Pop Music isn’t what it used to be

 My daughter received a three disk CD of the complete works of Raffi for Christmas– hours and hours of happy, multi-cultural sing-along-songs. She puts them in the CD player and pulls a chair up to the speakers, gazing into the digital clock-face of the machine, waiting for the next Raffi song to come out.


She sings along: “I have a little dreidel, I made it out of clay…and when it’s dry and ready, my dreidel I will play.” She listens to “Willoughby, wallaby wanya… an elephant sat on Tanya!” And “Peanut-butter-sandwich made with Jam, one for me and one for David-am-ram” (whoever that is).


Occasionally, she skips a song–“You wake up in the morning, it’s a quarter to one, and you want-to-have a little fun…Brush your teeth, ch-ch-CH-ch, cha-CH, cha-CH.”


She doesn’t want to hear it. She doesn’t want to brush her teeth either. There’s no time, day or night, in which she can conceive of tooth-brushing as a fun thing to do. In fact, I promised her that if she could brush her teeth for 365 days straight without being asked, I’d let her get her ears pierced–but she didn’t bite.


Nevertheless, most of the songs she adores, and for the first twenty or so hours of Raffi redux, I felt the calming winds of nostalgia blowing through our home. Nothing tweaks the memory like a song, and I, too, was once a young Catholic girl, sitting at the speakers in the dark paneled den of my childhood home, singing about a dreidel, while never once questioning what a dreidel might be.


No other singer (with the possible exceptions of Barbara Streisand, Neil Diamond, and Tina Turner) evokes my childhood like Raffi.


Actually, scratch that.


Raffi was just one of many first loves. The totem of my childhood environment was the stereo itself, stacked up in the corner, waist-high behind its magnetized glass door, three stories of black boxes with red and green eyes flashing its varying degrees of alertness and volume.


My dad brought it home as a “family” present for Christmas. My parents had started a tradition of getting one big thing for all of us, which had ranged over the years from a new puppy to the Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary that (aside from a few forays into looking up dirty words) became the family spoilsport, as our parents thenceforth answered our every inquiry into the meaning of a word with a disinterested, “look it up.”


In any case, the stereo came home slightly before Christmas one year, and my dad and my brother spent a long afternoon laying out all the screws and parts to the stereo cabinet that would be its home, alongside the many cords and plugs that attached the turn table to the dual cassette player, to the radio, to the control center. By the time it was all assembled, it was dark outside, and my sister and I put on leotards, and pranced on tip-toes in front of our reflections in the sliding glass door to Swan Lake.


Our lives would never be the same, because shortly after the arrival of the stereo, came a stack of old albums that my parents must have been keeping up in the attic: Jimi Hendrix, which sounded like slush to me, and Paul McCartney, which I enjoyed more for the opportunity to study the family pictures of the younger McCartneys on the inside sleeve of the album cover. My mom started purchasing new music too, so “Hello, My Name is Barbara” was soon joined by the Barbara Streisand and Barry Gibb  duet album, “Guilty.” Linda Ronstadt showed up, and eventually, that scandalous Tina Turner album, “Private Dancer.”


I told my husband the other day that I have no memories of watching TV or listening to anything other than classical music until I was about six years old. But after that, pop culture became a pretty regular fixture in our house. Once pop music was out of the box, we never contained it again. My older brother grew into Heavy Metal, which could be heard emanating from his room any time he was home. My sister slipped into her moody phase eventually, wearing black clothes and listening to emo bands like the Cocteau Twins. And I tried to follow her, once the allure of Raffi had worn off, but I was still slightly more interested in Boy George and Cyndi Lauper.


I’ve wondered, at times if I’ve now grown out of the age of passionate music listening, or if some of that cultural era has come to a close. When I turn on the local radio stations, they’re playing the same songs I listened to in high school and college, without irony or an “oldies” slant. The “new” music stations don’t sound unique or engaging. VH1 and MTV, the last time I checked, were showing reality shows rather than music videos–and anyway, we got rid of our TV. I’ve heard one can find new music through Pandora, but the prospect of Pandora pointing you towards something totally new feels a little sterile, since you know it will be something in the same genus and species of the music you already like.


My kids are in public school, but aside from the latest youtube craze (“Gangnam Style” being the most recent), we don’t hear about pop music as the cultural status symbol it used to be. It’s true that my kids are probably not the best indicators of what’s hot in the cultural mainstream, but even my older kids have already surpassed the age at which I had thoroughly identified myself as “one who loves Michael Jackson with a crazy passionate love that includes kissing posters of him”–and there has not been a single mention of a single pop-star whom they admire or want to listen to.


All this is to say, my husband just purchased a new stereo as a family present for us this Christmas, and rather than being a portal to the great wide world, it seems like our new stereo is another of the many protective measures we’ve installed against unwanted cultural infiltration. Now that Ipods have replaced albums, my husband and I curate the music that makes it into our house on a singular device. The Raffi CD is the only one in the house that hasn’t yet been uploaded to the Ipod through my laptop, so it’s the only one that’s actually in the hands of the kids.


We’ve downloaded a couple of radio stations to the Ipod, but these also were carefully vetted and selected because of their family friendliness. I suppose the kids could still get on the local radio stations, but at least a couple of them don’t realize that music exists outside of the Ipod. And as previously mentioned, the cackling voices and prefab pop beats, for whatever reason, hold little allure thus far for my particular kids.


Sometimes I feel nervous about the ways culture has changed–about how available EVERYTHING is online, and how easy it is to fall down the wrong rabbit hole. At the same time, having all the portals on one device makes a certain stage of parenting pretty easy. I don’t have to worry about a window opening when I shut the door. The TV and the radio are not the independent threats they used to be. Everything is now filtered through the computer, and when it’s off, it’s off.


Of course, I’m sure that when the next stage of parenting takes off, the one in which I have to allow my kids a certain degree of freedom online, things will become much more complicated. To which, I say–and this may be the only time I say it– thank God we have a small house with few dark corners.


What say you? Am I just missing it? Is pop music still alive and well somewhere?

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