they suggested was met with a groan and a "can we change the station?"

But there's no law that says parents can't be cool (though I'm sure Dubya has tried to sneak one through). And these days, it seems everywhere I look I see people who don't let strollers mess with their street cred. I'm talking about music-loving 30-somethings who don't think twice about bringing their kids to an all-day concert featuring popular and/or experimental bands. This summer alone, I've seen young'uns rocking out to King Khan at the Pitchfork Music Festival, Wilco at Lollapalooza (an event that caters to the little ones in a big way), and Hungarian band Little Cow at the Hideout Block Party, the bash that signals the end of music-festival season in Chicago. And as I've watched these hair-dyed, face-painted, fake-tattooed kids dancing along with their hipster parents, I've heard people talk about how lucky they are to experience such a cool event, how they're sure to become more adventurous listeners because of it. I'm sure the parents love hearing this kind of praise, as it validates their brainwashing methods, which, in reality, are not much different from that of my own parents; they just like more contemporary music. But are their strategies really any more effective in eliminating the generational music divide?

For all the misery I gave my parents over their old-fogey tastes, years later, I ended up coming around and liking a lot of the music they once had to push on me. But I had to go through my own process of getting there, a process that took me through some dark, dark days (I'm talking Deep Blue Something dark). I wonder if things might have been different had they been trying to expose me to something a little "cooler" at a young age -- say, the Talking Heads instead of Jan & Dean. Would I still have developed a desire to listen to something different, knowing that my parents' music was very culturally relevant? I say yes. It was natural for me to seek out alternative sounds; I needed to find something of my own, even if that meant turning to bubblegum pop for a few years. It wasn't until college that I began to appreciate my parents efforts toward broadening my musical taste.

So while those hip parents may think they're doing their kids a favor by exposing them to interesting, contemporary music -- and they are -- they probably shouldn't expect to be having Sonic Youth sing-a-longs when their kids hit middle school. More likely, they'll end up with teenagers who shun the stuff -- for no other reason than it's their parents' music -- and spend their allowances on tickets for pop-punk concerts. And guess who they'll be asking to drive them to the show?

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