Engaging faithfully with music

Nov 7, 2014 by

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The first time my 4-year-old sang “All About The Bass,” I paused to reflect. It’s an imperfect number to be sure, despite its attempt at affirming a body-type outside the norm put forth by Vogue, but she clearly has no idea what the song is about. She doesn’t know what a bass is, much less for what it’s providing a metaphorical substitute.

I worried even less after dropping her off at the daycare one morning and hearing her friend Julian singing, “baa baa bass, baa baa bass.” For all they know, the song is a re-setting of “Baa Baa Black Sheep.”

Despite the innocuous way our consumption of this particular tune went down, I still flip on the radio for any road trip with some trepidation. My girls, 4 and 7, love Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off,” a song I loathe, but to which I can’t muster any justifiable objection other than that it annoys me. I have not yet decided how I feel about the fact that Fiona, the older one, is perfect in her imitation of Swift on these lines: And to the fella over there/with the hella good hair/Won’t you come on over, baby?/ We can shake, shake, shake. Should the “hella” bother me? The way she’s learning to either confidently invite an attractive partner to dance, or, um, come on to people?

My good friend Katherine wrote earlier this year about why she’s transitioned to listening from debaucherous pop music to listening to Jesus-y pop music. I can’t do it, though. The politics of those stations drives me nuts; I am an unsuccessful boycott-er of many things, but I can’t bring myself to listen to a station with a mission statement I object to, (and as a female pastor) with a leadership board that is intentionally, exclusively male. Maybe because, unlike Katherine, I have no past positive history with Contemporary Christian music, except that one album a friend once gave my sister for her birthday, the album my family had a great time with after a few listens. (They don’t serve breakfast in hell?! Really?)

I grew up on secular music, played my parents’ albums and stole their tapes: The Beatles, The Who, James Taylor and Paul Simon. Jane Oliver, the Moody Blues, and the best soundtrack of all time, The Big Chill, all accompanied my childhood. There were things I didn’t understand, lyrics I sang incorrectly, and wondered about. I was convinced, for years, that “Penny Lane” was about a girl named Elaine: And Elaine is in my ears and in my eyes. I remember as a teenager, having one of my parents explain that the fireman verse was full of innuendo.

I loved, as an elementary school kid, “Your Wildest Dreams,” by the Moody Blues, which includes the lines Once the world was new/Our bodies felt the morning dew/That greets the brand new day/We couldn’t tear ourselves away.

That’s just the classic rock. The Broadway musicals mom brought to the table certainly had their own moral complexities: most of which sailed right over my head, but some of which I certainly understood. I guess that’s the thing about letting my kids listen to all sorts and types of music: I really appreciated the parent-led introduction to the existence of moral complexity I got as a kid and teenager. I never had to leave my faith behind because it was too simple, or irrelevant. To the contrary, it has grown deeper and changed over the years, but my folks modeled, always, a faithful engagement with the world. There exists very little under the sun that can’t be “mined” for meaning, especially if it has a great hook or clever lyrics.

And yet. . .

The song “Habits” came on when I was driving with Fiona the other afternoon. It’s catchy; the girl can sing. You’re gone and I gotta stay/High all the time/To keep you off my mind. That’s what we call pathos. I know that self-destructive feeling; the drive to self-annihilation in response to pain is, what’s the word? common enough, especially among certain demographics.

But it’s no way to live. Self-annihilation is, literally, no way to stay healthy, alive, thriving. It is the opposite of that.

So the song is descriptive, and catchy, and well performed, but it is not for my daughter. Especially as it came on during Red Ribbon Week at her school, during which she and her classmates donned neon and pajamas and temporarily tattooed mustaches to declare their desire to be drug-free.

Driving in the car, I said to Fee, “I don’t know about this song. It’s catchy and I like her voice, but it seems like she’s saying that she feels so sad about this person she loved leaving her that she wants to do drugs to forget about him and those sad feelings. And that doesn’t sound like a very good thing at all.”

Fiona, wanting surely to avoid having me axe the song from the acceptable family soundtrack, said, “I think she’s kidding.”

“Maybe. You think maybe she’s exaggerating to tell us how sad she feels?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, even if she is exaggerating, I hope you know that even when you’re really, really sad or lonely or whatever, that I want you to take care of yourself, and never do things that would hurt you, because I love you, and you’re too important.”

Even without the clarity of hindsight, I knew our exchange was clunky and maybe not all that useful. We turned the station, probably found Taylor Swift, who is shallow, but not binging on sex and various drugs in full view of my daughter.

But even when my parental wisdom is imperfectly articulated, I think it’s important to talk to my kids about what they’re seeing and hearing. If I want them to grow up with a Christian vision of the good life, I need to engage them in the practice of seeing the world, and the many experiences it offers, in light of that vision.

Bromleigh McCleneghan is the associate for congregational life at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel at the University of Chicago. She is coauthor, with Lee Hull Moses, of Hopes and Fears: Everyday Theology for New Parents and Other Tired, Anxious People (Alban Institute). This blog post is provided thanks to our partnership with Practicing Families.


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