In every generation parents decry their children’s taste in music. I can imagine Priscilla and Jeremy in 18th-century London, complaining when their 15-year-old Thaddeus went around singing, “All we like sheep, have gone astray,” from Handel’s Messiah.
“Sex, sex sex — That’s all the boy thinks about,” Priscilla bemoaned, “unlike the pure songs of our youth.”
Jeremy nodded. “Yes, like ‘Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.’ ”
In the 19th century, parents shivered when they heard the children singing, “I’ve been working on the railroad,” with its verses about Dinah in the kitchen. In the `20s and `30s, they blanched at early jazz and blues.
But the true outrage emerged in the ‘50s with Elvis, partly from his lyrics but more from his hips, which had a mind of their own and an unmistakable meaning if you had a teenage daughter. Then came the ‘60s and the Rolling Stones singing about “Brown Sugar” and “Satisfaction.”
My favorite lyric was from the ‘60s song “Hang on Sloopy” by Wes Farrell and Bert Berns, which includes the immortal if somewhat ungrammatical lines: “Sloopy dear, I don’t care what your Daddy do, cause Sloopy dear, I’m in love with you.”
Those words struck an egalitarian chord and conveyed my feelings about my sweetheart. As the son of an attorney, I adored her without regard to her father’s role as a beer truck driver. As to the song, the rest of the lyrics explained graphically why Sloopy was hanging on.
I asked others about their favorite lyrics. My first inquiry went to my nephew Owen, who stands as a maven among mavens in pop music expertise; he’s the executive vice president/general manager of content development and distribution for I Heart Radio.
After a day of reflection, he came back with a few lines from Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah: “Maybe there’s a God above, but all I’ve ever learned from love, Was how to shoot someone who outdrew you.” In response to my puzzled response (“What the hell does that mean?”), Owen answered, “It encapsulates the pain, pleasure, mystery and utter hopelessness of romantic love. As well as its essential ineffable nature.”
Tabitha, another Generation Xer, had to check a decades-old journal to identify her favorite lyric: “Don’t sit upon the shoreline and say you’re satisfied, choose to brave the rapids and dare to dance the tide.” This Garth Brooks lyric has defined her life, leading her to a doctorate in Chinese policy along with nonstop international travel.
My own bête noir is rap music, which I hear as a dangerous trumpeting of misogyny, violence, drugs and racism. To test my theory about rap’s dangers, I called upon my young friend Taub, a precocious nine-year-old who loves the genre. He quickly came up with two favorites, “Broccoli” and “All the Way Up.”
He explained “These songs tell me you can reach whatever goals you set for yourself if you try hard enough.” “Broccoli” starts by worshipping bling and power before turning into an appreciation of the good things in life.
In “All the Way Up,” Fat Joe and Remy Ma, along with Infa Red, proclaim “Nothin’ can stop me. I’m all the way up.”
“What about all the other words?” I asked, thinking of the many unprintable lines. Taub admitted he didn’t understand a lot of them, but he got the message about achieving goals. He liked the music’s flow and fluency, and reliance on a beat rather than a voice. “You need the beat,” he concluded.
All generations have their own musical language. They take from it what they want and need. They emerge strengthened and use the music to define their desires. Parents should trust their kids and relax.
Stuart Grover lives in Tacoma and apparently avoided corruption from the rock music of his youth. He is one of six reader columnists who write for this page, and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org